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Climate change

The water wars are heating up

Parched earth in southern Iraq. Getty Images

Climate change may be hastening “the first outright water war since the days of ancient Mesopotamia”, says Roger Boyes in The Times. Ethiopia is planning to build a huge dam on the Nile to create the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa. But downstream of that, Egypt’s exploding population depends on the river’s water. Both nations have threatened to use military force to defend their share of this liquid gold.

Meanwhile, the southern marshes of Iraq are drying out, prompting a squabble with Iran and Turkey over dams. Iran has been declared “water bankrupt” and at least eight people have been killed in protests over shortages, says Bel Trew in The Independent. Lebanon’s public water supply looks as if it will collapse in a few weeks, pushing prices to a “staggering” two and a half times monthly income. Unrest in these fragile states can only get worse as the climate crisis intensifies.

It’s not just about scarcity, says Brahma Chellaney in The Japan Times. China is using its rivers as a geopolitical weapon. It has built 11 “mega-dams” on the Mekong River, an “arterial waterway” that flows down into southeast Asia. Countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam depend on the Mekong, and China could turn off the tap should any of them step out of line. Beijing is now planning to build a dam on the Brahmaputra River just before it flows into India – it would generate three times as much electricity as the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, also built by the Chinese at the Three Gorges Dam. The scheme will pollute the river and cut off Bangladesh’s main water source, setting a refugee crisis in motion. China’s previous damming has also had domestic drawbacks, causing substantial ecological damage and putting hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens at risk from floods.

Thankfully, there are more harmonious examples around, says The Christian Science Monitor. Earlier this month Israel agreed to sell neighbouring Jordan 50 million cubic metres of fresh water, the largest such deal since their 1994 peace treaty. And Israel’s recent peace accords with various Gulf states have led to co-operation on building desalination plants. These solar-powered beauties can produce a cubic metre of fresh water, enough for 3,000 small water bottles, for as little as 50 cents. Like climate change, water scarcity is a shared problem – “mutual interest” can make collaboration between thirsty nations more beneficial than conflict. Just as water puts out fires, “water diplomacy” can make international tensions fizzle out.

💦 🇺🇸 At least 96 workers died during the construction of the Hoover Dam in the early 1930s – the result of their efforts was Lake Mead, one of America’s largest reservoirs, which provides water for 25 million people, including most of Las Vegas. But evaporation during recent droughts has left it with a “ghostly band of white rock” above the waterline, says Io Dodds in the Telegraph. Its surface has plunged 161ft below “full pool” level and the volume of water has shrunk to only 35% of capacity. If the drying out continues, water from Lake Mead will have to be rationed next year.