Will There Be Wars Over Water?

By Sergio Rodríguez Gelfenstein on April 17, 2021

The Tigris River in Iraq after the invasion of the US. Photo: Bill Hackwell

As reported by the Union de Trabajadores de la Tierra (Union of Workers of the Earth) of Argentina and quoted  by Resumen Latinoamericano, according to the 2010 national census in Argentina there were “5.3 million people who had no access to potable water in their homes, and about 1 million who had no access anywhere on their property.”  This means that about 13% of the inhabitants of Argentina have no possibility of a dependable water supply in their homes.

The same report indicates that the causes of this situation are found in Climate Change, the changes in the uses of the land and the increase in extractive technologies, all of which negatively influence the lives of citizens in general and of those workers who need water to carry out their work.  The inhabitants of rural areas have to pay eight times as much as those in urban areas, and, in many cases, also have to walk many hours to obtain the necessary water to fulfill the minimum necessities of life.

In Chile, recently Fuad Chahín has been denounced for having used his connections while in power in order to safeguard his family interests, promoting laws so that those allied with him may have privileged access to water, and violating the laws that he supposedly swore to defend.  Puad Chahín is the representative to the Constitutional Convention and president of the right-wing Christian Democratic Party – the party that was the main organizer of the coup d’etat against President Salvador Allende – and propagandist-promoter of the dictatorship in its first years as well as a principal beneficiary of the post-dictatorship period.  When he was a representative in parliament, Chahín voted on issues linked to his own interests and those of his in-group, especially when we consider that some of his close family members have enormous interests in the hydro-electric power generation of the region as well as being owners of huge amounts of water rights in the Curacutín community in the Araucania region in the southern part of Chile.

These are only two recent examples showing the gradually increasing conflict arising from the fact that it is impossible for major sectors of the population to get access to water.  Perhaps this is what led U.S. Vice-president Kamala Harris to declare in a threatening tone last February 7, “For years, wars have been fought over oil, but soon they will be fought over water,”

Although the reference was to a local problem in the U.S. where “inequality of access”  was recognized, it should be noted that the word “war” has a special significance when it is mentioned by the second-ranking person in the administration of the most powerful, aggressive, and warlike country in the world.

We must remember that fresh water represents only 2.5% of the 1.386 billion cubic kilometers of water reserves in the world, while 70% of this total is part of glaciers and polar icecaps, and at the same time that a significant quantity of the remainder is found in rivers that are not suitable for drinking water.

The people of all latitudes and longitudes of the planet know full well what happens when the United States has shortages of any resource in its own reserves, or when there are internal insufficiencies that do not permit guaranteed daily consumption.  A great deal is also known about the means and methods that the U.S. will utilize to obtain these resources.  If pressure, coercion, threats, sanctions, blockades, and assassination of leaders do not work, they will resort to war, as announced beforehand by Vice-president Harris.

Although it seems incredible that water shortages would be the cause of conflict and war, actually this is as old a story as society itself.  Michael Klare, in his book Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, reminds us that, in the Old Testament, it states that when the Israelites were unable to enter the fertile valleys of the River Jordan without expelling the inhabitants, God told them to enter and he would be in charge of driving out the native peoples who were the original population.  Later, he ordered Joshua, the successor of Moses, to cross the Jordan and exterminate the inhabitants of Jericho and other settlements of the region.

Innumerable wars linked to water have been recorded throughout history.  In recent years, a conflict of previously unsuspected dimensions has been becoming more acute among three of the countries – Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia – among the 11 countries that have borders on the banks of the Nile, the largest river in the world.

The Nile has two main sources: the White Nile, which contributes about 20% of its water, and the Blue Nile, which contributes 80% of that water.  The Blue Nile has its headwaters in Lake Tana in Ethiopia and flows north toward Sudan, and then toward Egypt, flowing then into the Mediterranean Sea.

In 2011, Ethiopia began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the largest in Africa, without coming to any previous agreement with the other two countries that also depend on the river downstream.  However, in 2015, the three countries signed an agreement that committed Ethiopia to not interfere with the availability of water for Sudan and Egypt.  Recently, though, a number of disagreements have arisen among the parties, leading to increased tensions and threatening to scuttle the huge project.

The connection between Egypt and the Nile is historical and fundamental since the river played the principal role in building the great ancient civilization, and continues to be marked as an important part of the life of the country and of its diplomacy over the past century.  Since 1902, Egypt has been working out international agreements intended to strengthen its dominant position regarding the Nile, and this is not to the liking of either Ethiopia or Sudan.  In an article called “Water Wars: Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia” published in Rebelión and written by analytical specialist in the field German Romano, noted that Butros Butros-Ghali, the former Foreign Minister of Egypt stated the following in a BBC interview in 1985, in discussing the position of his country with regard to the Nile: “The next war in the Middle East will be fought about water, not politics.”   Subsequently, he modified his position upon becoming the Secretary General of the UN between 1991 and 1996, favoring cooperation as a means of obtaining the optimal utilization and benefit for all those involved with the great river.  Thus, Butros-Ghali anticipated the United States vice-president in his perception of the potential for conflict created by water shortages in the international system.

In this article mentioned above, Romano asserts that: “In the case of an armed conflict among these countries, the consequences will fall upon the populations who suffer the effects of governments that were not elected by the people.  In the same manner, access to water needed for irrigation and those engaged in agriculture is at risk without regard to borders.”

From this point of view, the military incursions of the Untied States and NATO in Libya and Iraq should not be understood as strictly linked only to the energy resources of these countries.  In the case of Libya, one of the largest water reservoirs of the African continent is located under its desert.  The interest in exploiting and distributing this water among broad sectors of the population was one of the farthest-reaching strategic works of the Muammar Gaddafi government, which achieved a green revolution in the sands of the Sahara, converting his country into a garden, enabling access to water and food for large sectors of the population, and achieving the highest Human Development Index of the continent.

In Iraq, the confluence of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates was the basis on of where build the brilliant Mesopotamian civilization that gave so many advances in science and technology to humanity.  This resource, in addition to the great reserves of petroleum and natural gas, constitutes the crux of the imperialist ambition motivating the 2003 invasion of the country.

So we see that the announcement of Vice-president Harris arrives a bit late.  Whether she knows it or not, her country has been responsible for cruel incursions in countries that own large supplies of water that the imperial tentacles have wanted to seize.  Latin America should take note of this new warlike threat.  Our region, which possesses the Guaraní aquifer within Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and the watersheds of the Amazon, the Rio Negro, and the Orinoco, where an important part of the fresh-water reserves of the planet are located, is a fundamental target of imperialist interest as a vital element for life on this planet.

Source: Mision Verdad, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English