Infrastructure / On the water frontWater tensions, if not yet water wars, are here

Published 15 April 2008

MI5, in its annual report to the U.K. government, said that one of the threats to world peace are “water wars” between countries left drought-ridden by climate change; water wars may be a while off yet, but water tensions are already here

A month ago, British intelligence, in its annual report to the prime minister, warned of the coming of “water wars” between countries left drought-ridden by climate change. The New Scientist’s Catherine Brahic writes that while water wars may not be around the corner, water tensions are already here. Barcelona, for example, is running out of water and Spain has been forced to consider importing water from France by boat. Barcelona and the surrounding region are suffering the worst drought in decades. There are several possible solutions, including diverting a river and desalinating water, but the city looks like it will ship water from the French port of Marseilles. The water services authority in Marseille say that no contracts have been signed, and would not say how much the water would cost, although it is unlikely to cost any more than it costs the inhabitants of Marseilles. The amounts of water that have been discussed are small — 25,000 cubic meters, less than what is needed to grow an acre of wheat, and not enough to keep thirty Spaniards going for a year, based on their average consumption. The proposal is interesting, however, because it turns a local drought into an international situation.

Climatologists predict that certain regions, the Mediterranean basin among them, will increasingly suffer from water shortages as global temperatures are pushed up by greenhouse gas emissions. Combined with reports that water scarcity can escalate conflicts, the forecasts have raised fears that climate change could bring about water wars. “People will not fight over water,” says Mark Zeitoun, from the London School of Economics’s Center for Environmental Policy and Governance in the United Kingdom. “But that’s not to say water shortages will not contributing to existing tensions.” This is already happening. Zeitoun advises the Palestinian Authority in its water negotiations with Israel. The latter controls 90 percent of the two territories’ shared water resources. “The fact that the Palestinians are deprived of their water doesn’t help the situation,” Zeitoun says. As is the case with Spain, the Palestinian Authority is considering its options, and like Spain one of these options is to import water — in this case from Turkey, a country which is already involved in its own water disputes with Syria and Iraq. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers start in Turkey and supply Syria and Iraq. The Turkish government is building dams on those rivers, reducing the flow downstream and stoking long-standing tensions with its neighbors. “Iraq desperately needs that water,” says Zeitoun.

Turkey already exports water to Cyprus and in 2004 signed a “water for arms” deal with Israel, an agreement which sees Turkey deliver converted oil tankers full of water to Israel in exchange for tanks and air force technology. Israel’s situation is typical of a state that is severely mismanaging its water resources, says Zeitoun. Climate change models predict that while water will become scarcer in some regions, it will be more abundant elsewhere, suggesting efficient water management is key. “If Spain is drawing a lot of water to grow oranges for the United Kingdom, the city of Barcelona doesn’t benefit. The only people profiting are a few large farmers,” he says. So while the water wars may not spark conflict between states, Zeitoun’s colleague Elena Lopez-Gunn says we could well see water riots. “Whether the political systems can cope with that, we don’t know,” she says.