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People waiting in line to gather water during the Siege of Sarajevo

Water politics, sometimes called hydropolitics, is politics affected by the availability of water and water resources, a necessity for all life forms and human development. The first use of the term, hydropolitics, came in the book by John Waterbury, entitled Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, Syracuse University Press, 1979 (ISBN 0-8156-2192-2).

The availability of drinking water per capita is inadequate and shrinking worldwide.[1] The causes, related to both quantity and quality, are many and varied; they include local scarcity, limited availability and population pressures, but also human activities of mass consumption, misuse, environmental degradation and water pollution, as well as climate change. Water's essential nature makes it a strategic natural resource globally, and in its absence, an important element of political conflicts in many areas, historically. With decreasing availability and increasing demand for water, some have predicted that clean water will become the "next oil"; making countries like Canada, Chile, Norway, Colombia and Peru, with this resource in abundance, the water-rich countries in the world.[2][3][4] The UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from the World Water Assessment Program indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. Currently, 40% of the world's inhabitants have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought. In 2004, the UK charity WaterAid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds from easily preventable water-related diseases; often this means lack of sewage disposal; see toilet. The United Nations Development Programme sums up world water distribution in the 2006 development report: "One part of the world sustains a designer bottled water market that generates no tangible health benefits, another part suffers acute public health risks because people have to drink water from drains or from lakes and rivers."[5] Fresh water — now more precious than ever in our history for its extensive use in agriculture, high-tech manufacturing, and energy production — is increasingly receiving attention as a resource requiring better management and sustainable use.

Riparian water rights and associated issues like global warming and desertification have become issues in international diplomacy, in addition to domestic and regional water rights and politics. World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin predicted, "Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water". [6]


Water as a critical resource

Most importantly, fresh water is a fundamental requirement of all living organisms, crops, livestock and humanity included. The UNDP considers access to it a basic human right and a prerequisite for peace. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in 2001, “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people. It is an affront to human dignity.” With increased development, many industries, including forestry, agriculture, mining, manufacturing and recreation require sizable additional amounts of freshwater to operate. This, however, has led to increases in air and water pollution, which in turn have reduced the quality of water supply. More sustainable development practices are advantageous and necessary.

According to the WHO, each human being requires a bare minimum of 20 litres of fresh water per day for basic hygiene;[7] this equals 7.3 cubic metres (about 255 ft3) per person, per year. Based on the availability, access and development of water supplies, the specific usage figures vary widely from country to country, with developed nations having existing systems to treat water for human consumption, and deliver it to every home. At the same time however, some nations across Latin America, parts of Asia, South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East either do not have sufficient water resources or have not developed these or the infrastructure to the levels required. This occurs for many varied reasons. It has resulted in conflict and often results in a reduced level or quantity of fresh water per capita consumption; this situation leads toward disease, and at times, to starvation and death.

The source of virtually all freshwater is precipitation from the atmosphere, in the form of mist, rain and snow, as part of the water cycle over eons, millennia and in the present day. Freshwater constitutes only 3% of all water on Earth, and of that, slightly over two thirds is stored frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps.[8] The remaining unfrozen freshwater is mainly found as groundwater, with only a small fraction present in the air, or on the ground surface.[9] Surface water is stored in wetlands or lakes or flows in a stream or river, and is the most commonly utilized resource for water. In places, surface water can be stored in a reservoir behind a dam, and then used for municipal and industrial water supply, for irrigation and to generate power in the form of hydroelectricity. Sub-surface groundwater, although stored in the pore space of soil and rock; it is utilized most as water flowing within aquifers below the water table. Groundwater can exist both as a renewable water system closely associated with surface water and as a separate, deep sub-surface water system in an aquifer. This latter case is sometimes called "fossil water", and is realistically non-renewable. Normally, groundwater is utilized where surface sources are unavailable or when surface supply distribution is limited.

Rivers sometimes flow through several countries and often serve as the boundary or demarcation between them. With these rivers, water supply, allocation, control, and use are of great consequence to survival, quality of life, and economic success. The control of a nation's water resources is considered vital to the survival of a state.[10] Similar cross-border groundwater flow also occurs. Competition for these resources, particularly where limited, have caused or been additive to conflicts in the past.

Water politics by country


OECD countries

With nearly 2,000 cubic metres (70,000 ft3) of water used per person per year , the United States leads the world in water consumption per capita. Among the developed OECD countries, the U.S. is highest in water consumption, then Canada with 1,600 cubic meters (56,000 ft3) of water per person per year, which is about twice the amount of water used by the average person from France, three times as much as the average German, and almost eight times as much as the average Dane. A 2001 University of Victoria report says that since 1980, overall water use in Canada has increased by 25.7%. This is five times faster than the overall OECD increase of 4.5%. In contrast, nine OECD nations were able to decrease their overall water use since 1980 (Sweden, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Poland, Finland and Denmark).[11][12]


Ganges river delta, Bangladesh and India

India - Bangladesh

The Ganges is disputed between India and Bangladesh. The water reserves are being quickly depleted and polluted, while the Gangotri glacier that feeds the sacred Hindu river is retreating hundreds of feet each year because of global warming [13] and deforestation in the Himalayas, which is causing subsoil streams flowing into the Ganges river to dry up. Downstream, India controls the flow to Bangladesh with the Farakka Barrage, 10 kilometers (6 mi) on the Indian side of the border. Until the late 1990s, India used the barrage to divert the river to Calcutta, to keep the city's port from drying up during the dry season. This denied Bangladeshi farmers water and silt, and it left the Sundarban wetlands and mangrove forests at the river's delta seriously threatened. The two countries have now signed an agreement to share the water more equally. Water quality, however, remains a problem, with high levels of arsenic and untreated sewage in the river water.[14]

India - Pakistan

Cauvery dispute


In Mexico City, an estimated 40% of the city's water is lost through leaky pipes built at the turn of the 20th century.[15]

Middle East

The Middle East region has only 1% of the world's available fresh water, which is shared among 5% of the world's population. Thus, in this region, water is an important strategic resource. By 2025, it is predicted that the countries of the Arabian peninsula will be using more than double the amount of water naturally available to them.[16] According to a report by the Arab League, two-thirds of Arab countries have less than 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 ft3) of water per person per year available, which is considered the limit.[17]

Water politics is not an emerging field within international relations discourse, nor is it a force insignificant in comparison to other political pressures, such as those of critical infrastructure (for example, petroleum for the United States), or that of strategic geopolitical control (for example, control of the Suez canal or the Persian Gulf). In the context of the Middle East, with a multitude of existing national, subnational, ideological, ethnic, religious and pan-national tensions, conflicts and associations, water politics has already been considered to have played a major role in tensions between Iraq, Syria and Turkey in 1990, when Turkey commenced the Southeastern Anatolia Project (also known as GAP) to dam sections of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers north of the Syrian/Turkey border. Finding themselves without control of their waterways, Syria and Iraq formed an alliance, ignoring the previous disputes which had divided them, to confront the issue of water control.

Within the Middle East, all major rivers cross at least one international border, with rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates crossing through three major Middle Eastern nations. This means that the nations, cities and towns downstream from the next are hugely effected by the actions and decisions of other groups whom one has little practical control over. In particular this is evident with the cutting of water supply from one nation to the next, just as issues of air pollution effect the states surrounding that which is producing the pollution initially. It is believed that up to 50% of water required for any specific state within the Middle East finds its source in another state.

Iraq and Syria watched with apprehension the construction of the Atatürk Dam in Turkey and a projected system of 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.[18] According to the BBC, the list of 'water-scarce' countries in the region grew steadily from three in 1955 to eight in 1990 with another seven expected to be added within 20 years, including three Nile nations (the Nile is shared by nine countries). According to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the only conceivable flashpoint Egypt may encounter as it heads into the 21st century is the control of fresh water resources.

With substantial, but falling[19], rates of fertility, the issue of water distribution in the Middle East will not be easily dismissed.

The River Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has little water, and dams in Israel have reduced its available water sources over the years. Confronted by this lack of water, Jordan is preparing new techniques to use non-conventional water resources, such as second-hand use of irrigation water and desalinization techniques, which are very costly and are not yet used. A desalinization project will soon be started in Hisban, south of Amman. The Disi groundwater project, in the south of Jordan, will cost at least $250 million to bring out water. Along with the Unity Dam on the Yarmouk River, it is one of Jordan's largest strategic projects. Born in 1987, the "Unity Dam" would involve both Jordan and Syria. This "Unity Dam" still has not been implemented because of Israel's opposition, Jordan and Syrian conflictive relations and the disinterest of international investors. However, Jordan's reconciliation with Syria following the death of King Hussein represents the removal of one of the project's greatest obstacles.[20]

Both Israel and Jordan rely on the Jordan River, but Israel controls it, as well as 90% of the water resources in the region. As per 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace Israel has agreed to provide 50 million cubic meters of water (1.7 billion ft3) to Jordan annually. According to the treaty the two countries would cooperate in order to allow Jordan better access to water resources, notably through dams on the Yarmouk River.[21]

The Golan Heights provide 770 million cubic meters (27 billion ft3) of water per year to Israel, which represents a third of its annual consumption. The Golan's water goes to the Sea of Galilee—Israel's largest reserve—which is then redistributed throughout the country by the National Water Carrier. However, the level on the Sea of Galilee has dropped over the years, sparking fears that Israel's main water reservoir will become salinated. On its northern border, Israel threatened military action against Lebanon in 2002 when it opened a new pumping station taking water from a river feeding the Jordan. To help ease the crisis, Israel has agreed to buy water from Turkey and is investigating the construction of desalination plants.[22]

Water is an important issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict—indeed, according to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon quoted by Abel Darwish of the BBC, it was one of the causes of the 1967 Six-Day War. In practice the access to water has been a casus belli for Israel. Palestinians complain of a lack of access to water in the region.[23] Israelis in the West Bank use four times as much water as their Palestinian neighbors.[22] According to the World Bank, 90% of the West Bank's water is used by Israelis, despite them making up only a fraction of its population.[20] Article 40 of the appendix B of the September 28, 1995 Oslo accords stated that "Israel recognizes Palestinians' rights on water in the West Bank".

Israel obtains water from four sources: rainwater collected naturally into the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River(~36%), the mountain aquifers (~28%), the coastal aquifer (~14%), and water recycling (~23%). Almost all the water used in the Palestinian areas other than rainwater is drawn from the underground aquifers (mountain aquifer ~52%, coastal aquifer ~48%). The Palestinian Authority has not developed any significant wastewater treatment facilities. The mountain aquifers lie mostly under the West Bank and the coastal aquifer mostly under the Israeli coastal plain. Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, including the recharge areas for aquifers that flow west and northwest into Israel and limits were placed on the amount withdrawn from each existing well. Since that time, the only permits for new Palestinian wells that have been granted are for domestic needs. Currently, a total of 150 million cubic meters per year is consumed by its residents—115 million cubic meters per year by Palestinians and 35 million cubic meters per year by Jews[24]. Water usage issues have been part of a number of agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. For these reasons, the question of water supply for both Israel and Palestine is a very serious obstacle to a comprehensive agreement.

South America

The Guaraní Aquifer, located between the Mercosur countries of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, with a volume of about 40,000 km³, is an important source of fresh potable water for all four countries.

United States

Ninety-five percent of the United States' fresh water is underground.

For specific disputes and concerns, see:

For general information, see:


Privatization of water companies has been contested on several occasions because of poor water quality, increasing prices, and ethical concerns. In Bolivia for example, the proposed privatization of water companies by the IMF was met by popular protests in Cochabamba in 2000, which ousted Bechtel, a US engineering firm based in San Francisco. Suez has started retreating from South America because of similar protests in Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, and Córdoba, Argentina. [25] Consumers took to the streets to protest water rate hikes of as much as 500% mandated by Suez. In South and Central America, Suez has water concessions in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Mexico. "Bolivian officials fault Suez for not connecting enough households to water lines as mandated by its contract and for charging as much as $455 a connection, or about three times the average monthly salary of an office clerk", according to the Mercury News.[26]

South Africa also made moves to privatize water, provoking an outbreak of cholera that killed 200.[27]

In 1997, World Bank consultants assisted the Philippine government in the privatization of the city of Manila's Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage Systems (MWSS). By 2003, water price increases registered at 81% in the east zone of the Philippines and 36% in the west region. As services became more expensive and inefficient under privatization, there was reduced access to water for poor households. In October 2003, the Freedom from Debt Coalition reported that the diminished access to clean water resulted in an outbreak of cholera and other gastro-intestinal diseases.[28]

See also


  1. ^ World's supply of fresh water shrinking dramatically: report
  2. ^ Total Renewable Fresh Water Supply By Country
  3. ^ Peter Lawrence et al. "The Water Poverty Index : an International Comparison", Keele Economics Research Papers, 2002
  4. ^ A Chronology of Water-Related Conflicts
  5. ^ UNDP Human Development Report 2006 United Nations Development Programme, 2006.
  6. ^ Where Oil and Water Do Mix: Environmental Scarcity and Future Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa
  7. ^ [ Water: A Human Right
  8. ^ "Earth's water distribution". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2009-05-13.  
  9. ^ "Scientific Facts on Water: State of the Resource". GreenFacts Website. Retrieved 2008-01-31.  
  10. ^ Daclon Corrado Maria, Geopolitics of Environment, A Wider Approach to the Global Challenges, Comunità Internazionale, Italy, 2007
  11. ^ Water consumption indicator in the OECD countries
  12. ^ "Golf 'is water hazard'". BBC News. March 17, 2003.  
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Ganges river - water hot spots". BBC News. ?.  
  15. ^ "Mexico City - Water hot spots". BBC Newsnight. 18/08/08.  
  16. ^ "Water shortages 'foster terrorism'". BBC News. March 18, 2003.  
  17. ^ "Major aspects of scarce water resources management with reference to the Arab countries", Arab League report published for the International Conference on water gestion and water politics in arid zones, in Amman, Jordan, December 1-3, 1999. Quoted by French journalist Christian Chesnot in "Drought in the Middle East". Monde diplomatique. February 2000.   - French original version freely available here.
  18. ^ "Turkey - water hot spots". BBC News. ?.  
  19. ^ EDITORIAL: Mideast fertility rates plunge - Middle East Times
  20. ^ a b See Christian Chesnot in "Drought in the Middle East". Le Monde diplomatique. February 2000.   - French original version freely available here.
  21. ^ See 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, annex II, article II, first paragraph
  22. ^ a b "Israel - water hot spots". BBC News. ?.  
  23. ^ "Analysis: Middle East water wars, by Abel Darwish". BBC News. May 30, 2003.  
  24. ^ 08
  25. ^ WATER-LATIN AMERICA: Suez Packs Its Bags and Won't Be Back
  26. ^ "Bolivia's water wars coming to end under Morales". Mercury News. February 26, 2006.  
  27. ^ "Water privatisation: ask the experts". BBC News. December 10, 2004.  
  28. ^ "Rights Education Empowers People in the Philippines". Aurora Parong. 1995.  

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