As droughts expand and water supplies shrivel, is a world water war inevitable?

(This special report is a follow up to last week’s story on dirty water.)

If your neighbor had plenty of water but you hadn’t enough to keep your family, your livestock and your crops alive, would you fight for it? Would you go to war?

Lots of people – from multi-degreed behavioral psychologists to barroom philosophers – believe you would.

Prize winning illustration by A.Z. Ringman

Prize winning illustration by A.Z. Ringman

To those whose wells are dry, it doesn’t matter whether the water shortage is caused by climate change or not. Politicians and government leaders can forever squabble about the cause, but those who are thirsty want water.

Environmentalists in Europe claim the credit for first coining the phrase “World Water War” in the late 90s.

But for almost half a century, the U.S. military has been planning for conflicts spawned by an acute shortage of water for drinking and farming.

A world water war is no longer a question of if, but rather when, explains a Marine colonel who studied the potential for H2O-triggered battles at the U.S. Army War College.

“It could be one rancher going after his neighbor to get water for his cattle; or Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska fighting over who owns the water from the Republican River; or Syria and Turkey fighting Iraq over the flow of the Euphrates,” said the Marine, who now works for a government agency and isn’t permitted to be quoted by name.

”These can be neighbor skirmishes or regional wars,” he told me.  “Where rivers separate traditional enemies like the Middle East or parts of Asia and Africa, a drought and just the mere perception that one side has more water than the other will spark a war.”

When I checked with him last week, he reminded me that genocide in Rwanda and the violence in Sudanese Darfur have been linked back to water conflicts. And Mexico is not sharing water with Texas from its Rio Conchos, as it promised.

People, not numbers

According to water experts at the United Nations, more than 45 percent of the world’s populations – more than 3 billion people – are already in need of more clean water.

They cite research from The World Bank that shows that more than 80 countries now have water shortages that threaten their health and economies.specialreport

These are not just statistics. They’re stories of people. In the last week alone, the media has reported:

In Kenya, “Children are starving, cattle are dropping dead, crops are withered, lakes are empty, and still the rains haven’t come. Kenya is on the verge of a catastrophe of Biblical proportions,” said the international environmental website Mongaby.

In Syria, an acute drought has driven an estimated 300,000 farmers, herders, and their families to abandon home for makeshift urban camps. Another 1.3 million people or more are in peril because of the absence of water, the Christian Science Monitor reported this week.

Mexico is enduring its worst drought in six decades. Crops are drying up in the fields and water is being rationed in the capital. Residents of poor neighborhoods have hijacked water trucks, and there are other signs of social tensions building, reported Elisabeth Malkin in the New York Times

And India, people are struggling to cope with the worst drought in 90 years. Farmers in some states are beginning to guard watered crops with shotguns. A family earlier this year in Madhya Pradesh was murdered in a riot that broke out because of a dispute over water, wrote Rick Westhead of the Toronto Star.

Selling the water

Hydrologists said whiz-bang, big-buck plans for diverting water to places in need of it appear every time a drought threatens water supplies.

In the 70s, Saudi Prince Mohammed al Faisal formed Iceberg Transport International. He planned to find huge icebergs off Antarctica, wrap them in cloth to slow their melting and use a fleet of  tugboats to tow them to the Arabian peninsula.

Ten years ago, Turkey hired a Norwegian firm to use five million-gallon water bags to export water from Turkey to Cyprus.

Also a decade ago, a Canadian businessman was given official blessing to use tankers to ship 160 million gallons a year of fresh water from Lake Superior to Asia.  Instant outrage on both sides of the Canadian border ended that business venture.

Ilustration provided by MIT

Ilustration provided by MIT

And, of course, let’s not forget that America’s own Texas billionaire, T. Boone Pickens, has entered the wonderful world of water big time.

According to Business Week, the oil man owns more water than any other individual in the U.S. and he wants to buy more.  His first project will be to run a pipeline pumping water from the Ogallala Aquifer under his ranch in the Texas panhandle 322 miles to Dallas.

The Ogallala already is overstressed. The aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas, is the source of survival for thousands of ranches and farms along the way.

Today, big-time investors have already plotted out the cost, grief and profit to collect water from melting glaciers. Their plans call for using pipelines or refitted oil tankers or filling nylon or rubber-like bladders that could be towed by tugboats from Alaska to where the money is and the water isn’t. Southern California or those who rely on the dwindling Colorado River are prime customers.

The Colorado River supplies water to nine American Indian tribes and seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as Mexico.

Roughly 30 million people depend on the Colorado River for drinking and irrigation along its 1,450-mile path from its headwaters in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California

As the West warms, the Colorado River has a 50-50 chance of fully depleting all of its reservoir storage by mid-century unless there are meaningful changes in how water is handled, says a new University of Colorado at Boulder study.

Photo by Mahnesh Kumar,  Johannesburg Times

Photo by Mahnesh Kumar, Johannesburg Times

Glacier melt

It used to take precise measurements to document the tiny shifts in the size of glaciers, the world’s ultimate fresh-water storage areas. Now tourists making repeat visits to Alaska, the Andes or even Glacier National Park in Montana can just look at photos they took last year and see how rapidly they’re melting.

Chinese and Indian climatologists say hundreds of lives are at risk because the Tibetan glaciers that feed the Ganges, Indus and other Asian rivers and provide water for the entire region are melting faster than anyplace else. This is happening, they say, because temperatures are rising four to five times faster in the Himalayan region than elsewhere.

On this side of the globe, the shrinking of tropical Andean glaciers could disrupt the water supply of about 40 million people by 2020, hydrologists predict. The cities of Quito, Lima, and La Paz are likely to be most affected.

Remember, this could be a public health disaster of the greatest magnitude. The World Health Organization says the effects of water shortage can be massive outbreaks of disease, malnutrition, crop failure and death.

It’s not just nature

While climate change possibly deserves much of the blame for the looming water crisis, humans are doing a pretty good job themselves of destroying or diverting needed water.

For example:

Private water wells and aquifers throughout the U.S. West are being contaminated and destroyed by energy companies “fracking” for gas.

Fracking is a process in which water, sand and a variety of undisclosed  but often highly toxic chemicals are pumped at high pressure into gas wells to force open rock formations and allow the escape of more gas. But it can also damage and contaminate nearby drinking water wells.

The Colorado Independent reported this weekend that more than 300 private water wells in Colorado have been destroyed by this technique, as well as another 700 in New Mexico. My quick check with environmental offices in other western states added more than 100 more potentially tainted water wells to the list, although officials said more research was needed to determine the extent of the damage.

Farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley – a vital supplier to the world’s food basket – have seen their farmland wasted into powder-dry fields.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered that billions of gallons of water needed for irrigation and drinking water be diverted from the valley to protect the three-inch-long silver delta smelt, an endangered species.

And there is also the exploding bottled water business, which is a $16 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

180px-Fiji_water_posterTouted as environmentally warm and cuddly, Fiji Water – the square bottled drink of the beautiful people – says it is “drawn from an artesian aquifer, located at the very edge of a primitive rainforest.”

Millions of the iconic plastic bottles are filled with water from a “huge volcanic chamber” in Viti Levu, the largest island of the vast South Pacific chain, and shipped throughout the world.

It is the best-selling imported water in the U.S. But nowhere on the billboards or in the slick magazine ads is there a mention of charges by human rights advocates that while the nation’s military-run dictatorship supports the export of the water, it does little or nothing to aid the third of the island nation’s population that cannot get safe drinking water.

Water wizard’s prediction

The Fiji enigma supports the comments of former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who told me a year or two before died in 2003 that he feared “we will see the day when the wealthy have safe drinking water and the poor have nothing.”

I’m not sure that Simon was thinking about sales of bottled water. But during the 22 years he served on Capitol Hill, he was often called the “water wizard” by some water-concerned environmentalists.

After air, water is the most crucial substance that there is for survival of humans and animals alike, he told me.

He predicted a water crisis with catastrophic ramifications and said that nothing meaningful can be done about it unless the public knows the danger and demands that its lawmakers do something about it.

“Like so many other things, water won’t become sexy enough to attract the needed attention of policy-makers, politicians and the media until bodies are stacking up,” the dedicated lawmaker told me.

“Then, it will be too late.”


As droughts expand and water supplies shrivel, is a world water war inevitable? — 2 Comments

  1. Several readers have emailed me to point out that Mother Jones magazine
    this month published a long piece on Fiji Water by writer Anne Lenzer.

    The link is

    The follow ups offer Fiji Water’s view of the allegations.

    a schneider

  2. One correction–T. Boone Pickens does not own the water, he owns the rights to pump water from under land owned by others. In Texas, no one owns groundwater until it is actually being used. His grandiose plans to build a pipeline from the Texas Panhandle to Dallas have hit many snags, legislative and otherwise (nobody has expressed serious interest in buying the water yet), but who knows what TBP will do.

    T. Boone Pickens has been known to say things that don’t come about. Until you actually see it, don’t believe it.

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