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Devising a Solution to the predicament of Water War between Nations and Interstate Water Disputes

Water Dispute

Transboundary waters are waters in which two or more different states border and share the same body of water. In order to ensure that water conflict does not occur, transboundary water arrangements or agreements are made. The United Nations submit that for equitable and sustainable use, each state should not abuse the water but use it for their best benefits while protecting and preserving it. Transboundary rivers such as the Indus, Jordan, and the Nile became the root focus of earlier research on Water wars because they had experienced water war and water-related disputes.

Over 25 years now, there have been frequent predictions that the source of future wars would be disputes over water. For instance, Boutros Ghali forecasted that “The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics”; Kofi Annan, in 2001 said, “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,” Ismail Serageldin, said the wars of the next century would be over water unless significant changes in governance occurred. This article will discuss the concept of water war (or conflict). This article will focus on the causes and issues of water wars or conflicts between nations and interstate water disputes. This article will conclude by proffering some possible solution(s) to water war between nations and interstate water disputes.

What is a Water War?

Water conflict implies the conflict existing between countries, states, or groups over the right to access water resources. As a resource, some consider water to be as valuable as oil, needed every day by individuals, and even industries. For humans, water is a vital element that has several other uses aside from consumption purposes, and “human activities are closely connected to availability and quality of water.” Water wars can be traced to all parts of the world: in Africa, Ethiopia and Egypt have fought over the construction of a dam on the Blue Nile for the past seven years. “The Ethiopians say the project will boost its economy, but the Egyptians claim it will cut off their water supply. And with the dam almost complete, the row has split over to neighboring countries.”

Moreover, the tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are towering because of the Ethiopian dam project which could end up threatening the survival of millions of people in Africa. Besides, in the United States, there was a dispute between three states – Alabama, Georgia, and Florida over the future allocation of water in two major river basins that cross their borders: Georgia and Alabama have been fighting over the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa basin, and all three states are in conflict over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin.

Georgia wants to have enough water to continue growing and also supplying cities such as Columbus and heavy agricultural usage in the state’s southwest corner. Alabama is perturbed that Atlanta’s ever-increasing thirst for water will severely limit its own use of water for power generation, and other current and future needs whereas “Florida wants enough freshwater to reach the Apalachicola Bay to sustain its multi-million-dollar seafood industry, which is under severe ecological stress resulting from low river flows and saltwater intrusion”.

In India on one hand, the dispute over the sharing of water rights to the Indus River and its tributaries between India and Pakistan in 1948 has to rise to the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. Some of the provisions of the treaty included that; The Treaty gave control over the waters of the three “eastern rivers” — the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej were given to India, while control over the waters of the three “western rivers” — the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum were given to Pakistan. According to sources “India has about 20% of the total water carried by the Indus system while Pakistan has 80%.” Besides, the treaty provided that India could use the western river waters for limited irrigation and unlimited non-consumptive use for applications such as power generation, navigation, floating of property, fish culture, and inter alia.

Likewise, it lays down exhaustive regulations for India in building projects over the western rivers. However, “the preamble of the treaty recognizes the rights and obligations of each country in the optimum use of water from the Indus system in a spirit of goodwill, friendship, and cooperation.” In addition, the success of the ratified treaty in 1960 includes that: “India and Pakistan have not engaged in any water wars, despite engaging in several military conflicts. Most disagreements and disputes have been settled via legal procedures, provided for within the framework of the treaty. The Indus Waters Treaty is considered one of the most successful water sharing endeavors in the world today, even though analysts acknowledge the need to update certain technical specifications and expand the scope of the agreement to address climate change.”

The Causes and Issues of Water Wars between Nations and Interstate Water Disputes

Water War
Image Source – World Economic Forum

Besides life, water is necessary for proper sanitation, commercial services, and the production of commercial goods. Water pollution can be caused by individuals, likewise, corporate bodies which could consequently lead to water wars, for example, corporate entities may pollute water resources shared by a community. Besides, governments may argue over who has access to a river used as an international or inter-state boundary. Water pollution poses a significant health risk to the lives of persons in that locality, especially in heavily industrialized, heavily populated areas.

For instance, In the 1960s, Lake Erie, and other Great Lakes were polluted to the point of massive fish death which led to the dismal water quality in Local Communities. In response, the United States Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. Likewise, in China, with its heavily industrialized and polluted areas, where some cities lacked safe drinking water, China passed a revised Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law.

Water war can also occur if the demand for water resources and potable water exceeds supply, or if the control over access and allocation of water is disputed. The pressures exerted on affected parties to obtain more of a shared water resource can cause diplomatic tension or outright conflict. Moreover, “Water shortages can completely cripple an industry just as it can cripple a population, and affect developed countries just as they affect countries with less-developed water infrastructure. Water-based industries are more visible in a water war, but commerce at all levels can be damaged by a lack of water.”

Recently, the Pacific Institute has shown that while interstate (i.e., nation to water conflicts are less likely, “there appears to be a growing risk of sub-national conflicts among water users, regions, ethnic groups, and competing economic interests.” Similarly, intrastate conflicts tend “to be a larger and growing component of all water disputes, and the traditional international mechanisms for addressing them, such as bilateral or multilateral treaties, are not as effective.” Analysts however estimate that water conflicts will become rampant in the near future due to increased human consumption of water resources.

Solutions of Water War between Nations and Interstate Water Disputes

The broad ambit of water disputes makes them difficult to address. Local and international law, commercial interests, environmental concerns, and human rights questions make water disputes complicated to solve. However, the Parliament of India under Article 262 of the Constitution of India enacted the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (IRWD Act) linguistic basis to resolve the water disputes that would arise in the use, control, and distribution of an interstate river or river valleys. Article 262 of the Constitution provides a role for the Central government in adjudicating conflicts surrounding inter-state rivers that arise among the state or regional governments.  

It is important to note that international organizations play the largest role in mediating water war and improving water management. Unresolved conflicts thereby become more dangerous as water becomes more scarce and the global population increases. A source reports that “International commercial disputes between nations can be addressed through the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has water-specific groups like a Fisheries Center that provide a unified judicial protocol for commercial conflict resolution. Also, the UNESCO-IHP “Groundwater Portal aims to help improve understanding of water resources and foster effective water management. But by far the most active UN program in water dispute resolution is its Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP), which is in its third phase, training water professionals in the Middle East and organizing educational efforts elsewhere.” In addition, UNESCO has published a map of transboundary aquifers.

Lastly, “the Blue Peace framework” developed by Strategic Foresight Group in partnership with the governments of Switzerland and Sweden offers a unique policy structure that promotes the sustainable management of water resources combined with cooperation for peace. With the utilization of shared water resources through cooperation rather than mere allocation between countries, the chances for peace can increase. The Blue Peace approach has proven to be effective, for instance, in the Middle East and the Nile basin.

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