Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
Water wars: fact or ﬁction?
Department of Peace and Conﬂict Research, Uppsala University, Box 514, SE-751 20 Uppsala,
It is often said that future wars will be fought over water, not oil. These water wars are
predicted to take place over the sharing of international rivers. Recently, the world has wit-
nessed several inter-state river-sharing disputes, but almost all of them have not crossed the
critical threshold of becoming violent. Rather, most of these river disputes are being addressed
through bilateral riparian cooperative arrangements. These agreements are primarily coming
up on the rivers, which have potential for further water exploitation. However, to ﬁnd a lasting
solution and to strengthen the river sharing arrangements, this article argues for the water
issue to be addressed comprehensively in the basin, by taking into account both the demand as
well as the supply side of the scarce resource. 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Water scarcity and international rivers
Rivers are one of the most important sources of fresh water available for human
consumption. Many countries in arid and semi-arid regions of the world are already
facing serious problems in meeting the rapidly increasing water demands. In this
scarcity situation, river water has increasingly become a source of tension as users
are worried about the present or future availability of the water resource. Even though
such tensions are omnipresent they tend to become more complex and difﬁcult when
they concern international rivers.
According to a recently published World Bank technical paper  more than 245
river basins are shared by two or more countries. To ﬁnd an agreement over sharing
of these fresh water systems is a tricky one. The growing demand for fresh water
has recently induced a number of disputes among the riparian countries [2–8]. In
some of the river basins, there are existing agreements, which regulate water sharing
* Tel.: +46-18-4717653; fax: +46-18-695102.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (A. Swain).
0016-3287/01/$ - see front matter 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 0 16 - 3287(01)00018-0
770 A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
among the riparian states. However, some of these established arrangements have
come under serious pressure due to increasing demand for fresh water. The depen-
dence of many countries on external supply of water has forced them to orient their
national security concern in order to protect or preserve the availability.
Egypt is surviving on water sources, of which 97% originate from its own border.
This problem is also similarly acute for Hungary, Mauritania, Botswana, Uzbekistan,
Syria, Sudan and Gambia. The acute scarcity of water combined with regional insta-
bility may lead to the use of force by the conﬂicting riparian states over the sharing
of river water resources. Potential ‘water wars’in the Middle East are now regularly
mentioned in the media: Israel vs Jordan and Palestinians, Turkey vs Syria and Iraq,
or Egypt vs Sudan and Ethiopia . World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin,
emphasising the water crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, stated at a confer-
ence at Stockholm in 1995 that in the next century wars would be fought over water
and not oil.
This conﬂict scenario has brought the issue of water to the ‘high politics’. Poli-
ticians as well as media are of the opinion that the scarcity of water is replacing oil
as the source of conﬂict. Many have started seeing the greatest threats to the world’s
security in the coming century coming from ‘water wars.’. Fortunately these
‘water wars’are yet to be translated into reality. As Toset and Gleditsch accept the
possibility of armed conﬂict over water scarcity they nonetheless deny its inevita-
bility . In several cases, the competing riparian countries are moving towards
sharing agreements rather than armed conﬂicts.
In the face of mutual dependence on the same fresh water resource, the withdrawal
or pollution of one riparian state can potentially not only lead to conﬂict but also
bring cooperation in the basin. In this century, water scarcity has caused a few skir-
mishes, but no war has yet been fought. As Yoffe and Wolf point out, 145 water-
related treaties have been signed in this period . Water continues to help integrate
social and political groups. Treaties among the European countries over the Rhine
and Danube Rivers laid the foundation of the present European Union. Water in
general, and rivers in particular, have been seen as the source for nation and state
building in the past. Scarcity of water, need to control water, is an important input
in joint human construction. Dynamic cultures and great civilisations have grown
across river resources, many of which are now the potential hot spots. Thus, water
also brings people together [13–16].
In this century, many agreements have been drawn up in the industrialised world
to share the international river basins, but it has not been the same with the
developing countries. At present, there are more than three hundred treaties that
exclusively address the sharing and management issue of international rivers. Peter
Rogers ﬁnds two-thirds of the total treaties that are signed between countries on
water issues are in Europe and North America . Europe, for instance, has four
river basins shared by four or more countries, but these are regulated by 175 treaties,
while in Africa 12 river basins are shared by four or more nations with only 34
treaties. In Asia (includes Middle East), ﬁve river basins are shared by four or more
countries but they are regulated by only 31 treaties. Europe leads among other conti-
nents in establishing joint institutional mechanisms to facilitate sharing of inter-
771A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
national rivers. The 1978 UN Study Register of International Rivers lists 48 joint
river commissions in Europe, 23 in the Americas, 10 in Africa and 9 in Asia. Lack of
international agreement or institutional arrangement over shared fresh water systems
increases the potential for dispute.
Water availability is highly erratic in different regions of the world. Nearly 80%
of the total global runoff is concentrated in the North, which has a relatively small
population. In the tropical and arid areas, where most of the world population lives,
the water situation is complicated by massive population growth and rapid urbanis-
ation. Socio-economic development is linked to industrialisation and urbanisation,
which increases the water requirements and affects its quality. Uneven distribution,
seasonal availability and greater evaporation exacerbate the water scarcity further in
these regions. In countries like India, the rainfall takes place only for four months
(June to September) in the monsoon period. About 80% of rivers’annual run-off
passes through these four monsoon months. This rainfall also varies greatly from
the desert areas of Rajasthan to the hills of the North-East. Jaisalmer of Rajasthan
gets a paltry 0.2 meter annual rainfall while Cherapunji in Meghalaya gets not less
than 11 meters . In the arid and semi-arid regions, unlike temperate regions of
the North, the rainfall evaporation is too high. In Southern Africa, an average of
85% of annual rainfall is evaporated. The situation in the Middle East and North
Africa is much worse.
Moreover, the developing countries are primarily agricultural economies. To pro-
vide food to the growing population and also to achieve food security, these countries
use proportionately more water in the agricultural sector than in the industrial sector.
The need of water differs considerably from agricultural production to industrial
production. Much of the water withdrawn for industrial purposes returns to the natu-
ral water systems for the use of other consumers. But this is not the same for water
withdrawal to support the agricultural sector. If we take purely consumptive use of
water into account, then agriculture consumes 86.9%, while the share of the industry
is only 3.8% of the world’s water withdrawal. In the case of industry, the withdrawn
waters come back to their source after cooling the plant, so the cause of the concern
is not about the increasing volume of water withdrawn, but the discharge of heated
and polluted water back into the system. In the industrialised world, where the per
capita water availability is relatively abundant, the water supply is polluted by vari-
ous human activities. Thus in the developed countries, unlike their poorer counter-
parts, the water quality not the quantity is the major issue .
Disputes over international river water sharing usually come up among the riparian
states on three grounds: quantity, quality and control. The incompatibility on the last
two issues (quality and control) are relatively easier to address with some ﬁnancial
and technical support. The quality issue, which had been the cause of disagreement
among the riparian states in Europe’s Rhine and North America’s Colorado River
in the past, has resulted in peaceful and cooperative arrangement. The disagreement
over controlling Columbia River and Parana River in the water abundant Americas
has been settled for some time. The dispute between Hungary and Slovakia over the
control of the Danube has been settled recently by the International Court of Justice.
Water is not easily replaced, so the problem of its reduced quantity is more difﬁcult
772 A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
to address. The quantity factor in many cases threatens to destroy existing cooperat-
ive arrangements and forces the parties to take conﬂicting positions. The quantity
issue of river water has brought many riparian states into disputes in the arid regions
of Asia and Africa. The riparian disputes over international rivers—Zambezi,
Mekong, Nile, Jordan, Euphrates–Tigris, and Ganges—in these two continents are
primarily on quantity issue. However, these disputes have not yet led to water wars
as envisaged by the experts. The riparian countries of many of these international
rivers, at least for the time being, have opted for water sharing arrangements. In the
1990s, there have been riparian agreements on the Zambezi, Mekong, Jordan and
Ganges rivers. The existing agreements on the sharing of the Nile and Euphrates–
Tigris river water have been going through severe stress, but they are still holding
up. Usually, the riparian countries have agreed to settle their dispute over the quantity
issue when there is a hope for further exploitation of the river resource.
2. Agreements in the pursuit of more water
An agreement can be possible among the contending riparian states over the quan-
tity allocation of a river resource, when there is enough unused water left in the
river. Agreement on the Indus River system became a possibility in 1960 between
two traditional rivals, India and Pakistan, because nearly 80% of the river water was
running into Arabian Sea without being used by either of the basin countries. When
the then World Bank President Eugene Black, being backed by his ﬁnancial muscles,
got into the negotiator role, India and Pakistan agreed on an important issue for the
ﬁrst time. Of course it took nine long years for the World Bank to bring both the
riparian countries into agreement, but it became possible when there was a scope of
exploiting water resource further with the help of new projects.
The approach of the 1960 Agreement was to increase the amount of water avail-
able to the two parties. This future prospect persuaded the two countries to share
the quantity of the ﬂow and agree to this settlement: the partition of Indus Basin
waters by allocating the three Eastern Rivers—the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej—to India,
and the three Western Rivers—the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab—to Pakistan. Partition
of the rivers was more acceptable to the countries than joint management, and both
countries got into the business of water exploitation of their respective shares with
the help of ‘Indus Basin Development Fund’administered by the World Bank.
In recent years, the water scarcity has increased very much in the Indus basin.
Both India and Pakistan have almost developed the capacity to get the maximum
use of water resources. The water demand is increasing rapidly within their own
territory. The on-going projects in the upstream sections of the rivers on the Indian
side may affect the water ﬂow to Pakistan and that could cause difﬁculties for the
Indus River Agreement.
One year before the Indus Agreement, another agreement on the sharing of the Nile
River was reached between Egypt and Sudan. The 1959 agreement could become a
possibility due to the large amount of run-off which had remained unallocated by
the 1929 Agreement. From the newly calculated runoff of 84 billion m
of water at
773A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
Aswan, Egypt got the right to use 55.5 billion m
and 18.5 billion m
to Sudan. The remaining 10 billion m
were reserved for mean annual evaporation
and seepage losses from Lake Nasser behind the High Aswan Dam. The agreement
also included some provisions in regulating the ﬁlling of the storage created by the
Lake Nasser created by the High Aswan Dam is one of the largest manmade lakes
in the world with the carrying capacity of 164 billion m
of water. More than 55
million people are directly dependent upon the High Aswan Dam for their water
supply. Without the Aswan, Egypt would undoubtedly have been in dire economic
straits. The water reservoir has brought a signiﬁcant increase in the welfare of the
country due to the supply of reliable and adequate water for irrigation, municipal
and industrial use. However, with the increasing water demand in the upstream area
and less availability of unused water, the river has already become a source of serious
tension among the major riparian countries. Ethiopia, the upstream nation which
supplies 86% of water to the Nile, now demands its share. This has brought a serious
challenge to the working of the 1959 arrangement .
The increasing riparian demand has also raised doubts about the continuation of
the existing water sharing agreements on the Euphrates–Tigris river system. The
Euphrates and the Tigris are the two largest rivers in the Middle East. Both rivers
originate from the Anatolian highland regions in Turkey and ﬂow through the Meso-
potamian desert plain in Syria and Iraq. Both the rivers unite in Iraq at Qurna to
form the Shatt al-Arab, which runs into the Gulf. Turkey contributes 98% of the
water ﬂow for the Euphrates and 45% for the Tigris.
Turkey and Syria signed a bilateral agreement in 1987 to share the Euphrates
River. According to the 1987 agreement with Turkey, Syria gets 15.75 km
/s) of water per year from the Euphrates. In spite of bilateral tension, the possibility
of future river water exploitation at the national level brought both the riparian coun-
tries to opt for this arrangement. Since the 1960s, Turkey and Syria have plans
for several large-scale water projects over the Tigris–Euphrates. However, Turkey’s
massive Southeastern Anatolia (GAP) Project on the Euphrates–Tigris River has
brought serious doubts to the future of river water developments on the Syrian side.
The relationship between Syria and Turkey took a downward turn after the com-
pletion of the Ataturk Dam in 1990, which is a part of the ‘GAP’project and the
ninth largest dam on the globe. The ﬁlling up of the lake behind this massive dam
caused a 75% drop in the downstream water supply for an entire month. The GAP
is made up of 13 sub-projects, which aim to construct 22 dams including the massive
Ataturk Dam. Seven of these sub-projects are being undertaken on the Euphrates
River, while the Tigris provides the sites for the other six. Turkey is now building
other dams as part of this huge project. This GAP project has not only strained
relations between Turkey and Syria but also Syria’s relations with Iraq.
The April 1990 Agreement between Syria and Iraq at Tunis, regulating allocation
of water at the point where the Euphrates leaves Syria, allots 58% to Iraq and 42%
to Syria. With the decreasing runoff from the Turkish side, Syria may be forced to
reduce the water supply to Iraq. Iraq asks for 700 m
/s of water from the Euphrates
River on the basis of its historical claim. Thus, GAP has become a source of common
774 A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
concern for Syria and Iraq, and also a serious future threat to the bilateral water
sharing agreements between Turkey and Syria and also between Syria and Iraq.
The hope for further exploitation has not only brought the agreements on the
Indus, Nile or Euphrates–Tigris in the past; it has also facilitated agreements in recent
years over some other shared river basins. The 1995 Agreement signed among the
lower Mekong basin countries became a possibility as the slow ﬂowing Mekong
River provides a lot of potential for further exploitation (only one dam has been
built in one of the tributaries of the Mekong River in Laos). The Mekong River
consists of six riparian states China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Viet-
nam. However, under the cold war politics, especially under the inﬂuence of the
United States, a combined effort to exploit the river has been promoted since the
1950s for the four lower basin countries, namely Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and
Vietnam. Among them, geographical location puts Thailand in an advantageous pos-
ition compared to the other three lower riparian states of Mekong.
Thailand has an ambition to exploit the river for hydropower and to supply water
for its northeastern part, known as the Korat Plateau water transversion project. These
Thai plans were opposed by the downstream countries especially Vietnam. With the
mediation of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), a compromise
was ﬁnally reached satisfying Thailand’s requirements. In April 1995, a new statute
was signed by the four lower riparian countries, giving birth to the new Mekong
Commission. However, the non-inclusion of upper riparian states—China and Myan-
mar—may become a spoiler in this cooperative effort to harness the river.
The Zambezi river basin is another example of riparian cooperation due to hope
for further exploitation. The Zambezi passes through eight countries in Southern
Africa before running into the Indian Ocean. Its riparian countries are: Angola, Bots-
wana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Within
these countries a large number of different peoples and sub-groups build much of
their social and economic life around the river. The population of the basin is cur-
rently estimated to be 26.8 million. In several cases, development objectives of differ-
ent riparian countries are based on mutually exclusive claims for water from the
Zambezi basin. Countries like Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and even South Africa
have some plans for large scale withdrawal from the Zambezi.
Zimbabwe withdraws water from Zambezi River for its coal-ﬁred Huangwe ther-
mal station despite the fact that Zambia has surplus hydropower. There is also tension
over the Zambezi River resources due to Zimbabwe’s plan to pipe water from the
Zambezi (the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project) to its drought affected second
city, Bulawayo. Furthermore, the intensiﬁcation of irrigated agriculture in Zimbabwe
has reduced the water supply to downstream Mozambique. The threat to Mozam-
bique’s water supply is not only limited to Zambia or Zimbabwe’s water diversion
from Zambezi. South Africa has a large water diversion plan, the Zambezi Aqueduct,
to meet its water scarcity situation. South Africa intends to withdraw water over
1200 km from the Zambezi River at Kazungula through Botswana to Pretoria.
In spite of all these individual water withdrawal plans, there are also signs of
increasing cooperation among the basin countries to develop Zambezi on a joint
basis. Several projects have recently been undertaken for improved cooperation
775A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
among the Zambezi basin countries. A major step towards the better management
of the regional river has been taken up by the South African Development Com-
munity (SADC). In 1995, the SADC (all the Zambezi basin states are the members
of this organisation) signed a protocol establishing basic principles for the sharing
of the region’s water resources. The 1995 SADC Protocol on Shared Water Course
Systems declares respect for the principle of equitable utilisation and aims to promote
exchange of information, and to maintain a balance between development and protec-
tion of the environment (Art. 2). Articles 3, 4 and 5 of the Protocol prescribe the
formation of river basin organisations, and Art. 7 bestows the power of dispute
adjudication to the SADC tribunal. In November 1995, a meeting of regional water
ministers was convened by SADC at Pretoria to explore opportunities for greater
cooperation. The Pretoria meeting led to establishment of a Water Sector within
SADC in August 1996, which is based in Lesotho.
Coinciding with the formation of the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), the Zam-
bezi Action Plan (ZACPLAN) was drawn up in 1987 by the Zambezi basin states
with UNEP support. It aims to ensure sustainable utilisation of Zambezi water
resources within a sound and balanced environment. The involvement of large num-
ber of actors in this scheme has posed problems in execution. In spite of the slow
progress, two ZACPLAN projects (ZACPRO 2) are presently being considered.
ZACPRO 2 develops regional legislation and proposes the establishment of a river
basin commission (ZAMCOM). The SADC Protocol of 1995 is the product of ZAC-
PRO 2. ZACPRO 6 is being executed by the ZRA, which works for a joint water
resources management proposal for the whole river basin.
The water scarcity in all these river basins has brought the riparian countries to
come to the negotiation table rather than waging war against each other. The possi-
bility of further extraction of water resources has been the attraction for the nego-
tiated settlement. However, there are very few international rivers left, which can
provide a certain hope for feasible further exploitation. Most of the rivers have been
exploited to a large extent. Few other feasible water projects bear massive economic
and environmental cost. Local politics and environmentalists have also brought dif-
ﬁculty to the engineering solution to the water scarcity problem. To overcome this,
South Asia has recently developed a new ingenuity.
3. Manipulation of river runoff data to reach a settlement
When there is not enough water in the river to meet the demands of the contending
riparian states, and almost all the feasible water projects on the river have been
already undertaken, then to reach an agreement over the sharing dispute some may
take the help of manipulating the river runoff data. The agreement reached between
India and Bangladesh in 1996 over the sharing of the Ganges River is one of the
examples of this ingenuity. Since 1975 India and Bangladesh were in disagreement
over the sharing of the Ganges water. The quintessence of the complications lies in
sharing the Ganges water for the ﬁve dry season months (January–May). During the
rest of the year, there is sufﬁcient water in the river for India and Bangladesh. But,
776 A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
in the dry seasons, the average minimum discharge at Farakka Barrage in 1975 was
estimated at only 55,000 ft
/s, whereas India wants to divert 40,000 ft
/s from it for
the Calcutta port .
Both countries had devised some working agreements from 1977 to 1988 to share
the water at Farakka. The gradual decrease in the upstream ﬂow hindered further
agreement for 8 years. In December 1996, the Prime Ministers of India and Bangla-
desh signed the Ganges River water sharing agreement again. Instead of their usual
short-term approach to share the dry season ﬂow at Farakka barrage, they went on
this time for 30 years’arrangement. However, this was basically a political agree-
ment that had disregarded the real hydrological ﬂow of the river. The agreement has
been based on the river ﬂow average of 1949 to 1988, but the real ﬂow at Farakka
in the 1990s is much less than that.
The Bangladeshi experts were very much aware of the amount of ﬂow at Farakka
in the dry seasons. In 1993, when they had complained of receiving only 9000 ft
of supply at Hardinge Bridge, they could have easily calculated the ﬂow at Farakka
to 49,000 ft
/s as the Farakka diversion canal’s maximum carrying capacity is 40,000
/s. In the following years, Bangladesh gave the ﬁgures of water available at Hard-
inge Bridge (just downstream of the Farakka Barrage) as being close to 10,000 ft
The basic arithmetic was overlooked when the political leaders of both countries
decided to sign the agreement on the basis of an ideal minimum ﬁgure of 60,000
/s. It was a political compulsion for the Bangladesh Prime Minister to get the
agreement with the Indians. The very ﬁrst year (1997 dry season) of the treaty wit-
nessed a very low run-off in the river Ganges. Fortunately, in 1998 the situation
improved thanks to good weather, and the dry season run-off was enough to fulﬁll
the treaty requirement.
This ingenuity has become a South Asian specialty. The manipulation of river
run-off data has also brought some agreements among the states within the Indian
Federation over their shared rivers (Yamuna, Krishna, Cauvery etc.). Following this
method, an agreement on quantity issue can be achieved but it might not last long
in a democratic society where it can come under scrutiny from various independent
quarters. But, the signing of an agreement has several advantages. It puts pressure
on the ruling elites to work for increasing the river ﬂow in order to keep the agree-
ment going. Moreover, the agreement also helps to depoliticise the issue to a certain
extent by pushing the river sharing dispute out of the front pages of the newspapers.
This can help the political leadership of the riparian countries to take new initiatives
in order to augment the river ﬂow.
4. Need for a positive approach
Signing of a sharing agreement might solve the water scarcity problem for a short
period of time, but it does not provide a long-term solution. The recent threats to
the survival of the Indus River Agreement of 1960, the Nile River Agreement of
1959 and the Euphrates River Agreement of 1987 conﬁrm this apprehension. For a
fruitful and long lasting cooperation on international rivers, there is a need for a
comprehensive approach to address the water scarcity issue in the river basin.
777A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
The efforts to ﬁnd an internationally acceptable formula for sharing international
rivers have not proven to be completely successful yet. However, with some help
from the international institutions, the riparian countries of some of the international
rivers are coming together to get the maximum beneﬁt of the common water. These
cooperative approaches of the riparian states need to be translated into a comprehen-
sive and systematic effort. To ﬁnd a lasting solution to the quantity question of the
sharing of international rivers, the water issue needs to be addressed from both the
demand side as well as the supply side. Otherwise, in the face of increasing water
scarcity, many of the river water sharing arrangements will face difﬁculty in holding
together for long. And that might pave the way for ‘water wars’.
4.1. Managing the supply side of the water scarcity
The development of rivers occurs most optimally on the basin level. The whole
international river basin needs to be regarded as an economic unit irrespective of state
boundaries. Under an integrated water development programme, dam and storage are
to be located at the best possible places and the beneﬁts are to be used by the riparian
states in need of those beneﬁts. Such effort can bring reciprocal advantages, such
as right to submerge upstream territories in return for sharing hydropower or pro-
vision of water to one state and electricity to another.
Formation of a river basin organisation encourages international collaboration and
assistance for river water development. As constraints on the resource grow, the
opportunity costs for not cooperating are becoming clearer. The increasing scarcity
of available fresh water per capita and lack of ﬁnancial strength in the developing
countries may gradually encourage the basin countries to cooperate in order to achi-
eve optimal beneﬁt from the river. Basin-based development of irrigation, hydro-
power, water diversion or ﬂood control projects can provide riparian countries greater
net beneﬁts than they could have achieved through purely state-centric development.
Incentives for riparian cooperation for basin level development can come from inter-
national ﬁnancial institutions and bilateral aid programmes. The lenders and donors
can play a facilitator role in encouraging collaborative efforts among the basin states.
International ﬁnancial institutions may even become critical in encouraging and lead-
ing new incentives. These actors have resources that can be incentives for
cooperation even in the face of available weak legal sanctions .
Flexibility is central to the successful negotiation of basin-based agreement on
international rivers. To achieve riparian cooperation at the basin level, the riparian
states need to be ﬂexible while negotiating with each other. Without that, they will
fail to overcome their vision of narrow state centric development path. Usually, the
ordinary bureaucrats in the foreign ministries handle the international river sharing
issues. Lack of interest and understanding on their part often leads to relatively long
negotiations and unsuccessful resolutions . An understanding of the issue of con-
tention is necessary for the negotiators to ﬁnd a way for conﬂict resolution. Water
resource management is a complex and also continuously changing process . For
the regular foreign ministry ofﬁcials, it is not easy to grasp the complexity of the
issue involved. Thus, there is a need to entrust the water negotiation to those who
778 A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
can cope with such rapid changes as well as understand conceptual, methodological
and institutional changes. Besides that, the help of ‘hydro-diplomacy’may be taken
to clear the path for riparian cooperation.
When political leadership takes an active interest in the outcome of the inter-
national river water issue, there is a greater probability of arriving at a speedy agree-
ment. Political interest may help to overcome the bureaucratic delays in order to ﬁnd
a common agreement. Without support from the people, it is difﬁcult to implement
any elite driven river sharing arrangement. For the effective implementation of the
agreement, there is a need to accentuate the use of public involvement and partici-
pation in water resources planning .
4.2. Restricting the demand for water
Only through better supply management, can the water scarcity issue be effectively
addressed. There is a need to restrict and regularise the demand for the increasingly
scarce water resource. The common notion that water is free and that the use of
water in a particular economic or social activity could be pursued without concern
is no longer acceptable. To reduce the incompatibility on the water sharing issue,
the help of economic measures is very much needed. The pricing of water will create
quantity restrictions for the competing users. It will force consumers to use water
more efﬁciently than if there was no price tag on it.
In recent years, the construction of water projects has demanded greater invest-
ment. This is partly due to fact that the new sites for dams and storages are increas-
ingly available only at greater economic and environmental cost. It is not only the
construction of the projects, but also the proper management of the water storage
and its distribution that is needed for efﬁcient use of water. The water distribution
systems, particularly in the developing countries, are not self-sustaining, because the
price charged for the water has been kept very low. This huge cost–beneﬁt difference
has reduced the performance of many irrigation and water distribution systems.
Water disappears from city systems, mainly in the developing countries from theft,
inadequate metering and inaccurate billing. The illegal ‘spaghetti connections’in
many slum and squatter areas is quite common. Thus, the enactment of pricing the
water is not sufﬁcient in itself. There is a need to make effective institutional arrange-
ments to collect a ‘water tax’. In the state of Bihar in India, the government spent
three times more money in collecting water revenue in 1996 than the actual tax
collected from the farmers. The law must be simple but strong enough to compel
the people to pay their tax. Water Courts may be created to facilitate speedy justice
on disagreement over water sharing and also disputes over water taxation. By
strengthening institutions, a single chain of authority is required to carry out pol-
icymaking, planning and management of water issues. Planning needs to be coordi-
nated, making it strategic and holistic .
Pricing of water is not a politically sound act for the leaders of the developing
countries. For a politician, political interest is invariably more important than eco-
nomics or environment. Taxing the water might cost the political leaders their major
‘vote banks’. Farmers constitute the most important voting bloc in the South. Thus,
779A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
there is a need to distance politics from technical, economic and environmental cri-
teria in decision making. Greater awareness is needed about the water scarcity among
the common people, which can help to depoliticise the water pricing to a large extent.
Moreover, with the price, people should be offered some tangible beneﬁts. Reliable
and timely water supply, universal applicability of the rules and regulations under
a democratic and efﬁcient system, and rational allocation of water among various
competing sectors are some of the prerequisites for the smooth implementation of
There is also an urgent need to minimise water use, particularly in the sector that
uses water the most—agriculture. This can be achieved through the intelligent use
of ‘virtual water’.‘Virtual water’means the agricultural products that have been
produced with large amounts of water.
Stopping the production of water intensive
agricultural products for export purposes and importing water intensive agricultural
products from water abundant regions would decrease water demands in water scarce
countries. Countries in Northern Africa use their scarce water resource for producing
agricultural products like pepper and tomato in order to export to water afﬂuent
regions in Europe. Israel exports oranges to Europe by using its meagre water supply.
Some Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia spend massive resources to produce
wheat in the desert, which they can easily import from water abundant regions at a
much cheaper price.
For many developing countries, achieving self-sufﬁciency in food production is
the most important national agenda. There is nothing wrong in achieving this. It
provides food security as well as strengthens the legitimacy of the state and regime.
But self-sufﬁciency in food production is always an on-going struggle in order to
satisfy the increasing demand of the growing population. Moreover, in most cases,
temporary and limited self-sufﬁciency comes with a high unsustainable use of scarce
water resource. The belief that a particular country must be responsible for its own
food production impedes a rational solution to the problem of real and lasting food
security. As Lundqvist and Gleick argue the goal must be “a world that grows suf-
ﬁcient food to meet the world’s needs, somewhere, and the institutions and mech-
anisms to deliver that food where it is needed.”. With the help of trade and aid,
mechanisms need to be developed to shift poor water-short countries away from
water-intensive agricultural production.
5. Facing the future
Population growth results in a declining supply of fresh water per person. The
Worldwatch Institute estimates that due to population growth alone, the amount per
capita water availability from the hydrological cycle will fall by 73% between 1950
and 2050 . Rapid population growth and striving for economic development has
Professor Tony Allan of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London has coined the
term ‘virtual water’.
780 A. Swain / Futures 33 (2001) 769–781
severely stressed natural renewable resources, so much so that fresh water is begin-
ning to have a scarcity value and emotional intensity as exists for the fossil fuel.
Countries have already started to frame the issue of water scarcity in national security
terms. However, framing the issue as a national concern will in most cases make it
impossible to resolve the issue . The sheer size and nature of this problem
demands solutions that go beyond the purview of a particular state or government.
Managing water effectively requires consideration of all the interacting actors.
Multilateral water basins are mostly governed by bilateral arrangements. This has
raised the concern of free riding behaviour. Decisions made by one riparian or some
of the riparians likely will fail to serve the interests of non-participating riparians
due to conﬂicting priorities of nations . Thus, principles for comprehensive basin
based water management and planning must be adopted. In order to face the future,
there is an urgent need for water allocation priorities and mechanisms to derive
optimum beneﬁt from the available water resources in the world.
Many regions are using virtually all of the river ﬂow to meet their water demand.
The Colorado River in America, the Yellow River in China and the Nile River in
Africa have very little water left when they reach the sea. Not only surface water,
there is also growing pressure on the groundwater as well. Several major agricultural
regions are extracting groundwater faster than it is recharged by rainfall. Due to this
unsustainable practice, the water source might dry up or become too expensive to
pump. It is not the water quantity alone; the poor quality of fresh water resources
is also increasingly bringing hazards to a large portion of the world population.
To meet the increased water demands, crucial decisions need to be taken about
water and the way it is to be used. Rather than continuing to search for more and
more water to meet anticipated demand, it is time to decide what to do with the
amounts that can be feasibly and sustainably developed. This perceptual change can
help to avoid the ‘water wars’and instead develop cooperation over the sharing of
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