15.07.2020 Author: Valery Kulikov

“Water Wars” are Turning into a Weapon of Mass Destruction


“Water wars” caused by drought, crop failures, and a shortage of fresh water are as urgent nowadays for the public in many areas as the use of nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction. They lead to massive migration flows, exacerbate the political situation, and are the cause of armed clashes and wars.

By 2025, forecasts predict that the planet’s population will increase to eight billion people, and one-third of those will reside in areas with a “water shortage”; it is expected that areas with high birth rates and torrid climates will suffer the most.

Fresh water is one of the key resources in people’s daily activities. It is extremely important for agriculture, industry, power generation, occupational health, and ensuring suitable sanitary conditions. However, water resources are not very uniformly distributed throughout our planet: some areas are marked by an abundance of fresh water reserves, while more than 40% of the world’s countries are in a zone that experiences water shortages. Quite frequently, the tension in relations between countries that arises due to water resources is explained by high population densities, low per capita incomes, unfriendly attitudes, the actions taken by minority groups that turn water shortages into an international issue, the implementation of large-scale water resource projects, and the limitations present in fresh water treaties.

History has already demonstrated, as have very recent events, that tension can also arise due to the construction of water dams or canals, since this work has an impact on the countries’ water security through which rivers flow. For example, Israel took part in the “war for water” in 1964-65 by trying to keep Syria from building a drainage canal from the Golan Heights, which is where the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee get fed from. In the 1990s, this kind of tension flared up between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq over the Great Anatolia Project, which Turkey wanted to execute in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin.

Nowadays, the “Nile conflict” has become quite dangerous in this kind of context. The lives of South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt are all virtually completely dependent on the Nile River. Its largest tributary is the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia in Lake Tana – and for Ethiopia this river also holds considerable significance. To regulate the Nile’s outflow, from 1929 to 2011 the countries in the river’s drainage basin signed several agreements. And then, in 2011, Ethiopia made the decision to build a gigantic (the largest in Africa) hydroelectric power plant on the Blue Nile dubbed the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”. Building this power plant will undeniably affect the economy and social issues in Sudan and Egypt. According to assessment done by experts, this will lead to a 40% reduction in the quantity of electricity produced at the famous Aswan Dam. Given that Egypt is already experiencing a shortage of water and electricity, after the new hydroelectric power plant is commissioned the country can expect a true economic and social catastrophe. That is why, as soon as Ethiopia began to construct the power plant and continuing to the present day, Egyptian authorities have started to directly threaten Addis Ababa with military strikes.

An Italian company is the contractor for the power plant, construction is being financed by the Ethiopian government and Chinese banks, and Israeli companies intend to organize sales for the electricity, which is giving rise to a mixture of national interests held by not only countries in the Nile River drainage basin, but by “outside countries”. At present, the process of implementing the project is drawing to a close. To mitigate the tension in this dispute, countries in the region are actively holding talks, but it is still difficult to predict what the final outcome will be.

Besides the “Nile conflict”, access to the Indus River has exacerbated a falling out between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan.

We should also recall the interethnic clashes from 2003-2005 in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, which arose owing to desert encroachment and increased livestock mortality rates due to a lack of grazing lands and water shortages. They sparked the migration of Arab nomadic tribes to the south and a subsequent civil war that took the lives of several hundred thousand people.

Understanding the critical necessity of providing these regions, and the people living in them, with fresh water certain countries are making active attempts to use the “water factor” to exert coercive pressure on their adversaries, prompting them to take counteraction. For example, Kiev, following instructions from Washington to resolve the Crimea Peninsula issue by force, in addition to its usual provocations against the peninsula’s population, which decided to reunite with Russia on its own accord, is blocking the flow of fresh water from the mainland – even though the North Crimean Canal, which previously supplied Dnieper River water from Ukraine to the Crimea, has always fulfilled its historical mission to supply water. Without any doubt, Russia will not offer any armed resistance following this kind of inhumane measure. However, this example has yet again convinced the people in Crimea that the step they took to become reunited with Russia was a worthwhile one, and Kiev, with the anti-Russian language war that it has waged, and its refusal to pay the peninsula’s residents pensions and other social welfare payments, has strengthened the abyss of no return back to “Ukrainian solidarity”. Incidentally, Kiev is now taking these same kinds of actions toward Donetsk Region and Lugansk Region, and uses its armed forces to regularly destroy water supply networks in those areas.

Recently, Ankara has started to use this “recipe” against the Kurdish population in Syria. Al Arabiya reports that for the second week in a row, Turkey has been restricting the flow of water from the Euphrates River into Syria’s northeastern regions, depriving the residents in this neighboring Arab country of access to a natural resource needed to produce electricity and irrigate agricultural lands. A water shortage for Tabqa Dam, the largest in the country, caused a decrease in electricity output, which is vital, among other things, to provide food products for dozens of inhabited settlements in the northern part of Syria. In March this year, international human rights organizations called upon Turkey to refrain from terminating “suitable water supplies” to areas held by the Kurds in northeast Syria, and warning bells were sounded that a water shortage would undermine the ability of humanitarian organizations to protect vulnerable local communities from new outbreaks of the COVID-19 coronavirus infection.

In 2009, Turkey signed several bilateral agreements, with Syria and Iraq, on using water from the Euphrates River. After the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Ankara imposed sanctions on Damascus, but those did not affect the allocation of water from the Euphrates River until recently. Under these conditions, this openly inhuman measure adopted by Ankara to bar access to a natural resource for the residents in a neighboring Arab country is already being perceived very critically by the international community as attesting to waging a “water war” – something that humane considerations make unacceptable.

Valery Kulikov, expert political scientist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.  

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