21st Century: Wars Over Water

Water is an essential element for sustaining all life forms and ecosystems on earth. There is no substitute for water. It is also a vital resource for national survival, from a nation’s economy to the biology of it’s inhabitants.

According to the UN Water for Life 2005-2025 during the 20th century, global water use increased six fold, more than twice the rate of population increase. (1) It is estimated that by 2025, factors such as population increase, environmental degradation, urbanisation, climate change and pollution will lead to approximately 2/3 of the world’s population (5.5 billion people) living in areas suffering moderate to severe water stress. As populations grow and city populations explode, their demand for water escalates as more water is required for energy production, sanitation, industrial, agricultural and individual use to support increasing standards of living.

Water not only ignores the boundaries we set for ourselves, politically and socially, there are multiple and conflicting demands for its use. Globally, there are many scenarios where there are disputes over water sharing, including the current situation between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Millenium Dam project on the Nile (2), ongoing tensions between India and Bangladesh over the Farakka Barage (3) on the Ganges and closer to home, continued discord over water sharing on the Murray Darling River System.

Ismael Serageldin (former VP for sustainable Development at the World Bank) warned, in 1995 the “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water” (4), that is of course, unless we change the way we manage water. It seems so simple, just manage water better and there will be no cause for conflict. Understanding the factors involved in water management will be an important step in avoiding conflict, but as in all conflict resolution, what will be just as important, is managing the people and their relationships.

I live in the Southern Highlands, a beautiful part of the world, about 100km south west of Sydney. During the last big drought to hit eastern Australia, which lasted nearly 7 years, our district found itself in the midst of a water war, which was ultimately resolved because it rained, not because those involved reached a fair and equitable solution. The Southern Highlands doesn’t have a Nile or a Ganges flowing through it, but it does have a rather large underground water source, we now call the “Kangaloon Aquifer” . It was a dispute over this groundwater that led to our own local water war, maybe without the complexity of transnational boundaries and the possibility of armed conflict (locals may jokingly dispute that!), but with many of the same issues that surface when we have to share naturally occurring resources, of which water is the most essential.

Who owns water? How we reconcile our feelings of our right to water, and our responsibility to the environment and others who also share a strong claim for that same water? How can we prioritise its use and ensure its fair distribution amongst many different people who will use it in different ways, often in ways we don’t approve? Water sharing is a surprisingly complex issue, perhaps it is because without it, there is no life, and this underlying fact colours how we are prepared to fight for it. The complex nature of how we share water is ideal for interdisciplinary study, as so often disputes arise as those involved see it through an often narrow but tightly clung to perspective.

This very limited interdisciplinary study of the Kangaloon Water War is viewed entirely from a historical perspective. It explores just four ways we can view the events that transpired in this dispute to see if we can gain insights that might lead to a better outcome when next this issue arises, as it inevitably will.

Some concluding thoughts:

A holistic understanding of nature and our place within the natural world is what is required to solve complex water sharing issues. I believe we no longer have the luxury, nor did we ever, to use water in ways that deprive others, people included, of water or any other essential life sustaining “resource”. Water management is no longer an issue of responding to shortages or excesses of water. Perhaps it is not even about making sure nobody is offended in the process of trying to work out how we prioritise water distribution. It is about managing a crisis of epic proportions far greater than that of sharing water. It is about society’s response to a critical moment in time, where we are edging many of the planet’s ecosystems towards collapse, and two opposing mindsets are competing to take us down either of two paths. One is the path of sustainability where we can live within our ecological means, and in time, restore balance and harmony to the world of which we are a part. The other is a path of ignorance and wanton destruction, from which the planet will recover, but humanity may not.

Our government is a reflection of the values of our society. A very brief look at the way in which government devises and implements plans shows a great chasm between the ideologies of sustainability, acting on precautionary principle and in the long term interest of communities and the environment, and the actions which reflect a collusion with diametrically opposing principles.

Until we as a society take an interest in how government sets guidelines for the approach to management of our resources, and sets the agenda for how we want to conduct our existence on the planet, then things will stay as they are. Those with short term, vested interests will take what they can with few or no ethical restraints to preserve the environment of which we and future generations are a part. Government websites say all the right things, there are clearly some great minds at work, but until we act on these principles things won’t change, and confrontation and conflict will continue and escalate until we reach consensus about how we need to live.

History shows us not only where we have failed, but also where we have succeeded. We are beginning to value our environment, but we can learn from past ways how to reconnect with the land and develop self sufficiency and a sustainable approach, even in the 21st century context. We can also learn to value traditions that work and rethink those which don’t while understanding some of the beliefs that guide our actions.
We can use our deeper instincts and emotions in many ways. Developing understandings of how we view our place in the world on many levels can help us develop empathy and insight so we can move towards a new paradigm that requires us to shift our values and live a life that positively contributes to a healthy planet and society, rather than contributing to our own demise.

Once we do these things, we probably won’t have to fight about water so much.

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