1 Nov 2009

Why We Don't have Water Wars

Here's my take on this meme.

Wars over land, oil, women, etc. are fought and won. The winners take the spoils and enjoy them.

If the war is over water, then their enjoyment can be spoiled by the losers, who have many and easy ways of destroying the quality of water.

If this should happen, then both sides lose, changing war from a zero-sum game into a negative sum game.

This is basically an ancient form of mutual assured destruction.

...and this is the reason that we see so few water wars (despite the headlines) -- human culture has evolved away from them.*

Bottom Line: Water wars are possible, but they are rare because they are so hard to actually win.
* Of course, that doesn't mean we do not see cruelty over water management, as Amnesty recently pointed out with the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians. (And, worse, Palestinian politicians' cynical exploitation of their "constituents" misery as a bargaining chip!)


Eric said...

People no longer fight wars they can't win?
What planet was this sent from? ;-)

The point of lots of wars around the planet seems to be to regain honor. The honor may have been lost decades or even millenia ago. 'Winning' in a Western sense is irrelevant.

Ray said...

Robert B. Packer, lecturer in political science at Penn State, who studies international political economy and the causes of war..."Perhaps the greatest of all modern Middle East conflicts, the Six Day War of 1967, began as a dispute over water access," Israel built a National Water Carrier to transport freshwater from the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee to the country's farming and urban centers. (The Carrier now supplies half the drinking water in Israel.) In 1965, Israeli forces attacked a Syrian water diversion project that would have cut the Carrier's supply, and prolonged violence led to war.

The Tibetan plateau is the source for much of China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These countries contain 85 percent of the people in Asia and nearly half the population of the entire globe. China has plans for the Yarlong Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River in Tibet. The hydro project will generate 40,000 megawatts - twice as much as Three Gorges. If water wars come, Tibet may well be ground zero.

Eastern Kenya and Ethiopia, tribal conflict over access to watering holes is on the rise, exacerbated by the proliferation of arms from neighboring Somalia.

Water scarcity and water insecurity is triggering food insecurity in Mexico, which has implications for its national security.

The lack of water in Spain has set region against region, north against south and government against opposition.

Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales are currently fighting a trade war over water allocation rights.

Actual armed conflict over water is, in recent history, rare, but as the world's economic situations come unraveled ... real wars for water will undoubtedly occur.

Mister Kurtz said...

Yep, and some of the planned hydro/irrigation projects in eastern Turkey are very unpopular with the downstream Iraquis...

David Zetland said...

@all -- first, consider the number of "water wars" versus wars over other goodies. There are fewer of the water variety.

@Eric -- Consider the wars that are NOT fought. And honor has nothing to do with a water war; that's testosterone.

@Ray -- The Six Day was was not ABOUT water; water access was one factor. (The VN war was not about the Gulf of Tonkin, either.) Your other examples are weak.

@MK -- but there hasn't been a war, has there? Further, those rivers are not the example I am talking about; I am talking about fresh pools/lakes, similar to the tribal example Ray gave (but without ANY other qualifications/factors...)

Next round. :)

David Zetland said...

ps/also note that the ONLY area on which Israel and Palestine have maintained constant cooperation is on water...

Eric said...

I was not talking specifically about water. I was talking about, for instance,

1. Northern and Southern Chinese
2. Sunni and Shia
3. Ethnic Russians and others
4. Hutus and Tutsis

All these wars are centuries old and do not appear to be fought on testosterone but on honor. Do you understand honor and shame societies?

David Zetland said...

@Eric -- don't thread hijack! :)

Of course I understand THOSE. I am talking water here...

DW said...

Did you see the article in the NYTs about Yemen running out of water because the plant used to make he drug they all take is sucking up all the water from their aquifer. I think water wars are closer then we think in areas like the middle east.

Eric said...

It wasn't a thread hijack. Honor and shame trumps water where wars are concerned.

Tim in Albion said...

@Eric - If you're fighting a war over honor, you maybe don't care if it's a negative-sum game. MAD might be a perfectly acceptable outcome to the side that feels itself wronged or shamed. But if you're fighting a resource war you have a completely different goal, and your thinking is likely to be a lot more rational.

Of course it's possible we could see both at once: an "honor war" precipitated by a water dispute. Arguably that's what the Six Days War was, in part.

Jay said...

All wars are negative sum games.

But I understand your point. Water wars not only destroy life and property, but there are likely no spoils for the victor.

We may need a new term to describe games where resources are reduced to zero. Perhaps we can call them Null Sum Games. Other ideas?

ML said...

Read the work on water and international conflict by Aaron Wolf of OSU, which is a good empirical counterpoint to the overhyped "water war" stuff from Gleick. Two other ideas: water management develops epistemic communities of water professionals that are resilient to larger conflict (there have been shooting wars where water agreements stay solvent) and if you take water away, you both die.

Filtered Water said...

We don't have water wars because a) water isn't traded yet, like oil (which, essentially, is MONEY, along with gold). And b) it isnt't scarce enough.

But there's lots of corporate takeovers of the resource resembling water wars quite nicely. A few come to mind, like when some famous company tried to aquire a lake in South America and got kicked out... How about taking over springs, bottling them and selling for profit, I would call this water wars.

The corporate managers read too much into The Art of War.

Great site.

Josh said...

Great comments!

Eric, I think honor and shame societies are testosterone-based. Every one of them is highly patriarchal, to the point of, at times, murdering women who shame the community.

I also think that honor and shame are understandable for small-scale events and skirmishes, and are used to create effective soldiers on the ground; but wars, as fought by leaders and on a large scale, are often less about honor and shame, at that point, than they are about power.

I also don't think these comments necessarily completely disagree with your comments.

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