Strategic implications of water availability | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 29, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 29, 2008

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Strategic implications of water availability

I was going through a book the other day that deals specially with the potential global crisis related to the problem of right to water, the commodity which is as precious as clean air. The book, entitled 'Blue Covenant' is written by Maude Barlow, the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, chairperson of Food and Water Watch in the US and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, which is instrumental in the international community in working for the right to water for all people.
A water activist, I found some of her assumptions interesting.
We all know that sharing and management of water resources that we face today includes some serious and complex issues. This in turn, has given rise to crises, which, unless tackled with care, can lead to instability and conflict.
Certain areas of the world are faced today not only with dwindling freshwater supplies and inequitable access but also with a growing corporate control of water sources. Juxtaposed, they are emerging as serious strategic threats to sustainable development as well as to survival. This brew is also being further compounded through climate change from fossil fuel emissions and conflicting greed for freshwater -- between nations, rich and poor, public and private interest, rural and urban populations and the competing needs of the natural world as opposed to the industrialised economics.
It is generally agreed that around the world, there are about 215 major rivers and 300 groundwater basins and aquifers shared by two or more countries. This factor has led to continuous debate over ownership and management. Growing shortages and unequal distribution of water have caused disagreements, sometimes violent, and these have evolved into security risks. This has resulted in politicians like Britain's former defense secretary, John Reid, warning of coming "water wars." Climatologists have also predicted that violence and political conflict might become more likely as watersheds turn to deserts, glaciers melt and water supplies are polluted. Such a crisis is already being played out on a tragic scale in Darfur.
Potential conflict areas have also been identified in other areas of the Middle East in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. All of them rely on the Jordan River, which is controlled by Israel, Turkey and Syria. The sensitivity of the situation is compounded by the fact that Turkey plans to build dams on the Euphrates River, which quite naturally is being objected to by co-riparian Syria.
China and India have problems with the Brahmanpara River. The same river has also been the cause of tension between Bangladesh, a lower riparian and India. Consequently, China's proposal to divert the river is being carefully watched and monitored by both India and Bangladesh. There is also the serious question of division of water flowing down the Ganges from India into Bangladesh. Unilateral withdrawal of water in the upper reaches of the Ganges by several Indian States has reduced supply at the entry point near the Bangladesh border. This has affected agriculture through irrigation and also greatly increased salinity through seepage in Bangladesh's southwestern coastal areas and northwestern regions. It has also impacted on the environment and potential for livelihood of the inhabitants of these regions. Increase in rural unemployment has in turn led to large migration of millions into urban areas, taxing its existing poor infrastructure (housing, availability of pure drinking water and sanitation).
Divisions have similarly surfaced between Angola, Botswana and Namibia, over the Okavango water basin. The dispute has exacerbated because of Namibia proposing to build a three hundred-kilometre pipeline that will drain the delta. This is not acceptable to the other countries. Tension is also slowly increasing between Ethiopia and Egypt over division of water flowing down the Nile. In both countries there has been a spurt in population growth and this has created greater need for water, particularly for irrigation.
Such stress is however not just limited to Asia and Africa. It is evident also along the US-Canadian border over shared boundary waters. Environmental activists are expressing concern over the continuing pollution and the future of the Great Lakes. They are also pointing out that the water table of the immediate surrounding areas is steadily falling due to soaring demand created by increase in population and industrial needs. Politics has also been introduced into the scenario and the United States and Canada are beginning to test each other as to the whole philosophical point of joint ownership of the lake waters. This has in fact led to governors of the American states bordering the Great Lakes, passing an amendment to the treaty governing the lakes that allows for water diversions to new communities off the basin on the American side. Canadian protests in this regard have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.
Similar trouble is also brewing on the US-Mexican border, where a private group of US based water rights holders is using the North American Free Trade Agreement to challenge the long-term practice by Mexican farmers to divert water from the Rio Grande before it reaches the United States.
One could sum it all up by saying that a complex issue is becoming even more intricate and sensitive.
Water, as is clear from the preceding paragraphs, has become a key strategic security and foreign policy priority for most countries of the world. It is not just availability of water as a resource or as a source. Other factors have crept in.
Attention is now also being given to protection of waterways and drinking water supplies. It is now realized that water is a vital commodity that is closely associated with economic development. Consequently, most developed countries are taking special measures to secure their water infrastructure. In the case of USA, the Department of Homeland security (allocated $548 million in appropriations for this purpose) is taking the necessary steps. The US Environmental Protection Agency has also created a National Homeland Security Research Centre to develop the scientific foundations and tools to be used in the event of an attack on the nation's water systems, and a Water Security Division has been established to train water utility personnel on security issues.Such interest in water by the USA and other developed countries has underlined one aspect very clearly--water security is destined to become a national and global priority in the decades ahead.
There is a lesson here for all developing countries including Bangladesh.
Our policy planners also need to address water security issues with utmost seriousness. Efforts and perspective planning in this regard should include finding the necessary energy to extract water from underground aquifers, transporting water through pipelines and canals, managing and treating water for reuse and desalinating brackish and sea water for use in the coastal areas. If need be, this could be undertaken through a public and private partnership, with private sector providing the necessary technology and funding support. Management of such enterprises could also be through public and private joint endeavour.
Time has come for Bangladesh to understand that it is in our national interest to view water as the most important factor for our future stability, security and economic development. We have to learn to link our water security with our national security. We have to start developing the technology necessary to find solutions. We, a densely populated country with little natural resource, must start taking water security more seriously. Perspective planning in this sector has to be broader, more comprehensive and more integrated.
In this context it would be important for all countries in South Asia to treat this issue as a common end and not confine in bilateral connotations. We have more water than we can handle during the monsoons and the ensuing floods. At other times we have massive draughts that affect agriculture, the environment as well as economic opportunities. To that has been added the threat of arsenic poisoning. This uncertainty has been made further complex through climate variability.
What is needed now is political will based on the understanding that water, particularly clean water, is a fundamental human right for all citizens of the world including South Asia. We have to create the conditions for a concerted and collective regional collaboration based on the principles of water conservation and equity in terms of management and usage.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador who can be reached at

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