War Over Water

Never before in human history have so many factors come together to initiate war over water. The lack of effective supply chain for the distribution for water will definitely be rationale for war… it already is. Yousuf Mehmood and Rabia Garib take a look.

You’d be hard pressed to find something as essential as water to human beings. And yes, people can live without wifi and internet, but certainly would dry up without the precious translucent liquid. Almost every biological process that occurs in the human body requires water and the average body mass of each person is about two-thirds water. Growing plant and bacterial cultures requires water, growing food requires water, disposing of waste requires water and conducting minor electrical current across the brain’s synapses also requires water.

According to research published by Arjen Hoekstra of the University of Twente, Netherlands, approximately four billion people experience water scarcity at least one month out of a year. More conservative estimates by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) place the figure at 2.7 billion.

Access to inadequate sanitation is also a major problem for 2.4 billion people. This leads to waterborne diseases and cholera, typhoid and diarrheal diseases. Around half a million children die each year of the latter.

The UN estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. This could be devastating not only to the welfare of individuals but to the collective political and economic stability of certain regions. These problems will only be compounded by climate change and further disrupt natural ecosystems.

Types of Water Scarcity

Water scarcity can manifest in two ways, physical and economic water scarcity. The former is due to a lack of the natural resource which can be due to lack of rainfall, environmental degradation and discriminatory water allocations.

A 2007 study called “A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculturecoined both terms. It found that 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, while 1.6 billion live in areas with economic water scarcity.

Swathes of the Middle East experience physical scarcity due to a lack of water resources; this is aggravated by political turmoil in the region. Currently countries like Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Djibouti suffer from acute physical water shortages.

Economic water scarcity is due to lack of access to the natural resource due to absent infrastructure and lack of funds to arrange for it. Mexico City, for example, receives an average of 304 mm of rainfall a year; more than London, yet only 30% of its 20 million inhabitants have round the clock access to freshwater. Concurrently, villages in places like Rajasthan, Sindh and Sub-Saharan Africa suffer from a lack of irrigation systems leading to miles long hikes every few days to harvest water from groundwater wells and lakes.

Trends Affecting Global Water Scarcity

The population boom has been identified as primary cause for water shortage. This rapid rise has resulted in more people who primarily consume meat and vegetables rather than cereals which require larger quantities of water to produce and digest. The study above estimates each person consumes 2000-5000 liters of water each day to produce and consume food altogether.

A variety of studies have backed this up, including the GRACE Mission. This was a joint exercise between NASA and the German Aerospace Agency. Their satellites detected a massive reduction in the water table around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, 144 cubic kilometers to be exact. 60% of the water extracted was due to a drought in the region in 2007. The Iraqi government drilled over 1000 wells in an effort to alleviate the water shortage which ironically aggravated the situation. This leads us to another greater problem affecting water levels called “Climate Change”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released several studies on the phenomenon affecting bodies of water around the world. Increased temperatures have led to evaporation on the surfaces of lakes and rivers and the seas and oceans alike. The lakes and rivers have been affected the most, as less water means higher concentrations of sulphates and nitrates and other chemicals washed into rivers due to human activity.

Another huge factor in all this has been increased industrial use in major countries. From textiles to food manufacture to metalwork and leather tanning, millions of gallons are used every day to serve industry. According to the World Water Council, a total of 760 cubic kilometers (over 200 trillion US gallons) of water are used each year for industrial purposes; that’s more than twice what is used in households per year. Perhaps the most startling manifestation of this effect can be seen in China, where a three year survey done by the Ministry of Water Resources, released in 2012, revealed that of the 50,000 rivers claimed to be held by China, over 28,000 had disappeared or become seasonal rivers due to overuse.

Increased urbanization has also played a role in depriving areas of natural water resources. The World Conference on Climate Change 2016 presented a report on how Urbanization of Iran had led to water scarcity in the region. A study presented at the 2012 Conference of the International Society for Ecological Modelling showed that of the 661 cities in China, over two thirds were facing water crises and 110 were facing acute water shortages. Similar studies conducted in major cities of the US yielded similar results. The factors contributing to this shortage is an increasing concentration of people in major cities, placing an unprecedented burden on the natural resources of a single region and the layering of roads and pavements in commercial areas resulting in decreasing water absorption and thus a decrease in the level of the water table.

The Situation in Pakistan

According to former Minister for Social Welfare and Women Development in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, Farzana Yaqoob, Pakistan’s water capacity is currently 30 days, while India’s is closer to 300 days. This is due to a variety of factors including silting in major dams (especially Mangla and Tarbela dams) due to soil erosion which reduces their capacity to store water. She also points out that the debate over Kalabagh Dam is not merely political but also academic, stemming from whether it would be a net positive to construct the dam or not.

“Pakistan did not take advantage of excess flooding that occurred due to the melting of glaciers in 2009-2010. The flooding provided ample potential to build more dams and store water.”

This also led her to the larger issue of the Indus Water Treaty. It was too late now to complain against India for the Kishanganga project or the myriad other dams they had constructed because they had simply complied with the terms of the Treaty. Pakistan had been slow to respond to those terms and had lost out on the collection of water.  

Pushing Back

In response to the water crisis there has been a global call to action by the United Nations. As part of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN lists Clean Water and Sanitation as the sixth goal. The pact has been signed by 193 countries around the world to help do their part in ending water scarcity.

Private organizations are also leading the charge against water shortages including, an initiative founded by Gary White and actor Matt Damon in 2009. The project focuses on economic water scarcity. They found that in a lot of cases, people pay 25% of their income (a collective of hundreds of billions of dollars) to provide water or spend four to five hours a day to scavenge for it. Hence, their solution was to give families ‘water credits’, which are microfinance loans that allow them to build infrastructure such as piping to get water to their homes. This in effect saves them money over time with which they can pay back the loan and spend the extra money and time on other basic necessities like education. The initiative is a success, with over 10 million people benefitting from the project and a 97% payback rate for the water credits.

Blood:Water is a private organization founded in 2004 that works in Africa to provide clean water and sanitation as well as HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment to people. By building infrastructure to deliver water to cities and villages it has managed to deliver clean water to over 1 million people in 11 cities across Africa. Similar projects are being carried out by organizations like,, Water 1st International and that build infrastructure to deliver water to remote areas around the world. Not only that, they introduce communities to the methods needed to sustain this initiative so they can help themselves and aren’t forever reliant on charity. Collectively these organizations have helped millions around the world.

Others have focused on water filtration systems. builds Aqua towers in villages that purify the existing water supply, effectively alleviating the onset of waterborne diseases. builds desalination plants to purify seawater and deliver it to communities living near to the ocean. SHINE Humanity Pakistan has applied similar methods to purify water by installing solar stills in the village of Gharo in Sindh to provide clean water to the community suffering from waterborne illnesses.

On a smaller scale, private researchers are coming up with solutions to purify the existing contaminated water supply from seawater to sewage. New Jersey Institute of Technology Professor of Chemical Engineering, Kamalesh Sirkar has come up with a process which purifies 80 liters of drinking water per 100 gallons of seawater. Monmouth University Professor of Chemistry Dr. Tsanangurayi Tongesayi has developed a system to remove high levels of arsenic from water by using plastic coated with cysteine, meeting the US EPA standards for drinkable water.

Billionaire and former richest man in the world, Bill Gates funded an initiative to provide clean water from sewage as part of his goals for the Bill-Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2015 this goal was met by Peter Janicki, CEO of Janicki Bioenergy, who came up with the Janicki Omniprocessor (JOP). The machine took sludge and sewage and separated the water from it. Not only that, it used the dehydrated sludge to produce steam that drove generators and produced electricity. The machine also produced ash and was pathogen free. The machine, now active in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, West Africa, is able to use waste from 100,000 people and produce 86,000 litres of potable water a day and 250 kw of power a day. It now services the sludge from a third of the 1.2 million people of Dakar.

Farzana also talked about solutions such as water filtration methods stemming from nanotechnology and installation of high pressure water dispensaries in bathrooms around the country which allow for more efficient regulation of water. She emphasized the use of waste water to grow forests and a nationwide campaign to conserve water. Civic responsibility combined with government intervention and entrepreneurship could perhaps solve the looming crisis.

Wars on Water/Instability Due to Water Shortages

The debate on whether water scarcity will cause war is not new. The battle over natural resources has been waged since time immemorial. Many great battles have been fought near rivers and historically, major civilizations have congregated around Great rivers. Yet the prospect of war over the resource is not fully agreed upon.

Professor Aaron T. Wolf of Oregon State University has documentedthat wars have not been fought over water for thousands of years. In fact the occurrence is so rare that he records water wars as being the exception, not the rule, suggesting that more cooperation has come from the use of water.

However, one very recent example of water scarcity inducing conflict is Syria. Between 2007 and 2010, the country experienced severe drought. NASA found that the region had probably not experienced such extreme drought for over 900 years. It resulted in the displacement of millions of people whose livestock and crops died and pushed them to the cities to look for prospects. The following take over of the Islamic State and the ensuing civil war aggravated the situation. ISIS and the Syrian rebels found their most willing recruits in areas devastated by the drought and the former’s control over water resources allowed them to subjugate certain regions.

And this is what makes the idea of war over water less and less far-fetched. Never before in human history have so many factors come together. Climate change, the population boom and industrial overuse of water have created an unprecedented situation. The Pacific Institute, which studies regional and global freshwater issues to provide independent research and policy analysis, found that there has been a fourfold increase in violent conflicts over water in the past decade.

Some major conflicts over water today include Egypt’s conflict with Ethiopia over building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Pakistan’s conflict with India over the latter’s building of dams over various shared rivers and Latin American nations such as Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile are experiencing riots and protests due to droughts and floods as a result of climate change.

Impact of Methods In Use Now

In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers have now assessed the impacts of human interventions on water scarcity at a global scale. From 1971 to 2010, the study found, human impacts have drastically reshuffled water scarcity hotspots, with impacts on approximately one-third of the global population. The news is not all good or all bad. On average, approximately 20% of the global population has experienced a significant increase in water availability due to human interventions, such as building water storage, alleviating water scarcity experienced by 8% of the population. However, at the same time, another 23% have experienced a significant decrease in water availability.

The increased industrialization of the world combined with the reality of climate change has produced a monumental problem for the world. Rising populations and depleting water sources are natural opposites. Unless radical new technologies coupled with sensible public policy decisions can take the stage soon, the suffering will continue.

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