Bridges crumble over the Jordan River. Israel, Jordan, and Syria have siphoned off huge amounts of water from the river to meet their needs, and pumped waste water back in.
Palestinian women in the Occupied Territories carry water long distances from wells to their homes. Access to water is a contributing factor in Palestine's conflict with Israel.
A young boy drags containers of water through a camp for displaced persons in Darfur. Years of drought preceded the current crisis.
Chinese workers clear rubbish and overgrowth algae from the Yangtze River. The Yangtze provides 35 percent of China's fresh water.
Working in partnership with Anhui Seminary, Global Ministries has dug 72 wells in the past five years in eastern Anhui Province, China.
“Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water.”
People often call Earth the big blue planet, with good reason. About 71 percent of the world is covered with water. Surely, that’s enough for everyone. Yet according to the United Nations, 20 percent of the world’s population today lacks access to safe drinking water. That lack of access contributes to the deaths of 15 million children every year.
How can it be that a planet with so much water sees such devastating thirst? Scientists point out that 97.5 percent of the total volume of water available on Earth is salty. Of the remaining 2.5 percent, two-thirds is locked in the polar ice caps as glaciers. That leaves just one-third of 2.5 percent for human consumption — large quantities of which are far beyond the reach of human settlements.
Ultimately, groundwater represents about 90 percent of the world’s readily available freshwater resources; some 1.5 billion people depend on groundwater for their drinking water. But in many places, groundwater is being polluted by agricultural and industrial runoff, and renewal rates for groundwater can be very slow.
Typically, the average renewal rate for rivers is about 18 days. That’s how long it takes to renew by rainfall every drop of water taken out. But for large lakes and deep aquifers, renewal rates can be a thousand years or more. For the world’s oldest reserves, like the Nubian aquifer in North Africa, no one is even sure how long it takes to replenish.
In the past, civilizations naturally clustered around water sources. Today, as the world’s population explodes, those sources are being stretched beyond their limits. And while those in North America have been largely shielded from the problem until recently (see article, p. 12), other parts of the world — especially the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa — have been feeling the effects for decades.
In 1985, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs and later secretary general of the United Nations, predicted global wars over water, the world’s population was just over 4.8 billion. Today, Earth is home to almost 6.7 billion people. In Egypt alone, the population grew from 50.4 million in 1986 to 80.3 million in 2007. Yet the amount of water flowing through the Nile River, the country’s main water source, has not increased since Moses was left in the bulrushes.
In 2003, Boutros-Ghali again predicted that explosive growth in Northern Africa would lead to water wars in that region. As countries with rain-dependent societies like Ethiopia and Sudan increasingly turn to irrigation, their downstream neighbor, Egypt, will receive less of the Nile’s life-giving benefits.
“They will all be vying for the same water, and the situation will be so dramatic that they will take to arms. Water may not be the apparent reason for the conflict, but it will certainly lie at its origins,” Boutros-Ghali told IslamOnline in a 2003 interview.
The Middle East
The Middle East has already seen armed conflict over water — most notably between Israel and its neighbors. In the 1960s, Israel, Syria, and Jordan began vying for greater shares of the water flowing through the Jordan River, the sole source of fresh water in the region. Those struggles culminated in the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel doubled its water resources by occupying the Golan Heights and south Mt. Herman, where the waters of the Jordan coalesce.
And many think Israel is unlikely to return the territories it won in 1967 because, as a 2001 study by auditing firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers noted, “Two-thirds of the water consumed in Israel comes from the occupied territories, while nearly half of the Israeli water installations are located in areas that were not part of its pre-1967 territory.”
Other parts of the Middle East are also struggling over water. As Turkey seeks to dam the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for power and irrigation, Syria and Iraq see their water supplies decrease. Iraq and Iran have long argued over the Shatt al-Arab waterway.
Countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have little to no fresh water and must rely on desalinization of sea water and on fossil ground water, which is being depleted faster than it can be restored.
According to UNESCO, about 70 percent of the Earth’s fresh water consumption in 2000 took place in Asia, where the world’s major irrigated lands are located. Indeed, agriculture water use accounts for about 75 percent of total global consumption, mainly through crop irrigation. In countries such as India, it is close to 90 percent.
Large parts of China already face water shortages — many caused by pollution. In 2006, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that the Yangtze River — which holds roughly 35 percent of China’s fresh water resources — was “cancerous with pollution due to untreated agriculture and industrial waste.” A 2007 China Daily article reported more than 600 kilometers of the river were in “critical condition,” and nearly 30 percent of its major tributaries were “seriously polluted.”
As a result, the annual harvest of aquatic products from the river dropped by more than three-quarters between the 1950s and 1990s, devastating local fishing communities.
The IUCN also reported that in the last decade rivers in northern China have run dry in their lower reaches for much of the year, leaving farmers without much-needed irrigation waters. The resulting farm failures have contributed to large numbers of poor, rural people immigrating to China’s already over-populated cities.
In India, the IUCN reported, falling ground water levels threaten 10 to 20 percent of the country’s agricultural production. Those dropping levels are alarming to India’s neighbors, as well. Should India divert water from the Ganges River, farmers in Bangladesh will suffer. To the west, India and Pakistan continue to dispute water rights from the Indus.
In central Asia, Pricewaterhouse Coopers noted “high risks of conflict” between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan over water from the Amu Daria and Syr Daria rivers and the “already depleted” Aral Sea.
Africa faces water shortages on two fronts. Northern Africa, like the Middle East, simply does not receive enough rainfall or have enough fresh water sources to support its population. Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is a victim of economic water scarcity — the region has enough naturally available water, but does not have the infrastructure and institutions to make use of it. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 36 percent of the population can access hygienic sanitation.
Many places in Africa have already experienced violence over water. The situation in Darfur is the most obvious.
The area, which lies in the "borderlands" between the Sahara and the green lands to the south, used to receive adequate rainwater to accommodate both its African farmers and its Arab nomadic herders. But when years of drought began shrinking water availability — UN statistics show that rainfall declined some 40 percent over the past two decades — farmers fenced their land to prevent overgrazing. The results were devastating, as the Sudanese government began arming the janjaweed militias, who in turn began terrorizing farming communities throughout the region in what many now call the first genocide of the twenty-first century.
“It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a Washington Post opinion column in June 2007. “For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all,” he declared.
But Darfur is only the most publicized of many water wars brewing in Africa. According to the Agence France Presse (2001), Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have struggled continuously over water from the Chobe, a tributary of the Zambesi River. And in the late 1980s, Mauritania and Senegal fought two limited wars over control of the Senegal River. Before the wars had ended, five other countries in the region had become directly or indirectly involved.
“The Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change,” Ban wrote in 2007, raising the question now on many people’s minds: How will global warming affect areas already struggling with water shortages?
No one knows for sure. But some scientists predict global warming will exacerbate water shortages in countries already desperate for water. This will lead, in turn, to increased poverty, migration, and desperation. This combination, warn some, could lead to even more violence, leading to this prediction by U.S. Navy Admiral T. Joseph Lopez: “Climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.”
Lopez made that statement in a 2007 report by the Military Advisory Board of the CNA Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank. He echoes fears voiced by many around the world. Unless governments begin working now to ameliorate the effects of global warming, many parts of the world — Africa, the Middle East, Asia, even Eastern Europe and the Western U.S. — will face increasingly desperate conditions in the near future.
The coming crisis
If we want to avoid global water wars in the future, we can no longer take water for granted. We need to be informed about how communities, countries, and continents use water, and what’s at stake in sharing — and not sharing — resources. We must become involved in conservation efforts locally and globally, and work to minimize our environmental footprint on this planet.
Unlike oil, water is our most basic human need. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a common motif in the Bible. Moses brings water from a rock. John baptizes with water. In John 4:14, Jesus says, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” God gave the world this most precious of gifts. It’s up to God’s children to preserve that gift for ourselves, and for future generations.