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Water conflicts worldwide threaten peace amid efforts to preserve resources

In this file photo dated Nov. 17, 2010, a boat floats in an area where the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River converge in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. (Mainichi/Osamu Sukagawa)

VIENNA/CAIRO -- Conflicts over water are on the rise across the globe as populations balloon in Asia and Africa, new dams alter river flow patterns, and climate change causes drought in many places. In the face of growing tension, efforts are also underway to preserve water resources for future generations.

In August 1995, then World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin issued this warning: "If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water." Fast forward 23 years and we see intensifying conflicts over water, although none have been major wars.

The world's population has grown from 5.3 billion in 1990 to 7.5 billion this year, and will reach an estimated 9.7 billion in 2050. This growth means a direct hike in water demand. According to an estimate by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), water use by the manufacturing sector will jump five-hold from 2000 to 2050, and that for electricity production will shoot up 240 percent during the same period. The organization of advanced economies warns that 40 percent of the global population will face serious water shortages in 2050.

And water conflicts are already taking place. Since 2000, 357 disputes over water have occurred worldwide, according to the Pacific Institute, a U.S. think tank. Of those, 93 took place in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by 90 in the Middle East and 60 in South Asia, corresponding to areas with high population growth that are prone to drought damage.

In Southeast Asia, countries along the Mekong River are facing off over dam construction projects for power production and other purposes. China, where the 4,000-kilometer river originates, has placed multiple hydroelectric dams on the upper reaches to meet the power demands of its growing population. The country has plans for more than 20 additional dams, but insists that they have "negligible" negative impact on the lower reaches of the mighty Mekong, which now has some 70 million people depending on it for water.

Countries downstream bitterly complain to Beijing that the dams are reducing water flow, destroying ecosystems in the river basin and reducing fish catches, negatively affecting fishing and farm industries in their areas.

But China is not alone in trying to control Mekong water. Laos also plans a dam to generate power for sale to Thailand. Vietnam, where the Mekong flows into the South China Sea, is against the project, but Laos is not budging as the country considers the river to be a national resource. Littoral countries -- Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam -- form the Mekong River Commission to "jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the Mekong River," according to the commission website. The organization, however, lacks any legal authority to implement its decisions and China is not a member. There are no signs of lessening tension among the five countries.

The Nile River flows through the southern Egyptian city of Luxor on Aug. 31, 2017. (Mainichi/Koichi Shinoda)

In Central Asia, when Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan planned to build a dam on the upper reaches of the Syr Darya, Uzbekistan, a downstream country, countered by halting the supply of natural gas to Kyrgyzstan.

Climate change is fanning water conflicts in some areas. In southern India, the Kaveri River became a focus of a deadly clash between residents of the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in September 2016, when water volume in the river fell. Two people were killed by police bullets, and some 500 people were arrested.

Somalia suffers from the double curse of Islamic radicalism and drought, triggering a food shortage and destabilizing the Horn of Africa country further.

Eric Sproles, a hydrologist and research associate at Oregon State University, pointed out that conflicts over water are expected to increase as there are plans for 807 new dams along international rivers in Asia, and 354 in South America. He said countries and regions need to sign treaties on water resource usage before they start building dams.

--- Mideast faces water conflicts due to drought, civil wars

Water resources are even more vital in desert areas of the Middle East, and their management poses major domestic and international problems.

In the southern Iraq cities of Basra and Amara, demonstrations have been continuing against the government since July for its failure to provide water and electricity. According to a local journalist, participants are chanting "We want water!" Farmers are abandoning their land as arable areas decrease due to drought. Many residents in the south have reportedly been hospitalized from drinking tainted water, as public services including the water supply have faltered. This has been due in part to a tug of war among factions in the national assembly that has prevented the formation of a government since a general election in May. The political confusion is preventing reconstruction in the country, hit hard by the Islamic State radical group.

In neighboring Syria, water is a cause of bitter fighting between the government and the opposition. Forces loyal to the administration of President Bashar Assad heavily bombed Ain al-Fijah, a source of drinking water close to the capital Damascus, in January 2017, after almost four years of occupation by opposition forces.

The Nile River flows through the southern Egyptian city of Luxor on Aug. 31, 2017. (Mainichi/Koichi Shinoda)

Areas around the mountain town were badly damaged, and countless rows of burnt out houses continued far into the distance when the Mainichi Shimbun visited in December 2017. An armed government soldier said no pictures of the destroyed homes were allowed. The groundwater pumping station near the foot of the mountain had been restored, of which the Mainichi was allowed to take photos. Nearby rubble paid silent witness to the intensity of the fighting over the facility.

"Those who control the water win the war," said one soldier at that time.

Water has also caused diplomatic tensions along the Nile, the longest river in Africa and the world. Egypt and Ethiopia have had an ongoing diplomatic spat over the construction of a massive dam along the river by Ethiopia since 2010. If completed, the structure will decrease water flow downstream. In June 2017, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt complained at an international meeting of Nile basin countries that littoral countries should cooperate to manage water resources. The Ethiopian side, however, said the dam will have "no impact" on the river's lower reaches, and the two countries continue discussions on the issue.

Egypt is sensitive about water from the Nile as the country is experiencing major population growth. It depends almost entirely on the river for drinking, farming and industrial water supplies, and its population has more than doubled to 95 million in the past 50 years. According to the local media, the annual per capita consumption of water in Egypt dropped from 1,972 cubic meters in 1970 to 663 cubic meters in 2013. The latest figure is nearing 500 cubic meters, the water shortage line defined by the United Nations.

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau, and Koichi Shinoda, Cairo Bureau)

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