Water as a New Oil

Water is a key to life. Without food we can live for weeks, but without water, probably not more than few days. Earth is spacecraft with limited storage of water. And the unavoidable reality is that in 1955 there were about 2.5 billion people on Earth, today there are 7 billion and by 2050 there will be 12 billion, and that there will be no more water to go around then than there is now. These facts make projections that water would be the ‘New Oil’ on this planet!

In Iraq, there were violent protests last year on the streets of Basra–an oil-rich province hard hit by water shortages and a public-health crisis that saw 60,000 people hospitalized. In 2017, the Taliban killed 10 Afghan soldiers at the Salma Dam, and, in November, a dozen guards were killed at a hydroelectric and irrigation project being built on the Helmand Rive. According to the World Resources Institute, more than a billion people already suffer from scarcity of water. By 2025, there could be as many as 3.5 billion.

At the same time, climate change and environmental degradation are altering the regional and seasonal availability and quality of water. The resulting competition over water use may lead to conflict and sometimes violence, though researchers emphasize that it is rarely the lack of water as such that fuels conflict, but rather its governance and management. World’s disputed transboundary rivers, including the Nile, Euphrates-Tigris, Indus, Ganges and Mekong, lack any kind of cooperative management agreements.

The dispute over water in the Neil Basin were resolved by 11 riparian countries. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), founded by 9 out of 10 riparian countries in 1999 with backing from major donor institutions, has achieved some successes in its attempts to strengthen cooperation. Yet, since 2007, diverging interests between upstream and downstream countries have brought negotiations to a standstill, pitting Egypt (and, to a lesser extent, Sudan) against upstream riparians, especially Ethiopia. In 2015, trilateral negotiations between these countries over a major dam under construction in Ethiopia led to a framework agreement that may, in time, prepare the ground for a broader agreement.

The mismanagement of water distribution tends to water shortage and discomfort of citizens. For instance, as a consequence of severe mismanagement, Yemen’s water availability is declining dramatically. The impacts on the people are unequally distributed, and corruption and nepotism are at the core of this imbalance. This has increasingly frustrated the disadvantaged, with water scarcity playing a role in fuelling the political and security crisis in Yemen.

The Euphrates-Tigris Basin is shared between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, with Iran comprising parts of the Tigris basin. Since the 1960s, unilateral irrigation plans altering the flows of the rivers, coupled with political tensions between the countries, have strained relations in the basin. Disputes have prevented the three governments from effectively co-managing the basin’s rivers. Although cooperation efforts were renewed in the 2000s, these have yet to result in a formal agreement on managing the basin waters.

The long-standing conflict over water from the Cauvery River between the Indian states Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has recently resurfaced in the context of drier climate conditions. The implications are not only legal battles, but also violent protests following decisions to alter water distribution between the two states. Frequent droughts in Somalia put significant pressures on pastoral livelihoods. Droughts cause herders to sell more of their livestock than they would under normal conditions, resulting in plummeting livestock prices and deteriorating rural incomes. Widespread poverty and lack of economic alternatives, in turn, provide incentives for illicit activities and for joining armed groups such as Al Shabaab, which offer cash revenues and other benefits to their fighters. Especially the record drought of 2011 is believed to have swelled the ranks of the militant Islamist group.

Egypt is currently using more water than its internal renewable resources – mainly based on Nile fresh water inflows – supply. Water stress in Egypt is expected to further increase in the future because of rapid population growth, rising temperatures and increasing water consumption. Moreover, it risks putting increasing pressure on Egypt’s diplomatic relations with other states along the Nile. In 2000, privatisation of the drinking water in Cochabamba incurred violent protests and escalated into the so-called ‘Water War of Cochabamba’, which killed at least nine people. Eventually, the city’s water was renationalised and access to water received new legal backing. However, dwindling water supplies induced by global climate change, over-consumption and technological deficiencies continue to heavily strain the city of Cochabamba.

Water safety and production is crucial in this 21th century among various crisis. The current rapid vanishing and loss of water sources, lack of cooperation over rivers, mismanagement of water on nation and international level may pose a competition in the future. The day is coming, when water will take place of OIL.

About the Author
Irfan Khan is an Islamabad based writer. He has written for Daily Time, Global Space Village, Modern Diplomacy, Tuck Magazine, Eurasia Review and CGTN.