Foreign Policy In Focus reprints an excerpt from Chapter 5 in Maude Barlow's latest book, Blue Covenant The Global water crisis and the coming battle for the right to water:

“The three water crises – dwindling freshwater supplies, inequitable access to water and the corporate control of water – pose the greatest threat of our time to the planet and to our survival. Together with impending climate change from fossil fuel emissions, the water crises impose some life-or-death decisions on us all. Unless we collectively change our behaviour, we are heading toward a world of deepening conflict and potential wars over the dwindling supplies of freshwater – between nations, between rich and poor, between the public and the private interest, between rural and urban populations, and between the competing needs of the natural world and industrialized humans.”

At the moment, 215 major rivers and 300 groundwater basins and aquifers are shared by two or more countries, creating tensions over ownership and use of the precious waters they contain. Coming across this link I was immediately reminded by Fred Pearce’s piece in last November’s New Statesman

Pearce observes that in the last three decades, the global population has doubled and water consumption has increased threefold. - “largely because, tonne-for-tonne, modern ‘high-yielding’ crop varieties often need more water than the old crops” - sparking a real danger that quarrels over the most necessary of resources could erupt into violence.

Says Pearce: “A typical Westerner consumes, directly and through thirsty products like food, about a hundred times their own weight in water every day. That is why some of the great rivers of the world, such as the Nile, Indus, Yellow River and Colorado, no longer reach the sea in any appreciable volume. All their water is taken”

“Many parts of the world, notably the Middle East, are running out of water to feed themselves. In response, a vast global trade is emerging. Not in water itself, but in thirsty crops like grains and sugar and cotton. Effectively the UK imports 45 cubic kilometres of water every year embodied in such crops – much of it from poor and arid lands.

“Economists call this the ‘virtual water trade’. Many countries would starve without it. But as more and more countries run short of water, the trade will be disrupted. And the threat of wars over water will grow."

Focusing on the crisis in the Middle East, Pearce notes: Israel’s relations with its other neighbours are poisoned by its insistence on controlling the watershed of the River Jordan, its main source of water. The 1967 Six Day War was, according to former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s memoirs, fought as much for control of the River Jordan as for land. Israel hangs onto the Golan Heights less for military reasons than because it is where the river rises.”

A cursory reading of the broadsheets uncovers a constant “constant drip-drip of stories about water riots in Pakistan, Mexico, India, China, Indonesia and elsewhere. The world is awash too with disputes over international rivers that threaten to become full-blown wars as water shortages grow”.

Many a current water-fuelled dispute is the legacy of colonial rule argues Pearce: “The 1947 partitioning of India split control of the River Indus. Now India and Pakistan are at odds over a new Indian hydroelectric plant that, Pakistan claims, threatens its British-built irrigation schemes, which supply most of the country’s food. India’s control over the Ganges causes both floods and droughts in downstream Bangladesh.

“In Africa, Britain left behind a Nile treaty that gives all the waters of a river that flows through ten countries to the two most downstream: Egypt and Sudan. Egypt now threatens to wage war on anyone upstream -- such as Ethiopia - who takes so much as a pint pot of water from the river.”

Meanwhile, ongoing quarrels concern Chinese dams being built on the Mekong in Southeast Asia, and complex conflicts in central Asia, where upstream hydroelectric dams that keep the people of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan warm in winter disrupt water supplies for the huge cotton plantations of downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Elsewhere the Iraqi and Syrian government are set to contest Turkish dams upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates and which threatens the water supply to millions

In a section of her book, Maude Barlow focuses on the how the water problem is becoming a major issue for US foreign policy planners, and which is worth quoting at length:

“Water has recently (and suddenly) become a key strategic security and foreign policy priority for the United States. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9-11, protection of U.S. waterways and drinking water supplies from terrorist attack became vitally important to the White House. When Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, it gave the department responsibility for securing the nation’s water infrastructure and allocated US$548 million in appropriations for security of water infrastructure facilities, funding that was increased in subsequent years. The Environmental Protection Agency created a National Homeland Security Research Center to develop the scientific foundations and tools to be used in the event of an attack on the nation’s water systems, and a Water Security Division was established to train water utility personnel on security issues. It also created a Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center for dissemination of alerts about potential threats to drinking water and, with the American Water Works Association, a rapid e-mail notification system for professionals called the Water Security Channel. Ever true to market economy ideology, the Department of Homeland Security’s mandate includes promoting public-private partnerships in protecting the nation’s water security.

“…Water is becoming as important a strategic issue as energy in Washington. In an August 2004 briefing note for the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a think tank that focuses on the link between energy and security, Dr. Allan R. Hoffman, a senior analyst for the U.S. Department of Energy, declared that the energy security of the United States actually depends on the state of its water resources and warns of a growing water-security crisis worldwide. “Just as energy security became a national priority in the period following the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973–74, water security is destined to become a national and global priority in the decades ahead,” says Hoffman. He notes that central to addressing water security issues is finding the energy to extract water from underground aquifers, transport water through pipelines and canals, manage and treat water for reuse and desalinate brackish and sea water – all technologies now being promoted by U.S. government partnerships with American companies. He also points out that the U.S. energy interests in the Middle East could be threatened by water conflicts in the region: “Water conflicts add to the instability of a region on which the U.S. depends heavily for oil.

“Continuation or inflammation of these conflicts could subject U.S. energy supplies to blackmail again, as occurred in the 1970s.” Water shortages and global warning pose a “serious threat” to America’s national security, top retired military leaders told the president in an April 2007 report published by the national security think tank CNA Corporation. Six retired admirals and five retired generals warned of a future of rampant water wars into which the United States will be dragged. Erik Peterson, director of the Global Strategy Institute of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington that calls itself a “strategic planning partner for the government,” says that the United States must make water a top priority in foreign policy. “There is a very, very critical dimension to all these global water problems here at home,” he told Voice of America News. “The first is that it’s in our national interest to see stability and security and economic development in key areas of the world, and water is a big factor with that whole set of challenges.” His centre has joined forces with ITT Industries, the giant water technology company; Proctor & Gamble, which has created a home water purifier called PUR and is working with the UN in a joint public-private venture in developing countries; Coca-Cola; and Sandia National Laboratories to launch a joint-research institute called Global Water Futures (GWF). Sandia, whose motto is “securing a peaceful and free world through technology” and that works to “maintain U.S. military and nuclear superiority,” is contracted out to weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin by the U.S. government, to operate, thus linking water security to military security in a direct way.

“The mandate of Global Water Futures is twofold: to affect U.S. strategy and policy regarding the global water crisis and to develop the technology necessary to advance the solution. In a September 2005 report, Global Water Futures warned that the global water crisis is driving the world toward “a tipping point in human history,” and elaborated on the need for the United States to start taking water security more seriously: “In light of the global trends in water, it is clear that water quality and water management will affect almost every major U.S. strategic priority in every key region of the world. Addressing the world’s water needs will go well beyond humanitarian and economic development interests. . . . Policies focused on water in regions across the planet must be regarded as a critical element in U.S. national security strategy. Such policies should be part of a broader, comprehensive, and integrated U.S. strategy toward the global water challenges.”

“Innovations in policy and technology must be tightly linked, says the report, no doubt music to the ears of the corporations that sponsored it. GWF calls for closer innovation and cooperation between governments and the private sector and “redoubled” efforts to mobilize public-private partnerships in the development of technological solutions. And, in language that will be familiar to critics of the Bush administration who argue that the United States is not in Iraq to promote democracy, but rather to secure oil resources and make huge profits for American companies in the “rebuilding” effort, the report links upholding American values of democracy with the profit to be gained in the process: “Water issues are critical to U.S. national security and integral to upholding American values of humanitarianism and democratic development. Moreover, engagement with international water issues guarantees business opportunity for the U.S. private sector, which is well positioned to contribute to development and reap economic reward.” Listed among the U.S. government agencies engaged in water issues in the report is the Department of Commerce, which facilitates U.S. water businesses and market research, and improves U.S. competitiveness in the international water market.

The latter paragraph says much. There’s profits to be had! And note Coca-Cola’s ominous and timely entrance. What is of key importance to the main players here is less that clean and fresh water is available to humanity – they don’t give a fuck for human life, evidenced by US foreign policy since 1945 to say the least – but the amount of bloody profit the trade in water can generate. If they could not make a cent, they’d show no interest at all and sod the millions dying of thirst. If they’re thirsty they can always buy coca-cola.

In an age when we have the scientific and technological know how to enable us to solve almost all our problems, it is indeed an indictment on capitalism that so many humans, living on a planet, seven eighths of which is covered in water, have so little access to it; more, that a tiny minority wish to profit by controlling our access to it.

A sane, moneyless society, in which the artificial constraints of profit have been removed from production, in which the satisfying of human need is paramount, in which people have free access to the benefits of civilisation, humanity would address water shortages with the building of more reservoirs, water channels, water desalination plants, making obsolete all current processes that waste water.

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