PARIS — In August 2015, rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime sabotaged a water source a few kilometers north of Damascus. For three days, the Syrian capital was deprived of 90% of its water supply. One month later, an attack carried out by the Saudi-led Sunni coalition in Yemen destroyed a bottled water factory in a zone controlled by Shia rebels.

In December 2015, an air strike launched by Russian warplanes in Syria destroyed the water treatment infrastructures to the north of Aleppo.

Never had the historical database of the Pacific Institute, which takes a census of conflicts and tensions around water, been so long. Peter H. Gleick, who in 1987 co-founded the think tank entirely dedicated to water issues, has noted a sharp increase of these types of attacks in the past ten years.

Some experts no longer hesitate to say that, in the 21st century, the "blue gold" (water) will replace the "black gold" (oil) regarding conflicts between states.

Since the dawn of mankind, no two countries have ever gone to war over water, apart from two city-states, Lagash and Umma, in lower Mesopotamia around 2,500 BC.

The future, however, could be very different.

Frédéric Lasserre, professor at the Laval University, in Quebec, and head of Observatory for International Research on Water (ORIE), confirms: "So few wars have broken out because of conflicts on water, their passed rarity is not a guarantee for the future in a world affected by climate change and where populations are rising at a rhythm never seen before."

The French National Center for Scientific Research said: "Having access to water has become a powerful economic issue on a global scale, that could become, in the century to come, one of the first causes of international tensions."

Global warming, runaway population growth, rising urbanization and industrialization — the mixture promises to be explosive. So much so that in 2015, the World Economic Forum in Davos, for the first time ever, put conflicts linked to water at the top of its list of future risks.

In December, the Moroccan government, which will host the COP22, has also chosen to put water at the center of the debate.

"I'm not surprised Morocco wants to address this topic. It's the first country that opens what I call the "thirst line", which goes from Tangiers to the farthest reaches of north-east China, and includes India, central Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa," says Franck Galland, the director general of ES2 and author of Grand Jeu: Chroniques géopolitiques de l'eau ("The Great Game: Geopolitical Chronicles on Water").

Last May, in a special report on global warming, the World Bank warned that "around 1.6 billion people — almost a quarter of the world's population — live in countries in which water is physically scarce. And within 20 years, this figure could double."

This climate change will first affect underground water reservoirs, either directly via rain, or indirectly via an increase in demand, particularly for irrigation, which now equals 70% of the underground water consumption, the multilateral institution adds.

Estimations suggest that in the next 30 years the global food system will require 40 to 50% more water. The demand for water from municipalities and industries will increase by 50 to 70%, and for energy purposes by 85%. In total, the planet could face a water shortage of about 2,700 billion cubic meters by 2030, with a demand 40% higher than supply.

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China — Photo: Le Grand Portage

In an article published in the French scientific magazine Sciences Humaines last March, René-Eric Dragorn, a historian and geographer, noted that with the economic development of China, India and Brazil, the demand for water is growing exponentially: Asia alone consumes 3,500 cubic kilometers per year (against 2,000 cubic kilometers for all the other regions of the planet).

A new dam on the river Nile

Insofar as 40% of the global population is established on the planet's 250 cross-border river basins, states have no choice but to cooperate. But "to this day, there are about 200 cooperation treaties that cover only 60 river basins," says Alexande Taithe, a research fellow at the French Foundation for Strategic Research.

Ethiopia's ongoing construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam and the location of water damning stations along the Blue Nile, has provoked tensions with Cairo.

Egypt waived a 1929 treaty attributing it two thirds of water resources as well as a right to veto on all projects concerning water. But in 2010, six states (Ethiopia, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda) located upriver, denounced this right to veto and signed a new agreement. According to local media, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had to call upon the arbitration of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resolve the issue.

The Southeast Asian powder keg

Southeast Asia is another region that could turn into a powder keg. China's hydraulic energy needs are as much a concern as the projects for water transfers from the south to the north of the country.

"Northeastern China holds only 15% of the country's water resources for 45% of its total population," says Galland. "Beijing's water stress, with less than 500 cubic meters of water per person/per year is already high. Hence the government's projects to pump water from the south to transport it to the north-east via major diversion canal projects."

"The first, in the east, is already in place: a large channel that draws its water from the Yangtze River and brings it to the Beijing region. The central diversion is about to be finished soon. The third, which has theoretically been abandoned, was the most concerning, especially for India, as it directly concerned rivers that begin their course in the Tibetan foothills of the Himalayas," he adds. It's no coincidence that China intends to keep a tight rein on the Tibet region, known as "Asia's water tower."

The Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Mekong rivers all begin there. Drawing or diverting these rivers can only increase tensions between China, India, Bangladesh, or even Pakistan. Concerns are all the more justified, says Jean-Christophe Victor in his new book, Le Dessous des cartes, as China has not ratified the United Nations convention on the use of international waterways for purposes other than navigation. Sharing the Brahmaputra waters seems to be one of the most serious triggers for a potential conflict.

Beijing had no hesitation in building several dams ahead of the Mekong, which flows south, despite the Delta's importance to Vietnam. The delta services 20 million people in Vietnam and contributes 25% of the country's GDP.

To guarantee a fair share of the river's waters, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam created a management committee, the Mekong Commission, in 1995. But China, once again, is not part of it.

The Nile River in Uganda — Photo: Rod Waddington

In 2012, the situation was considered so critical that U.S. intelligence drafted a special report on the river. In the report, Washington mulled the risks of being allied to such a potentially vulnerable Vietnam.

The numerous conflicts in the Middle East have made this part of the world another high-risk zone.

In 1974, Saudi Arabia's mediation only just prevented a confrontation between Syria and Iraq, when Damascus unilaterally started filling a dam on the Euphrates River. Turkey, which built many dams on the headwaters of the river, nearly came to blows with Syria in 1990 and in 1998 Syria had to defer to explicit threats from Ankara.

Torn apart by civil war, Syria is also in conflict with its Israeli neighbor for control of the Golan Heights, which was annexed by Israel in 1981. A part of Jordan's tributaries start there, and it is here that Israel draws 35% of its water supply.

Another hotspot is the Arabian Gulf, where tensions continue between Saudi Arabia's Sunnis and Iran's Shias. Riyadh is dependent on the water desalination plants located right across from Iran. An attack on these plants by Tehran would have disastrous consequences. Hence the ongoing construction by the Saudi regime of gigantic and strategic water tanks to provide for such contingencies.

Waste in "Arabia Felix"

For now, the opposition between Tehran and Riyadh is being played out on a completely different front: Yemen. Experts fear that the country, which is being devastated by war, could quite simply disappear from the world map.

"What was nicknamed 'Arabia Felix' has in the last 30 years been the victim of waste in public water management," said Galland. "To the extent that inhabitants have less that 200 cubic meters of water per year in terms of resources. In Sana'a, the available amount could fall to 40 square meters by 2030. The capital will probably have to be moved in the near future."

Jordan has, until now, been spared the threat of social instability seen in neighboring countries but that may change in the future.

To supply its capital Amman, which is home to most of the country's 6.5 million Jordanians, the government relies on a strategic plan that consists of drawing water at the Disi aquifer, which is mostly located in Saudi territory. To reach its destination, the water must travel more than 300 kilometers. In addition to the logistical challenges, Jordan faces possible terrorist attacks against its water pipeline. The country also has to deal with potential hostilities from Saudi Arabia, which could turn the water issue against the Hashemite kingdom.

As if global warming wasn't enough, the political shifts that led to the Arab Springs in Northern Africa have made things even more difficult in countries that are already water-stressed. Many engineers specialized in water management have fled the region making the situation critical in countries like Tunisia and Libya. With so much at stake, this certainly won't be the last time we hear about the "thirst line."


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