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Water Wars: Myths and Realities (Part II)

How are conflicts arising from water scarcity in fact class wars?

August 16, 2007

How are conflicts arising from water scarcity in fact class wars?

Because both human populations and freshwater are unevenly distributed around the world, some locales are likely to be affected by serious water scarcity problems long before global withdrawals reach the level of global sustainable supplies. If this is the case, shouldn't we be seeing water wars already?

According to Aaron Wolf of the University of Oregon, a prominent geographer who has conducted extensive studies of conflict and cooperation in shared river basins, history provides very few examples of "water wars" in the sense of armed conflict between states over water resources.

In fact, Wolf found only one unambiguous example — and that was between two city-states in the Tigris-Euphrates valley 4,500 years ago. In fact, when two countries share water resources, this may lead to increased cooperation — rather than increased conflict.

Another reason for the lack of water wars has to do with the fact that domestic or household use accounts for only about 10% of total water consumption. The rest is used to produce other things, predominantly agricultural goods.

So rather than importing large volumes of water (much less fighting wars over it), water shortages may more often be managed by diverting water to households, reducing the amount provided for things like irrigation, and then importing water-intensive goods rather than producing them locally.

According to Wolf, even if there are very few water wars between countries, "there is a history of water-related violence — it is a history of incidents at the sub-national level, generally between ethnic, religious or tribal groups, water-use sector, or states/provinces."

California's "water wars" of the early 20th century (an episode brilliantly fictionalized in Roman Polanski's 1974 film noir Chinatown) provide an example of this sort of low-intensity, sub-national conflict.

Who decides how water scarcity is to be managed? In Southern California, small farmers were squeezed out by urban development interests, playing on popular fears of water scarcity that were partly grounded in ecological realities — but also partly invented.

A shift in how a country's water supply is divided among water users — with less for farmers (whose products can be replaced with imported goods), and more for urban residents — is necessarily a political process, with winners and losers.

Small farmers, with little political or economic clout, are frequently among the losers, and as a result often eventually have no choice but to migrate to cities. Southern California's history a century ago is being replayed all over the world today, as small farmers are unable to compete in food markets that have been opened up to global competition.

As agriculture is increasingly globalized and industrialized, we are becoming an increasingly urban species. The global human population just passed the 50% urban mark. Virtually all of the projected growth in the world's population — another three billion or so people before the population levels off later this century — will occur in the cities of the Global South.

Unlike in the past, this contemporary phase of urbanization is largely occurring without economic growth, and largely in places where governments have the least capacity to manage human migration and urban development.

The result has been an astonishing proliferation of slums in cities throughout the Global South. And it is in these dense concentrations of urban poverty that we find many of the people who struggle daily to get enough water.

The technology to deliver clean water to densely concentrated populations is not new. And with a few exceptions, most cities have adequate water supplies relatively close at hand. The real challenge is neither technological nor ecological, but political and economic.

To put it another way, a lack of access to adequate clean water supplies has very little to do with water scarcity caused by drought or overuse, and has much more to do with a lack of investment in the basic infrastructure required to treat and deliver water to people.

In the developed world, governments from the 19th century onward spent large amounts of money building urban water infrastructure, solving public health problems and providing citizens with a tangible benefit of citizenship. For a variety of reasons, the networks of pipes and taps that most in the developed world can now take for granted have not materialized for new urban populations.

First, there are real engineering challenges: the scale and pace of contemporary urbanization is much greater than in the past. And many slums are growing in places vulnerable to catastrophic change: floodplains or steep hillsides.

Second, because urbanization today is in many places occurring without economic growth, governments in the Global South often lack the resources to undertake such large infrastructure projects and are dependent on global markets for financing. But the global political climate today is much less friendly to large state-driven projects.

The privatization of water systems has often been a condition for receiving development loans from the World Bank and other international lenders. But the private sector has not really stepped in to fill the gap.

Around the turn of the millennium, water was seen as a hot investment opportunity, and large water companies grew rapidly (an expansion partly driven by overheated rhetoric about a coming era of water scarcity). But private sector investment in the water sector, in the Global South in particular, has cooled considerably in recent years.

Simply put, it has proven difficult to get a significantly high return on investment delivering a basic good such as water to the poorest segments of the population.

The result of this retreat of the private sector as well as the state has been patchwork supply networks, often with only the wealthiest neighborhoods receiving piped water into homes (and frequently at subsidized rates).

Elsewhere, water delivery networks may consist of private tanker trucks (often filled from public supplies in the wealthier neighborhoods), charging much higher prices, and forcing slum residents to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on water.

As it stands, the forces of economic globalization have acted like a giant set of pincers on the poor of the Global South. On the one hand, untold millions are migrating to cities, due — among other reasons — to the globalization of agricultural trade.

On the other hand, governments are being deprived of the capacity to make critical investments in the infrastructure necessary to sustain booming urban populations.

For some, water is effectively granted as a right, provided at low cost by the state. For many others — usually those who can least afford it — it is treated as a commodity that must be bought. Access to water is in fact much more closely tied to social class than to climate. In this sense, the conflicts arising from water scarcity are class wars.

The lack of clean water that is killing millions of children is a scarcity that is resolutely local — the level of the neighborhood and the household. But real solutions will have a global dimension.

Either we alleviate the poverty that forces people to choose between buying water and buying other necessities — or we make a global public investment in the infrastructure necessary to make the provision of water as a human right a reality.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.