Asia's Coming Water Wars

Posted in Asia | 25-Aug-06 | Author: Chietigj Bajpaee

A man refreshes himself in a canal in Sri Lanka's northeastern town of Kallar after the disputed Maavilaru sluice gates, which had been shut down by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, were re-opened.

While the world's attention is focused on record high oil prices, water, like oil, is increasingly emerging as a catalyst for international instability and conflict as the recent upsurge in violence in Sri Lanka illustrates. On July 20, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.) shut down the Maavilaru dam's sluice gate near the town of Kantalai in the northeastern Trincomalee district, which cut off water supplies for 60,000 people in government-controlled areas. This led the Sri Lankan military to commence an aerial bombardment of Tiger positions and a ground offensive to gain control of the reservoir's control point. The Tigers claim that their actions were sparked by the government's failure to build a water tower to supply L.T.T.E.-controlled areas and responded by going on the offensive in Mutur. With more than 500 people killed since fighting erupted over the disputed waterway, the 2002 ceasefire has now collapsed in all but name.

Water is increasingly emerging as a scarce commodity, fueled by population pressures, intensive irrigation, and erratic weather patterns brought on by global warming. According to the International Water Management Institute, by 2025 one-third of the world's population will lack access to water. Developing countries bear the brunt of water shortages given the lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation in these states, which has been exacerbated by rapid development, population pressures and significant urban-to-rural migration. Developing countries are also the most likely to face water-related conflict given the lack of cooperative management mechanisms between developing states on managing shared water resources.

Of the world's 263 international basins, three-fifths of them lack a feasible cooperative management framework. While water disputes alone are not likely to spark a conflict, they are likely to fuel already existent, long-standing tensions within and between states. Since 1948, close to 40 incidents of hostilities have taken place over water resources, most of which have taken place in the Middle East. In the Middle East, the Jordan River Basin and the Tigris-Euphrates Basin are the most likely regions of water-related conflict, while in Africa the Nile River, Volta River, Zambezi River, and the Niger Basin are conflict-prone zones.

In the 21st century, however, Asia may emerge as the new focal point of water-related conflict given the rapid growth of the region, which is likely to put pressure on water resources, coupled with the concentration of long-standing internal and inter-state tensions, which can act as a spark for turning water-related disputes into full-scale conflicts. Asia is home to 57 international basins, the third largest after Europe and Africa.

In Asia, three regions are the most likely candidates for water-related conflict: Central Asia, South Asia and the Mekong sub-region in Southeast Asia. Central Asia's water fault-lines include the division of the Caspian Sea between the five littoral states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) and a dispute over access to water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers between upstream states (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and downstream states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).

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The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].