Water Wars" Unlikely,
The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin:
I'm here today with Ben Crow, professor and department chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He specializes in development and global inequalities. Ben has written extensively on water security, including international river management in South Asia and water access in Kenya's urban settlements. Ben, thank you for speaking with me today on the Global Observatory.
According to some experts, disputes over water are set to become the defining crisis of the 21st century, from the islands of the Asia-Pacific to the urban centers of Africa. In your view, will access to water be a dominant source of conflict in the decades to come?
Well, I think there are two different questions here. Frequently, people have talked about water wars over international rivers. I think that's unlikely for essentially three reasons. That virtual water, the trade in cereals which consume a lot of water, can take away the need for very large quantities of water—so food trade, food imports can prevent a lot of the battles over waters.
Secondly, increasingly, there are growing pressures towards what we've called multitrack diplomacy, meaning that different elements of civil society and business interact around issues over rivers. I think that broadening of the actors and the issues makes war unlikely. So, those are the two reasons why I think it's unlikely on international rivers.
The question of access to domestic water, particularly in big cities—it's not clear if that will lead to conflict. It's quite possible that the failure of governments to provide access to water and sanitation and more broadly, to the rights of city living, could be a cause of instability and lack of government legitimacy. I think it's hard to predict how far that will lead to conflict, but it's certainly a question of justice—that there are large injustices which are most easily seen through this absence of basic necessities like water and sanitation.
To go back to the international rivers issue—you've researched negotiations over the Himalayan rivers in South Asia, and countries in the region have been discussing cooperation for five decades, but today they face new pressures and uncertainty. Why are tensions over these rivers increasing?
Well, it's not clear yet that tensions are increasing. There are new players, particularly China, because China is beginning to develop the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which becomes the Brahmaputra as it moves from Tibet into India. Certainly, China is building some hydroelectric dams on this Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. That could improve the situation for flats and hydropower in parts of India and Bangladesh, but there is a longer-term uncertainty that significant groups within the Chinese governments have been interested in the diversion of water. That could be a cause of conflict, particularly with India and Bangladesh—and there are a lot of uncertainties over the border there where China claims part of the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh.
But, there are a couple of other things that are happening that I think are particularly interesting. Climate change is certainly melting glaciers in the Himalayas. They are major source of water, so the seasonal distribution of water is changing, and possibly the amount of water that's available. It's not really clear how that's going to change, but there's a chance that it will cause a reduction in the dry season flows, which are what are crucial for irrigation. So, climate change will have a number of consequences, and it's not clear that the adaptation responses have emerged very well.
by andrea ó súilleabháin August 26, 2013