Hydropolitics, community awareness and drought

By Victoria Tuwilika Shifidi

Hydropolitics, community awareness and drought

Water has generally been taken for granted in areas of surplus. However, in certain parts of the world experiencing extreme deficits, water scarcity continues to be a source of conflict.

Only about three percent of world’s water is fresh and roughly two percent of that is locked up in the ground or ice. The remaining one percent or so does not seem to be enough for all seven billion of us.

Major lakes continue to shrink due to desertification, streams are silting due to inappropriate land management practices, rivers are increasingly becoming polluted, and water tables fall as a result of mismanagement.
With the global population forecast to increase to nine billion by 2050, water scarcity will only worsen and people are increasingly becoming more aggressive in protecting their water rights.



Often we think of water as a local resource to meet local demand, without necessarily linking its mismanagement to international trade. The increase in trade between countries directly means that even more water is needed to increase production.

Now more than ever, corporate water footprint needs to reduce, and ‘virtual water’ leaving and entering the country should be properly quantified and an economic value put to it. The cost of water should also be appropriately factored into the price the consumer at the receiving end pays.

Exporting water-intensive commodities subsequently exports water out of the country (virtually), increasing demand and thus worsening scarcity.

Water scarcity is becoming increasingly critical in the geopolitical scene. To date, the World Trade Organisation has recorded thousands of cases pertaining to international water-related conflicts. Many states have gone as far as advancing nuclear threats on each other over shared water.

When sharing a resource, peace prevails for as long as the resource is in abundance. Trans-boundary agreements and treaties to ensure equitable and sustainable use of water resources are in place. Countries upstream, however, continue to apply the widely rejected ‘Harmon Doctrine’ that a country has “absolute territorial sovereignty” over the water that flows through its territory without duty to consult.

Zambia, for instance, could only sign the ZAMCOM agreement years later, as it feared signing would interfere with its irrigation and hydroelectricity projects to meet the demand for its people.

Even with very good agreements in place, countries upstream seem to be at an advantage when it comes to the control of shared water sources, often easily utilised to manipulate those at the receiving end.

Take an example of the Jordan River, which runs across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, on which Israel has restricted Palestine’s access to the river as part of their ongoing conflict. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the impacts of water scarcity are fuelling dangerous tensions.

Early 1990s saw armed clashes erupting between Nigeria and Cameroon over the use of Lake Chad, the largest fresh water source of the Sahel, which has reduced by more than ninety percent. Malawi and Tanzania have both been claiming ownership of Lake Malawi.

Recently, we are seeing how the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, regarded one of the most effective trans-boundary cooperation agreements in the history of water diplomacy, is being tested. Even though some conflict between countries is not necessarily a result of water scarcity, one can observe how those who control water, can use it to their political advantage and leveraging.

Globally, there is a noticeable shift towards exploring aquifers for local supply. This may have its own implications with regards to lowering the water table, subsequently causing land subsidence, seawater intrusion, crop failure, and accelerated desertification.

Perhaps high premiums should be placed on industries making use of underground water. On the other hand, in certain places such as Israel, desalinated water has been linked to increasing cases of heart attacks, but measures to counter such effects have also been investigated.

Community awareness should thus take centre-stage in addressing water scarcity. Generally, users do not seem to see the reason to use water wisely without assurance that others are doing the same (tragedy of the commons), just as water officials could be more pro-active.

Water scarcity should not be seen as a single entity’s problem to address. It is not a mere drought issue; it is a safety issue, a national security concern and a great economic good. All citizens should therefore work together to preserve this precious resource.

Hence, before over-extracting water from the ground simply because you can, or discharging effluent into the river or canal – even when no one is watching –, or irrigating your garden and filling your pools, and before vandalising water infrastructure, think not of water saving as a mere conservation strategy for your personal convenience, but also as a precious commodity that may in the longer run determine whether you will be able to irrigate, trade, remain employed, or have bread on your table, even when you are able to afford it.

Somebody once said that “only when all rivers run dry, when all fish are poisoned, and all trees cut down, will man eventually realise that he cannot eat money”.
* Victoria Tuwilika Shifidi is a government hydrologist. The views expressed herein are her own.

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