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Water does not cause wars... yet

Connect-World, March 24, 2009

Sunday was World Water Day. It focused on transboundary waters - widely regarded as a source of potential conflict. But do nations go to war over water? Not according to an essay in the current issue of Nature. It is written by Wendy Barnaby. She was asked to write a book about water wars but discovered that, rather than going to war, countries solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements.

She cites Aaron Wolf (contact), Director of the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University, Corvallis, and Nils Petter Gleditsch (contact) at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo as saying that predictions of armed conflict over water come from the media and popular writing, rather than peer-reviewed journals.

According to earlier research by Wolf, the "the last and only 'water war' was 4,500 years ago" between the Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma. Whereas, approximately 300 treaties have been negotiated since 1814 which deal with non-navigational water issues. Cooperation is the norm and violence the exception.

However, he added a caveat: "while 'water wars' may be a myth, the connection between water and political stability certainly is not. The lack of a clean freshwater supply clearly does lead to instability which, in turn, can create an environment more conducive to political or even military conflict... Simply because water wars will not likely be fought is no reason to reduce efforts to provide an adequate clean water supply for the world's population."

And in another article co-authored by Wolf, the authors point out that the future may not look like the past: "tomorrow’s water disputes may look very different from today’s."

Muireann de Barra has produced a pilot for a documentary, "Divided Water", examining the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians created by water usage. It received funding from the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund.

Jeffrey Sachs, writing on the Guardian website on Sunday, recommends responding to the financial crisis with investments in water, transport and communications. "Water scarcity is hitting virtually every major economic centre, from North America to Europe, Africa, India, and China", he writes.


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