Sharing the world's water

26 February 2006

The world needs to share its common resources, not compete over them. As long as nations - and the corporations that feed them - perceive resources as something within their ownership, then economic and political resources will continue to be channelled into gaining military as opposed to environmental security, writes Louise Edwards. 

Water (unlike other renewable, infinite, and replaceable resources) is fundamental to human survival for agricultural and industrial use, and primarily for human consumption. In 2002, the New York Times reported that over the last 70 years the world’s population has tripled whilst water demand has increased six-fold, causing increasing strain especially in heavily populated areas where water is distant, is being depleted or is simply too polluted to use.

As competition over scarce resources increases, water scarcity poses unique security dilemmas, being both a finite resource, and essential for the social and economic survival and development of all humanity.

Whilst wealthy nations have the economic capability to buy sources of energy and water supplies, it is ultimately the poorest nations who will suffer. Unable to access limited resources and suffering increasing shortages due to rising populations, the economic progress of the developing world will be hindered by resource scarcity; additionally the incidence of disease and famine will prevail as poor quality water is relied upon. Developing countries whose military capabilities are too weak to compete, let alone pose a threat to neighbouring countries are left unarmed and insecure in the competition over future resource scarcity. When working as the UN’s Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali warned that “the next war in the Middle East will be over water, not politics.”

The world must therefore strive to seek the best ways in which to distribute its resources, encouraging nations to share and not compete over them. Financial support is required in the areas of education, research and development, to enable humanity to progress to the next level of technological innovation, where medical boundaries will be crossed and environmentally sustainable living, farming, and building methods will be developed. This will also help us to prepare better against natural disasters, with better early warning systems and relief strategies; but this must be a joint vision between all nations, and such co-operation is currently hindered by hidden political agendas.

Water and Resource Wars

The threat to security posed by the environment is rapidly becoming the most globally discussed cause of conflict; in the media, in academia and increasingly within political agendas. Resources such as water are not only of strategic interest to nations who are seeking to strengthen their national security, but they are a threat to security itself. Central to the environment-security debate is that it raises the awareness of the significant power that resource ownership and control over resources holds. This in turn threatens to unleash conflict as states attempt to independently secure their control over scarce resources. In 2001 Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General brought the issue of conflict over water to the forefront of the global development agenda, stating that “deadly conflicts could erupt around the globe, and especially in the Middle East over access to safe water and adequate sanitation”.

Historically the traditionalist view of security focused on the importance of military security, perceiving the nation state as a self-help system, with state centric values. This political mentality has been ingrained into international relations in many ways, through the UN Charter specifying non-intervention, and in the economic climate of global capitalism. Problematically, under this framework the possibility of co-operation (over a shared trans-boundary resource) is severely restricted, which only serves to further exacerbate the initial security threat. International water law is currently limited and insufficient to cope with the disagreements emerging over shared fresh water sources. This raises the likelihood of conflict as nations seek to defend their rights of access, without international legislation to support their demands.

The identification of a link between the environment and security has raised global awareness of the significant power that resource ownership and control holds; this in turn threatens to unleash conflicts over resources as nations rush to independently secure what they believe to have claim over. This raises the risk of political detraction from the resolution of conflicts as military capabilities are expanded and increasing levels of armament (in the face of insecurity over resource scarcity) channel fiscal policies away from environmental protection and technological innovation.

Though water scarcity is not a known cause of interstate war, the effects of it are inconspicuous, harmful and indirect, constraining economic development and causing the gradual destruction of social processes which may induce violence, as the security and the welfare of people are threatened by disruptions to environmental service.

Sharing the world’s water

Mathematically the water-scarcity problem appears drastic, with 97% of the world’s water stored in oceans, thereby rendering it useless for agricultural usage, industrial purposes and for human consumption, whilst only 3% of the world’s water is fresh, with a further 2% stored in ice caps, glaciers and inaccessible underground aquifers. Even the remaining one per cent of freshwater (lakes, rivers, swamps) has limited availability with 0.36% considered inaccessible. The world is therefore mainly reliant on precipitation for its supply of fresh water, and the inconsistency of rainfall geographical areas is where the problem of water supply becomes so significant.

Some economists argue that the robust character of the world trade system means that resource dependency is no longer a major threat to a nation’s military security and political autonomy. Indeed, many developed countries regularly meet their resource needs with no control of the territory containing the resources. But how long will this remain feasible? It is the interdependence of states who share a common water resource, (which crosses political boundaries) that poses the greatest threat to security. There is an equal danger in perceiving the environment as a national security problem, as this threatens to undercut the sense of world community, and common fate that is needed to solve the inevitable.

Sharing the Euphrates

The Euphrates River starts its 2700 kilometer long journey in Turkey, with 94% of its water originating in the Turkish highlands. The Murat Korasuyu and several other Turkish rivers join the Euphrates further down its course in central Turkey, contributing to its annual flow of 990 billion cubic feet. Over the last ten years Turkey has been constructing a dam project called the South-eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which once fully operational, will consist of 21 dams, 17 hydroelectric plants and a network of tunnels and canals to irrigate 14.2 million acres of land, producing an annual $6 billion of food surplus, initially forecasted to increase per capita income in the region by five. The key unit in the South-eastern Anatolia Project is the Atarturk Dam which ranks as the ninth largest rock filled dam in the world. However, worryingly for Syria, Turkey’s dams and hydroelectric power plants will significantly decrease the amount of water which previously flowed down to Syria. Turkey’s utilisation of its geographical advantage of being the upstream country out of four riparian states, has become a source of power in itself, as it is able to control the Euphrates River and completely stop the flow of water downstream to Syria, which has gained Turkey bargaining power over their negotiations with Syria regarding the Kurds.

In 1987 an agreement was made with Turkey stating that Syria was guaranteed 500 cubic metres per second of water from the Euphrates, Syria claimed a right to share the Euphrates with Turkey, however the Turks disputed its legal obligation, “Turkey expects Syria to recognise its sovereignty over the Euphrates and its right to allocate – not share – the water” (Sami Kohen). In January 1996 during a meeting in Ankara of the Turkish Foreign Ministry and countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Syrian officials claimed that the building of the Anatolian Dam Project on the Euphrates river would reduce the amount of water flowing into Syria and that an irrigation project in the South-east of Turkey was polluting the water downstream. Israel became involved in the negotiations, no doubt when it recognised that its own supply of water– the Golan Heights – was in danger of being over-used by Syria.

In 1997 Population Action International (PAI) published a report ‘Sustaining Water, Easing Scarcity: a second update’ written by Robert Engleman, stating that ‘global water resources remain under serious threat – especially in regions already prone to conflict’. The PAI report predicted that the number of people living under water-stressed conditions is expected to increase four-fold to nearly 2 billion people by the middle of the next century. It warned that water shortages were likely to constrain food production and economic development – and potentially provoke conflict between nations or within regions, most notably in the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile River Basins, and in Southern Africa.

As predicted, in 1998, on October 4th the New York Times reported that tension between Turkey and Syria had risen to the ‘point of undeclared war’. The diversion of the Euphrates was pointed to as the causal factor, exacerbated by the Syrian support of the Kurds. In February 1999, warnings from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) instigated action in what had become a subdued situation between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Syria and Iraq invited Turkey to meet with them in an attempt to resolve the issues of sharing the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Abu-el-Shamat, a former counsellor at the Arab League, now a lecturer at Damascus and Cairo Universities, accused Turkey of blackmailing Syria, stating that “all agreements on the right of nations on common rivers are becoming just ink on paper and under the mercy of military power.”

Responding before it’s too late

If divided evenly, the 12,500km2 of global renewable fresh water available each year would be more than sufficient to satisfy the basic needs of the world’s existing human population. Scientists estimate that only about half of the total renewable worldwide supply is currently being used. However, rapidly growing populations and increased affluence have raised demand to new heights. World population doubled between 1950 and 1990, whilst global water use grew by 300%. We are now reaching 100% utilization of the world’s available supply. It is by increasing the desalination of seawater, and through the reclamation of urban waste water that supply could be significantly increased. Unfortunately, current processes are too expensive to make this a practical reality at present.

We must be quick to respond to this global dilemma which looms before us, by ensuring that research and development take precedence in national budgets over military expansion; the risk posed to us by our environment can and must be managed.

Whilst extensive research has been undertaken into analysing the causes of ethnic conflicts (both internal and regional), the emergence of environmental insecurity is emerging as a new issue, signalling the need for a distinct research focus.


Of the more than 7,500 desalination plants in operation worldwide, 60% are located in the Middle East. The world's largest plant in Saudi Arabia produces 128 MGD of desalted water. In contrast, 12% of the world's capacity is produced in the Americas, with most of the plants located in the Caribbean and Florida.

Desalination is a process that removes dissolved minerals (including but not limited to salt) from seawater, brackish water, or treated wastewater. A number of technologies have been developed for desalination, including reverse osmosis (RO), distillation, electrodialysis, and vacuum freezing. Popular in the 1960s and '70s, desalination technology stagnated for the next decade. Now, dwindling water supplies are forcing cities and counties to take another look. The technique is ancient, dating back to the 4th century B.C. when, according to the National Water Supply Improvement Association, Greek sailors used simple evaporation to desalinate seawater. Modern technology, separates saline water into fresh water and water containing concentrated salts – by one of two main methods, distillation or use of membranes.

Nearly 60 percent of the world's desalted water is produced via the first method by heating salty water to produce water vapor that is then condensed to form fresh water. The second process uses membranes to separate the salts from the water. In reverse osmosis (RO) facilities, water is forced through bundles of membranes under pressure, leaving behind impurities. In electrodialysis reversal (EDR) plants, an electrical current transfers ions through membranes, resulting in desalted water and concentrates.

In a 1988 report, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment suggested desalination could find application in treating contaminated groundwater, including runoff from mines, agriculture, landfills or storage tanks. With regard to desalination in general, the report stated, "Desalination should be included as a viable option in any evaluation of water-supply alternatives.”

However, though human ingenuity and technological innovations, appear to offer possible solutions to the water scarcity dilemma, within developing countries limits of capital and knowledge may prevent the necessary research taking place. Additionally, free-market price mechanisms will be less able to resolve problems of resource shortages, as political focus and financial support will be directed at gaining control of the limited remaining supplies, as opposed to seeking out alternatives, or investing in research into the options of sharing. Whilst looking retrospectively at the last ten years, Koussai Quteishat, Centre Director of the Middle East Desalination Research Centre, refers to the ongoing attempts to capture the desalinated water costs issue.

International security expert, Michael Klare believes that “A global body is required to protect the world’s water resources. Although it may prove impractical to move large quantities of water from one region to another (as can be done with oil) it is possible to imagine a global water authority that could assist countries facing acute shortages. This authority could also help arrange for the equitable distribution of water among states dependent on a shared river or aquifer system and could lead the search for more economical methods of converting salt water into fresh water, or for irrigating crops with less water wastage. We undeniably possess the ability and capacity to develop such institutions. Existing organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations Development Programme, and the World Health Organization, have demonstrated, over a considerable span of time, the capacity to address complex international problems in an effective and impartial fashion.”

We have a choice, to allow conflicts over water to lead to interstate war or to actively promote the development of jointly owned water resources in order to strengthen peace. If action is taken early enough, there are plenty of opportunities available to establish water treaties, desalination technologies and co-operate on other resources in order to secure peace. Primarily money needs to be transferred from the military to the human sector, efforts to reduce the gap between rich and poor must be increased, and technical assistance should go to those areas where the pressure on limited resources needs to be reduced. Where national defence budgets and political strategy guide the responses of a nation, developing nations are left vulnerable, as their ability to adapt to environmental problems is reduced

Looking ahead

The world needs to share its common resources, not compete over them. History tells us that competition over resources causes conflict. As long as nations, and the corporations that feed them, perceive resources as something within their ownership, requiring protection against the needs of others, economic and political resources are channelled into gaining military, as opposed to environmental security.

Consider the prospect of living in a world where every nation fights their neighbour to own what could easily be shared? The desire for ownership fosters greed and protectionism, governments invest heavily in expanding their military power in order to make their citizens feel more secure, but this state-centric protection of interests endangers regional security and jeopardises humanity’s ability to reach new stages of development. Competition over resources can induce co-operation or conflict between people, but the latter, especially when violent, is a severe hindrance to economic and social development and therefore preventing future conflicts is essential to reducing poverty and ending human suffering.