Transcript


Alex Kirby:

Hello and welcome the first of our interactive forums on water. I'm Alex Kirby. Two-fifths of the world's people already face serious water shortages and as populations increase, that number is bound to rise. Today, we'll be discussing what happens when more than one country lays claim to the same stretch of water. Will the wars of the future be fought over water?

We've been asking this question in our online vote. About 2,500 people have voted so far. And although the results are in no way scientific, more than 80% think wars will be fought over water.

With me in the studio is the writer, Adel Darwish, author of Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East. But not all water experts agree the disputes will end in war. So for a different perspective, we are also joined from Brussels by Professor Tony Allan, from London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Now let's go straight to the first question and Sister Mary Jude Jun is on the line from Minnesota in the United States with a question for Adel Darwish.


Sister Mary Jude Jun:

Hello Mr Darwish, I read and heard some time ago that the next world war will be fought over water, not oil. It seems to me that that's very possible. How do you feel?


Adel Darwish:

We did actually have some water wars or partly water wars. We had the clash between Senegal and Mauritania in 1978. And in the course of researching my book, both my co-author and myself had General Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli prime minister, on record saying the following - that although people think that the Six Day War started on the 5th June 1967. But no the decision to go to war was taken three years earlier when the Arabs, led by Colonel Nasser, decided to divert the water away from the Jordan, then we decided to go to war to stop it.

So there is a precedent and unfortunately in the area of the Middle East, the leaders have shown themselves ready to go to war over issues less important than water. Although water also could provide protection for peace - it could be the carrot that the super powers, the World Bank and the United Nations can give to people in the region as a reward if they opt for peace.


Alex Kirby:

I'd just like at this point to bring in Professor Tony Allan in Brussels. Is that the way you see the possibility of conflict over water?


Professor Tony Allan:

Well no and I do not agree with the evidence cited by Adel in that there's a big discussion about what was the cause of the Six Day War. In the 1960s there was - remember the 1960s was a long time ago - a sign that people would pick up guns and tanks and zap others with aircraft in the northern part of the Jordan valley over water. But that was a long time ago. Things have got dramatically worse since then.

The numbers of people competing for water in that particular area is many, many times what it was before and yet there's been no sign of hostility of an armed nature over water since then. So why has there been no repeat of that hostile environment of the 1960s? Well, the reason is that people can gain access to water in other ways and it's very hard for people to accept this because it's normal to think intuitively about water - we are 60% water - we know it's important, we die very quickly if we don't have enough drinking water and we die if we don't have enough food.

But in practice the Middle East has been easily able to import water, in a virtual form, in food in that there's been plenty of staple food on the world market at half its production cost and the wise political leaders of the Middle East have taken advantage of that. It is still possible to keep in place the idea of hostility and conflict and even war but in practice there's no sign of anyone going to war over water.


Alex Kirby:

I know that the United Nations is making fairly encouraging noises about how war has been avoided so far - the UN Environment Programme Post Conflict Assessment Unit says Palestinians and Israelis have agreed to keep water out of the disagreement.

We go now to our first e-mail question which comes from T. Ramakrishnan in India who says: Can you give me any international example of protracted water disputes getting resolved? If so, how did the parties concerned achieve it?

Tony Allan, can you give any international example of protracted disputes being resolved and if so how?


Professor Tony Allan:

It depends what you mean by protracted and what you mean by resolved, in that between Pakistan and India there has been a long-standing agreement which was put in place, as I recall, in the early 1960s, late 1950s, which has endured since then without any armed conflict over water. Although armed conflict over other issues did take place. And of course India has also reached an agreement with Bangladesh more recently in 1996.

Across the world there are hundreds, if not thousands, of agreements between two, what we call riparians - two countries sharing the water of a river basin. It's much easier of course to reach agreements between two. Reaching agreement in river basins such as the Nile where there are 10 riparians - 10 countries involved - is obviously much more difficult.

But at the same time, since the end of the Cold War, it is remarkable how many initiatives have come to pass - and the Nile Basin initiative is the name of one of them - which since 1992 but then especially since 2000 and 2001/2, lots and lots of activity is taking place there. You can be cynical about it - you can say that it's not a real process. But it is certainly not armed conflict. It is people talking about their common interest in water and trying to come up with what people call collective action of a favourable sort.


Alex Kirby:

Adel Darwish, if that's right that we've avoided armed conflict between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We've also apparently avoided it between Israel and the Palestinians, shouldn't you allow yourself to be a little bit encouraged?


Adel Darwish:

Well there are two issues here: first of all, yes I'm encouraged by the idea of water co-operation but before I get into that I would like to add to what Tony said. It was the World Bank first when India and Pakistan wanted to have water project and because neither nation could actually afford to finance it by themselves, then the World Bank imposed some kind of agreement and it also happened between Turkey and Syria. So the World Bank said there had to be some agreement that all the nations in that basin where the water project is going to take place would actually reap the benefits there.

However, when a nation can actually provide the economics itself, it does not actually go by the rules because international law is not very clear on the use of water. Which is the example of Turkey - Turkey has a military force imposes its will on Syria and on Iraq. In fact in 1987, they had stopped the water flow for several days and as a result Syria financed and helped a terrorist organisation among the Kurds, called PKK, to pay back the Turks. In the Nile, Egypt being a superior military force, imposed its will on its neighbour and they actually do have an army division ready to intervene in any of these countries. So it's not exactly a model of cooperation.

The reason I'm actually encouraged by - as Tony correctly said yes, a form of importing food, you are actually importing water. I'm thinking of an idea of an water bank which would go all the way from Syria to central Africa - that every country would actually have their deposit - their water resources - and the money they withdrawn equivalent to money withdraw is what they actually import in terms of water, electricity or food. So there is scope for cooperation.


Alex Kirby:

I think Tony Allan wanted to come back briefly there.


Professor Tony Allan:

I don't know whether at some point during the discussion if Adel would like to answer my question - would Egypt deploy that force if it felt sufficiently challenged. I see no sign of Egypt deploying military force over water.

Can I make an important point about water: there are two types of water, there is small water - the water that we drink and keep clean with and domestic uses which is about 10% of the water we need. The big water is the water we need for food - each of us needs 90% of the water and the nation needs 90% of its water if its self-sufficient, to raise its food.

Now the small water has been a problem for some countries but from now on because desalination is around for perhaps 50 US cents per cubic metre, it means that all the populations that live near the coast and certainly all the ones in the Middle East can easily meet most of their domestic water needs by desalination. They won't need to do it, but some already are and an increasing number will.

So the small water is not normally a problem - it's the big water that's the problem but that has been remedied spectacularly, as we've discovered - the Middle East entered this terrible water deficit in the early 1970s and since then it is imported progressively more food. Now that doesn't make people feel comfortable and it doesn't make the politicians who run those countries feel comfortable. But it has in practice enabled them to be without a water shortage. Each tonne of grain takes a thousand tonnes of water to raise it. It can easily be imported at half its production cost from the people who farm in Minnesota.


Alex Kirby:

Well come back to small water and big water later, if we've got time. I want to go on and take a phone call now from Firas Aruri in Ramallah, Palestine who says this: The Israeli government has chosen to divide the water ratios, Israeli to Arab, 4 to 1. Each summer, we get our water supply cut off due to the lack of it. We sometimes spend days and weeks without a reliable supply.

Adel Darwish, what do you have to say to him?


Adel Darwish:

I think he's absolutely right.


Alex Kirby:

Well let's hear from him himself. Mr Aruri, what's your question to Adel Darwish?


Firas Aruri:

My question is, as I understand it, the water issue in the Middle East in itself is that of the utmost importance yet I find it very scarce in the importance of it in regards to media and in regards to Road Map in itself. As far as I'm concerned I understand the '67 War was practically initiated because of the water issue and at the current stage our ratios of consumption, according to what I've mentioned to you is at least 4:1.

If you want figures, the Palestinians consume about 145 cubic metres per capita per year as opposed to an Israeli settler which consumes about 650 cubic metres per capita per year. And another important issue I would like to add is the price of water. The Israelis consume - in US dollars about .6 or .7 per cubic litres as opposed to Palestinians they pay a price three times as high which goes up to about $2.10 cents per cubic metres.


Alex Kirby:

What's your specific question Mr Aruri?


Firas Aruri:

My specific question is what is being done about that in regards to the responsibility of the western world? Is there anything that's being done about that?


Alex Kirby:

Adel Darwish, is there anything being done?


Adel Darwish:

Well not much really except that including water in the multilateral talks - it started in Madrid in 1991 and is continuing - and without much satisfaction. And there's another example because Israel is a military force - Israel does not actually need to borrow money from the World Bank. There's no way you can actually impose some kind of international law to make them actually give some kind of equitable division of water.

Also they have better technology, in the sense that they can dig deeper into the aquifer under the West Bank which they take water that actually belongs to the Palestinians. It is a source of bitterness, it is a source that radical extreme organisations, like Hamas, use it to actually inflame the situation and inflame anti-Israeli feeling. There is even the crazy policy that the Israelis wanted to grow every crop - vegetable and fruit - they read about in the Old Testament, in the Bible, even if it doesn't make economic sense.


Alex Kirby:

You are saying economically, technologically - in every way - the dice are loaded against Palestinians?


Adel Darwish:

If the Syrian prime minister and the Israeli prime minister buy one aircraft less they can have a decent desalination plant which would be enough to provide water for 70,000 people - enough to give employment to about 200 people. So it's actually part of a larger Middle East settlement and that's what I think probably will be part of the Road Map. If they can say to Palestinians and the Israelis, if you behave yourselves we are going to put a tap in for you.


Alex Kirby:

Tony Allan, what's being done?


Professor Tony Allan:

Well it's very complicated in the middle of the negotiations which were going quite well in the middle 90s to find that they foundered during the second Intifada, understandably. The Palestinians are extremely able in water management and understanding it and also would be well equipped and are well equipped to negotiate to.

One of the dangers is, of course, is that water is linked to so much of too many other issues which are even more exciting and prominent, such as Jerusalem and settlements and borders and territory and so on.

One of the things that I argue but is an idea that is not necessarily followed is that if water could be separated from these other issues, it would be much better for Palestine because there is an inequity - it is quite clear that international law doesn't exist in water but in the background it is evolving. The international community can see the point with respect to the inequity and Palestine could be well set to receive a substantial water return from negotiations if the water is negotiated separately.


Alex Kirby:

Mr Aruri, does that satisfy you - did those answers help?


Firas Aruri:

Partially they satisfy me but there's also another important issue that we need to also look at in regards to the supervision of water in itself. For example, in Israel itself, water is under supervision through the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture whereas in the occupied territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it is under the supervision of the Ministry of Defence and therefore I can only conclude that water is being used as weapon. It is being distributed in accordance to race or religion rather than to a people as a right.


Alex Kirby:

Let's take another e-mail question now. This one from Sana Ansari, Minnesota, USA who says: With the initiation of the Road Map, how will Israel make sure that the Palestinians will be given access to clean water? What role did water play in the Road Map?


Professor Tony Allan:

I suspect that water would not figure in it very much at all because as I've tried to explain so far, it would be much better that water is focused on separately and is not linked to the other issues which need to be settled first. They will take a lot of political energy to settle.

Water is going to be difficult and challenging but it can be solved with investment and money. Issues such as Jerusalem can't be solved with investment and money - passions are high and they'll only be solved through the outcome of political contention. Water is a solvable problem, there are the technological options. Palestine currently is a poor country. It showed dramatically in the middle '90s that it could in fact begin to develop rapidly - since then it's gone back - it's a tragedy. Once it evolves and develops as quickly as its people are capable of developing, the water problem will be just one problem which will be solved.


Alex Kirby:

Adel do you want to add anything to that or not.


Adel Darwish:

I have made a small contribution to the Road Map via a think tank I'm involved in. And in fact I was quite surprised to see that water was not mentioned anywhere and I put an insertion on water as a way of cooperation and gaining each other's confidence. And there are now new products, like for example, an artificial soil which does not lose water through evaporation. It is just looking for investment and thank God this think tank, big businesses are actually very interested now in investing in this kind of new soil.


Alex Kirby:

I want to widen the focus now away from the Middle East a little bit, taking two e-mail questions together. The first is from John Bracich in Niles in the United States who says: Outside the Middle East where else do you both see a possible war looming over water?

The other question comes from Kathmandu in Nepal, it's from Hari Rokaya, who says: I'm 23 and from Nepal. Why is the West focusing only on the Middle East? The water crisis is a rampant problem throughout the world, for instance the Nepal/India crisis.

So where's the next war and why only the Middle East? Adel.


Adel Darwish:

I would say actually crisis and not war, and hopefully we won't have any war. But Nepal and India is one; India/Pakistan; Turkey and the whole of Syria and Iraq and Africa, another one; there's a big problem between Canada and the United States, within the United States itself, the United States and Mexico. So you name it, it's quite a long list.

Just because we focus on the Middle East because the Middle East is a volatile area, it's an area where most regimes are undemocratic and they resorted to war over issues that's important than water.


Alex Kirby:

Tony do you want to add anything to that, to these two questions?


Professor Tony Allan:

The problem between India and Nepal is a very interesting one and it's a problem of mobilising investment. We are at a point in history where the World Bank is rethinking what it should do about building big dams and gaining both power and revenue for a country by doing that because of the success of the Green movement in the north the World Bank, as it were, fell into line with that and therefore it hasn't been investing in dams and so on.

However, there's been a recent report from the World Bank indicating it's starting to rethink that policy and it's needing to challenge the Green wisdom and say that poor people need to have their resources developed. So things are happening which will allow a coalition to emerge again between the World Bank and the countries in South Asia and East Asia and elsewhere which will in fact enable economic development to take place. I've said that and I know that I'd offending a whole range of Green activists who have over the years successfully stopped dam building in the United States almost totally and in many other parts of the world as the result of the World Bank not funding them.

But the reason I didn't respond to Adel's thought about a water bank is that we already have an incredible water bank in place in trade. There's more water moving around the world embedded in food than any engineer could ever dream of, if they built all the new dams they wanted they would never even match that volume of water embedded in trade. But the great advantage of that is that you can move it from wherever you want. You're not stuck with a dam in one place and with too much water in one area and too little in the other.

This other process is extremely flexible, extremely advantageous to poor countries at this point in history and extremely advantageous also to rich countries who want to import. So we have this breathing space in which this trade in food is the way that will enable countries that are short to solve their big water problem.


Alex Kirby:

Thank you very much. I want to bring in now another telephone caller, this one from Islamabad in Pakistan, Ali Ahmed Rind, could you put your question please?


Ali Ahmed Rind:

My question is to Mr Adel Darwish. Over the past few years water has become the bone of contention between Pakistan's two major provinces - Punjab and Sindh? The River Indus, the main source of street water used to irrigate the plains of two provinces passes through Punjab before entering Sindh, thereby giving Punjab the status of an upper riparian. When a river is shared by two parties, the lower riparian has an equal right of the share of the water as does an upper riparian.

However in Pakistan a strong politically motivated and often vested interest lobby claims that as the River Indus through Punjab, it is Punjab that has a sole ownership right over its waters. It is Punjab's generosity that is allowing water to reach the Sindh - the lower riparian. I'm asking what international laws, if any, address this issue and how the differences among lower and upper riparians are solved in other countries and what criteria laws were used?


Alex Kirby:

Adel I don't know if you're an international lawyer, perhaps you'd like to have a go at that.


Adel Darwish:

I'm not but actually one of the reasons I have to agree with Tony here, he can correct me if I'm wrong, but international law is not clear, it has no provision for water. Inside India and South Pakistan they have their own local law, how much international law could be applied is not clear at all. And it's been a problem when upper stream nations or counties or states or whatever, even within a federation, can actually impose and stop physically the flow of water if the lower stream countries, lower stream states are not strong enough to oppose it or the other way round.

But also there's something called customary use. Sometimes you see it might not be fair but because there's something called customary use, you can't just suddenly issue a law that would actually run contrary to the custom that's been going on for generations. So that has to be taken into account. And sometimes customary use would make it from an outsider point of view totally unfair but it is customary use. So actually a mixture of customary use - a mixture of regional laws and a mixture of economic needs.


Alex Kirby:

Tony do you think international law really needs to be defined much better if we're going to go on avoiding conflict over water?


Professor Tony Allan:

Well we have a moment in history when a main power in the world isn't very keen on international law of any sort, so international law over water is probably more likely than some other kinds of law. In fact some progress is being made, it's a constantly developing process and those people in international water law are not pleased at the pace at which it's going but there are norms, which as Adel said, mentioning a customary law, are based on ideas of customary law as well as principles of equity and equitable utilisation.

The idea of equitable utilisation has been around for a hundred years. It was in fact reached for in the early part of the last century between Mexico and the United States. So although at the time it seemed as if the United States was being hegemonic, in fact those negotiations went in a very cooperative way thinking about equity and equitable utilisation.

In the United States there are interesting examples of arrangements being put in place - the Colorado is a famous river, it's quite a small river compared with some of the other rivers that we could mention like even the Nile and certainly the big ones of Asia and Africa. But the Colorado has an upper and a lower part, it also has a number of different states which participate in the contention over that water.

The two parts of the basin are in fact negotiated and they are, as Adel said, within a federal system so it's much easier to come to arrangements in a federal system, such as the Colorado. And of course in Australia too where the main rivers there are again overused and much contention but they have put in place extremely interesting and sophisticated arrangements about water quality as well as water quantity and water efficiency in terms of economics. So it is possible, therefore if federation or some form of national government with provinces, such as in Pakistan, it should be possible for the state government to impose or to negotiate or to bring about a favourable set of circumstances but clearly politics are not always predictable.


Alex Kirby:

Famous last words almost, thank you very much Tony. An e-mail now from a caller in the United Kingdom, Robbie, who says: The UK features in the map of water stress and scarcity for 2025 why? There is not and there shouldn't be a scarcity of water in the UK. We suffer from water wastage not water shortage.


Professor Tony Allan:

Well there are some parts of the United Kingdom - East Anglia and the South West of the country - where there are problems geologically in the South West to do with relatively low rainfall and the wish to irrigate. I coined the idea that whenever you start to irrigate you always run out of water - it's true of Egypt, India, it's certainly true of North America and it's even true of East Anglia. So the only parts that are actually running out of water in the UK are geological problems in the South West where there aren't reasonable aquifers, groundwater storage circumstances, and in East Anglia where there is an overuse of water, which is being regulated and will be brought under control. And it's certainly right to say that we are not in any imminent danger.

Also of course we have been reducing our food imports because our own agricultural production in the UK, along with the rest of Europe and the United States, has doubled in the 50 years since the end of the Second World War. So we are using our water more effectively but there is still a gap - a food gap - which is we happily go on the world market for a relatively small proportion of food compared with what it was 50 years ago.


Alex Kirby:

Thank you Tony. Broadening out this theme of what the developed world can do, there's a question from George Jacobson in New York in the US who says: What steps would you both recommend that the developed countries implement now to avoid the water crisis?

That's broadening it away from the United Kingdom. So Adel what would you recommend for all developed countries?


Adel Darwish:

First of all is the pricing of water and we must actually include - agricultural is the most consuming activity of water usage. So if you are pricing it, i.e. when you are exporting or importing rice or corn or any other agriculture produce, then actually what you're exporting is water so that has to be taken into account.

Number two is the wastage which is actually incredible whether through evaporation in the Middle East or whether through seepage into the soil and it's not necessary if you have good rain you have water, because sometimes that rain's so heavy it can wash away the actual seed into the underground aquifer.

Thirdly we must really go with international law in a way that actually can define what water is, use of water etc. And we have to actually realise that you cannot own water, you can only own or control the method by which you transport, store or distribute water - so water itself as a commodity cannot be owned. So all these things have to be taken into account.

As for the Western superpowers, as I said there is a good opportunity - Tony suggested that taking water away from conflict, like in the Middle East for example. When Yitzhak Rabin was the Prime Minister of Israel and there was an issue with Jordan over the use of water, the Israeli engineers, had they told Rabin they we're going to give the Jordanians so much gallons per year for free, he would have said no. But then they said to him, we're going to solve a problem which will only cost us under a hundred million dollars and he said yes because they actually gave it to him in terms of dollars rather than a political term like water. So it could be actually avoided by redefining it in economic terms. And the Western advanced nations are much more equipped to do that than the Third World where most of water wars could happen.


Alex Kirby:

It's a question of how you tell them apparently. We've looked at the Middle East, we've looked at India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, we've looked at the developed countries. Tony can I put to you a question which comes from Adeline Lim, Singapore who says: To what extent would current and future technology help in preventing water from becoming a major national security issue in Asia and the Middle East?


Professor Tony Allan:

Well technology is important, it's one of the way that you can use water more efficiently if you make sure that the system of distributing water is less leaky. You can save 20 or 30 per cent of the water that's going into the system. That's one way. By pricing it - that's not technology but you can also go other ways to try to achieve that.

The big water of course is the water that is the big problem but happily the trends in Asia - to a lesser extent in the Middle East but certainly in Asia - have been to massively increase the returns to water in agriculture. Since 1961 China and India have increased their yields of wheat and grain and rice by four to five times - that's a massive increase. If it had not been so the world would now be in chaos because those two parts of the world comprise between 40 and 50 per cent of the world's population. So if they'd been coming on the world market for food we would really have a very serious problem.

But there are in train processes to increase productivity of water and land, land has been rather more successful than water. But the continent of course that is the serious problem is not the one you mentioned and that is Africa. One has rather optimistic thoughts in mind about what further things can be achieved in Asia, they just need to double again their production and they would in fact meet the future population needs. Because one of the factors which we haven't mentioned is that - which is not irrelevant to water wars - is that whereas 20 years ago we thought that the world's population was going to be perhaps about 20 to 30 billion people - our present population of six and a half billion - it is only going to be somewhere between eight, nine, ten, possibly eleven billion. In other words doubly improved production would more than cover future population and those of us who are optimistic feel absolutely confident that food production can be doubled.

So the demographic issue is the important one. It's part of economic development, economic development solves most things, it doesn't make people happy but it certainly solves many material things and it certainly solves the demographic issue because we go through a demographic transition and there are fewer people, or at least the increase levels off eventually. And if we are economically developed we can easily afford the water and use it more effectively in agriculture.


Alex Kirby:

Adel are you going to allow yourself to be a little bit optimistic, a little bit encouraged, about the prospects for Asia and the Middle East?


Adel Darwish:

Well I think certainly Asia has actually been making giant leaps in technology. I'll mention again this artificial chemical they put with the soil, special soil. They've been actually trying it in Turkey and the farmers are quite delighted about it because there's hardly no evaporation from it. But, as I said, I'm not one hundred per cent convinced there are going to be water wars but also I'm not very optimistic about solving this crisis - there could many wars, as we said these are bones of contention. They are ways where people feel very angry, very bitter because of the non-equitable use.

But as I said once we actually take water as an economic development, as pricing, as in fact using it to even export electricity from dams in exchange of importing food and so on then perhaps we can have a better scope of cooperation. But until international law and international cooperation can actually take some practical steps, I won't be too optimistic.


Alex Kirby:

Remaining resolutely unoptimistic to the end, Adel thank you. I'm afraid that's all we have time for today. Thank you all for taking part in this forum.