Water Wars

A human being can live without food for up to a month, but a few days without water spells certain doom for an individual. The same goes for nations. Without secure, clean, safe supplies of freshwater, entire nations can die off. As populations explode the world over, demand grows for an ever-scarce commodity. There are vast reservoirs of freshwater around the world, but they are not where they are most desperately needed. The glaciers of Greenland and Canada are of little respite to the people of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Instead, these nations increasingly turn to damming rivers to create aqueducts and reservoirs. However, as with most natural things, rivers have no respect for the lines mankind has organized itself by. Rivers flow without a care for borders, cities, regions or ethnicities. So, when a nation dams a river, it often has cataclysmic effects for the thousands, if not millions, of souls living downstream.

The Mekong River is a prime example. Originating from the same area in China as the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, it meanders through the Southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The river forms the backbone of these countries’ economies, transportation, agriculture sector and is teeming with unparalleled biological diversity. The Mekong Delta, most of which is in Vietnam, covers hundreds of square miles and is one of the most important regions in Southeast Asia for trade, food production and continued scientific studies. Millions depend on the continued flow of this river.

However, China has announced a controversial mega-project on the northernmost parts of the Mekong, one that will see a series of dams built across the ancient river in an attempt to generate power and revenue for the state. China has already completed four dams, the first of which was built in the early 1990s. Since embarking on the project, those living downstream of the construction have already seen an incredible change in the temperament and nature of the river. Flash floods have become more common, as have cataclysmic droughts. In a region with some 60 million people depending on the Mekong, these changes have troubling consequences.

The Mekong is only the latest example of this sort of problem. Rivers, especially those crossing arid regions or in developing countries, have long been a source of tension between states. The efforts made by Turkey to create a chain of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had tremendous consequences in Syria and Iraq, almost all of which were decidedly negative. The Jordan River basin, already located in one of the tensest parts of the world, has also been the site of numerous allegations of mismanagement. Only a few feet wide at points, millions of people depend on the tenuous source of water in an area undergoing continued desertification and explosive population growth. Both the Jordanians and the Israelis have built massive irrigation projects that draw on the fragile river, and water rights were a crucial part of the peace treaty signed between the two states in 1994. Often overlooked, rights to the Jordan’s water has been one of the more complicated aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

These pale in comparison to the single-greatest mismanagement of freshwater ever. The Aral Sea, once a veritable oasis in the arid steps of Central Asia, has all but disappeared. In its stead, it has left a dry lakebed, peppered with the rotting hulks of Soviet-era fishing vessels, coated with a toxic dust and surrounded by scores of abandoned villages. These points of human civilization, once vibrant communities that were wholly reliant on the Sea for their economic well-being, had no choice but to give up as they impotently watched the shores of the Aral Sea recede over the years to never return. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there have been efforts to rehabilitate the disastrous loss of the Aral Sea, but to no avail.

Of course, we need look no further than our own country to see the far-reaching effects dams have on transnational rivers. The Colorado River no longer reaches its delta in the Gulf of California, and the sea has instead risen into the delta in the river’s stead. In southern Louisiana, where loss of wetland is progressing at an alarming rate, some scientists believe that the damming and controlled flow of the Mississippi has denied the fragile delta the perennial silts the region needs to keep its head above water.

In a world with an ever-rising population, with increasing demands for resources that are simply not there, freshwater supplies are becoming evermore tenuous. Simply put, there is not enough water for the souls who need it. As with any resource, an increasing international demand for an incredibly limited resource does not bode well for a stable international order. Until either the human population begins to level off, or massive reservoirs of freshwater are discovered somewhere, predicting a dire future is not pessimism. Rather, it is simply the sober assessment of the way things are, and possibly the most optimistic outlook of all.

About Daniel Green, Contributor

Daniel Green is a contributor to Media Rostra and Managing Editor of Arkansas:Abroad (http://www.arkansasabroad.org/). He received a BA in History from the University of Central Arkansas and is currently pursuing a MA in International Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He spends way too much time working in a variety of organizations in Denver, giving him that salt-and-pepper look his girlfriend loves. He will be spending his summer working at NATO.


  1. I think the answer to this water shortage issue is desalination of ocean water. They say it’s 5 times more expensive to “harvest” but that’s about the only knock against it. The reaction is not complicated. It’s chem 101. It’s actually less than chem 101- on a recent episode of Man vs. Wild I saw Bear Grylls desalinate ocean water using a tin can and some banana leaves. If they can figure out how to get the cost down a little bit, there won’t be a water shortage issue for a long, long time. The other plus about drinking ocean water is that maybe we can put an end to rising ocean levels. Kill two birds with one stone. Let’s drink California to safety.

  2. Daniel GreenNo Gravatar says:

    Sadly enough, Mike, desalinating ocean water is not that easy. Not only is it expensive, but you have to place the plants in regions with access to reasonably clean water – something that is all the harder to find – and then somehow figure out how to get the water to the people who need it most. Bear Grylls is one person; there are literally hundreds of millions of people who do not have access to one of the most basic human needs. Sure, a state like Israel that has long coastline, very narrow width and the capital to do so can and will build desalinating plants. The infrastructure requirements are minimal, and almost everything can be done in-house, so to speak. However, what about people in Turkmenistan? Will a single desalinating plant in Pakistan with a meandering pipeline through Afghanistan and the Northwestern Frontier areas be enough to secure potable water for that nation? No. Should they turn to the Caspian Sea, a source of water that six nations draw from with increasing regularity and is prone to constant oil spills from aging Soviet infrastructure? They could, but the results don’t look any better. Unfortunately, that’s the sad state of affairs with freshwater – nothing good, just a lot of not-as-bad.

    You are, to an extent, right Mike. However, that comes with a qualifier. Desalinization is simply part of the equation, it can only do so much for so many. With issues like this, widespread as they are, there is no silver bullet. There never is; panaceas are the playthings of idealists. The sad, simple fact is that those states that can fix the problems will, those that cannot will suffer. It’s the Melian dialog all over again, only with water this time.