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7 Jan, 2014 17:30

Waters wars: How aquatic scarcity sparks conflicts between states

As they say, ‘water is life’, with its shortage continuing to fuel conflicts around the world. Since the mid-20th century, the planet has seen nearly 180 disputes connected to water resources, and among the latest is the problem in Egypt.

For centuries, the protection of natural resources has been tied to wars and conflicts around the world. So it’s unsurprising that when Ethiopia, the source of around 85 percent of the Nile’s water, raised the possibility of building a high dam on the Blue Nile, some Egyptian experts suggested going to war with the country.

“If you cut water we’d be dying” political scientist at the American university in Cairo, Said Sadek, told RT. “We have to remember that Egypt has only 6-7 percent of arable land. The western Egyptian territory is a desert, so that can be a serious problem, affecting national security.”

By 2050 Egypt will contain 150 million people and the country will need an extra 21 billion cubic meters of water in addition to the current 55.5 billion, Sadek noted.

In June, Ethiopia's parliament ratified a treaty that grants permission to upstream countries to implement irrigation and hydropower projects without Egypt's approval. The agreement replaces a colonial-era treaty which granted Egypt and Sudan the majority of Nile River water rights.

‘Intl law has no answer to water disputes’

Journalist and commentator on the Middle East Adel Darwish told RT that in this case international law proves itself inadequate in defending the equal use of shared water.

“The international law is not clear about water and water usage. If it’s a river it’s a different law from whether it’s a lake or a sea. So when water crosses borders then you have reasons for conflicts because international law is not clear on what to do on water disputes.”

Nations should rationally share their common supplies and not politicize their disputes, he added.

A woman displaced by recent fighting in South Sudan waits to collect water at a makeshift camp in the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNAMIS) facility in Jabel, on the outskirts of capital Juba December 23, 2013. (Reuters/James Akena)

“Now between Egypt and Ethiopia a very dangerous situation is about to explode because the Egyptian, the Sudanese and the Ethiopians are playing a political game rather than trying to find an economic investment that is a win-win for everybody. Perhaps the Sudanese and the Egyptians should give the Ethiopians some type of subsidized crops, grains, give them even subsidized power so they would build a smaller dam rather than building a huge one. Politics seem to be blinding politicians to see the actual economic needs that could divert the conflict.”

Among other conflicts is the problem in Syria as its major water sources travel through Turkey and Iraq , making the country vulnerable, Darwish noted.

“You have the whole area of Syria, Iraq and Turkey that nearly came into conflict with each other in the late 1980s when the Turkish had the Southern Anatolia project, the Ataturk Dam. We don’t know what the outcome of the Syrian war is going to be. We might actually have some kind of a hostile regime to Turkey, so the Turks could use some kind of water weapon there.”

Growing population and industrial demands have tripled water withdrawals around the world over the last 50 years, UN figures show. As the world’s per capita water supply is expected to drop by one third in the next 20 years, the worst strain will be in Africa and the Middle East.

For more, watch the report by RT’s Paula Slier.