WATER AND HUMAN SECURITY
Aaron T. Wolf, Ph.D. Department of Geosciences Oregon State University
Till taught by pain, men know not water's worth. Byron
As human populations and economies grow exponentially, the amount of freshwater in the world remains roughly the same as it has been throughout history. While the total quantity of water in the world is immense, the vast majority is either saltwater (97.5 percent) or locked up in ice caps (1.75 percent). The amount economically available for human use is only 0.007 percent of the total, or about 13,500 km3. This comes out to only about 2300 m3 per person – a 37 percent drop since 1970 (United Nations 1997). Adding complexity to this increasing scarcity is the fact that almost half the globe’s land surface lies within international watersheds (i.e., that land which contributes to the world's 261 transboundary waterways). The scarcity of water in an arid and semi-arid environment leads to intense political pressures, often referred to as “water stress.” Furthermore, water not only ignores political boundaries; it evades institutional classification and eludes legal generalizations.
The 1997 Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses Commission is vague and occasionally contradictory, and international agencies have historically been limited in coordination or strategy. While water quantity has been the major issue of this century, water quality has been neglected to the point of catastrophe.
The numbers are staggering:
• More than a billion people lack access to safe water supplies;
• Almost three billion do not have access to adequate sanitation;
• Five million people die each year from water-related diseases or inadequate sanitation;
• Twenty percent of the world's irrigated lands are saltladen to the point of affecting production. Water demands are increasing, groundwater levels are dropping, surface-water supplies are increasingly contaminated, and delivery and treatment infrastructures are aging.
The World Bank estimates that it would take $600 billion to repair and improve the world's existing water delivery systems (CAFRW 1997). When all of these characteristics are put together – water as a critical, non-substitutable resource, which flows and fluctuates across time and space, for which legal principles are vague and contradictory, and which is becoming relatively more scarce and degraded as world populations and standards of living grow – compelling arguments for considering the security implications of water resources management are found. This paper investigates both the global water crisis – too little clean freshwater for too many people, and global water conflict – the political tensions that result.
WATER AND INTERNATIONAL CONFLICT
An increasingly prevalent viewpoint about water and security is best summed up by Ismail Serageldin, vicepresident of the World Bank: “The wars of the next century will be about water” (quoted in the New York Times 10 August 1995). The view that water will lead to acute international conflict, one that is often tied to causal arguments of environmental security, unfortunately is gaining ground in both academic and popular literature. Some authors assume a natural link between water scarcity and acute conflict, suggesting that “competition for limited . . . freshwater . . . leads to severe political tensions and even to war” (Westing 1986). Others, often citing examples from the arid and hostile Middle East, assume that “history is replete with examples of violent conflict over water” (Butts 1997). Still others, combining this “natural” connection between water and conflict with assumed historic evidence, forecast: “The renewable resource most likely to stimulate interstate resource war is river water” (Homer-Dixon 1994). There are two major problems with the literature that describes water both as a historic and, by extrapolation, as a future cause of acute international conflict: 1. There is little historic evidence that water has ever been the cause of international warfare; and 2. War over water seems neither strategically rational, hydrographically effective, nor economically viable. 30
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Water and Human Security