• English
  • 日本語
  • France
  • Deutschland
  • Italy
  • España
  • Slovenia

Water wars

Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi
25 November 2006

Every living thing, every plant, every animal and every human being needs water to stay alive. For centuries, possibly millennia, all over the world, water was shared, for everyone’s right to this essential resource was recognised. For thousands of years legal systems have accepted that running water cannot be owned.

Even in the industrialised west, up until recently, water was a shared resource. Public utilities were set up in the industrialised world to install complex water delivery and sewage treatment systems. People in the first world were expected to pay for the delivery of their water, the upkeep of the system, the building of reservoirs and other water storage systems but the water remained a shared resource.

However, over the past half century, as the world population has increased and water has become increasingly scarce, it has become less and less a shared resource. By the 1970s international organisations such as the United Nations, UNICEF, World Health Organisation and the UN Development Plan began to highlight the plight of the poor in the third world. By 2003 more than a billion people, a quarter of the world’s population, had no access to safe drinking water. Every year more than five million people (mostly children) die from water-born diseases, such as dysentery and diarrhoea. Global water consumption is now doubling every twenty years, more than twice the rate of population growth. The UN is now predicting that water will become more and more scarce, and global per capita water availability could decline by a third during the next twenty years. The poor in the third world, who are already suffering from lack of water, will be the worst affected.

Water Privatisation

In 1989 Margaret Thatcher carried out a huge water privatisation scheme for the whole of England and Wales. Suddenly a precious natural shared resource was taken from the British people, sold off and privatised. The British people now had to pay the water companies, not just to provide water, but to make a profit for their shareholders and to pay huge management salaries. Water bills doubled in less than a decade, causing hardship in many parts of the UK. There were 50,000 disconnections during this period and water quality steadily deteriorated.

By 1990 international water companies operated in 12 countries.

Between 1994 and 1998 there were 139 water-related deals. However, in most parts of the first world, governments continued to safeguard their water resources and to provide a public service for their people. This got in the way of the global water companies, who wanted to buy up these public utilities. So they began to form partnerships with international financial institutions so that they could reduce the role that traditional governments played in water provision.

The first two of these partnerships, the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the World Water Council (WWC) were formed in 1996 with Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank Vice-President, in the chair of the WWC. Once these partnerships had been formed water companies could now negotiate and collaborate with multilateral banks and the United Nations.

The World Water Council held its first meeting, the World Water Forum, in Marrakesh in 1997.

In 1998 the World Water Council created the World Water Commission, which included all the major water corporations and the CEO of the World Bank/UN Global Environment Facility, Mohamed T. El-Ashry. The commission called for full deregulation of the water sector and recommended that trans-national corporations should take over the provision of water worldwide.

By the year 2000 private water corporations operated in 100 countries and 10% of the world’s water was privatised. In 2000 the World Bank, the UN and some of the largest water corporations met at the second World Water Forum, in Den Haag, Netherlands. They decided to accelerate global water privatisation.

In May 2000 Fortune Magazine predicted that water would become “one of the world’s biggest business opportunities”.

Ever since they began to collaborate with the World Bank, trans-national water corporations have been trying to have more influence over individual countries. A series of trade agreements have all increased the power of the trans-national water companies. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and various World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements all gave trans-national water corporations access to the water of the countries that had signed these agreements. Governments all over the world signed away their right to control their country’s water supplies.

The two biggest water corporations, Suez and Vivendi, now provide water for 230 million people, 7% of the world’s population, mostly in Europe. In the US 85% of households still get their water from public utilities. But the water corporations are putting pressure on Congress, lobbying for laws which will protect them from lawsuits over contaminated water. This legislation will make it easier for the water corporations to take over water provision. The British parliament has already passed a law providing UK water companies with indemnity against lawsuits brought against them by the public.

Water Privatisation in the Third World

The World Bank and the IMF are now putting pressure on third world countries to sell off their water to multinational corporations in order to reduce their national debt. Together with international development organisations, they have been promoting the idea that the only way to provide water in the third world is through the private sector. Third world countries have huge national debts, which they struggle to pay, so in many cases the IMF has made further loans to these countries, on condition that they conform to structural adjustment programmes, including the privatisation of their water supplies. As in the west, water privatisation causes increased costs, which in the case of the poorest people in the world, they cannot afford to pay.

So in the poorest parts of the world, people (mainly women) are forced to walk further and further in search of water which has not been privatised, water which is often neither safe nor clean. In some cases people have to choose between buying water and buying food. In Ghana today, since water privatisation, the cost of water has doubled, so that families lucky enough to have running water must now pay a quarter of their income for it and a bucket of water can cost up to a tenth of most people’s daily earnings.

Protests against Water Privatisation

In Cochabamba, Bolivia water rates increased by 35% after the water company Bechtel bought the city’s water in 1999. The citizens of Cochabamba were so incensed that they marched, protested and rioted. Eventually the Bolivian government voided Bechtel’s contract. There have been protests against water privatisation in Paraguay, Panama, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, India, Pakistan, Hungary and South Africa.

Water wars

In 1979 Anwar Sadat said “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water”. His threat was directed at Ethiopia. King Hussein of Jordan said the same thing in the same year and his threat was directed at Israel. In the 1980s US government intelligence estimated ten places where water wars could break out: Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Malta, the Arabian Peninsula, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and the Yemen. More than 200 major river systems cross international borders.

In 1999 Gaddafi warned that the “next Middle East war would be over dwindling water supplies”. Other people say that past and present Middle East conflicts have always been over water. Water scarcity in the Middle East is already critical. Four and a half percent of the world’s population live in the area, which contains half the world’s oil, 2% of the world’s rainfall and 0.4 % of the world’s recoverable water supplies. It is one of the world’s most water-stressed regions with deteriorating quality and dwindling water supplies. The Arab per capita water supply is expected to drop by half by the year 2030.


Israel gets two thirds of its water from territories that it has invaded: the Golan Heights and the West Bank. It takes water from the Jordan and stores it in the Sea of Galilee in contravention of international law, which states that water should not be diverted from its catchment basin. This water is then transported to Israel’s cities, farms and industries.

The river Jordan flows from the Golan Heights in Syria and from the Lebanon, through Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In 1949 Israel began taking water from the Golan Heights and in 1951 invaded, driving out the villagers and ignoring UN Truce Supervision protests. In 1953 the Eisenhower Administration prepared a unified plan for the use of the Jordan River, granting Israel use of 33% of it. But Israel wanted more than that, so in September 1953 Israel began secretly constructing a pipeline to divert the Jordan from the Golan Heights in defiance of the US. The US found out and applied sanctions. Israel suspended work on the pipeline briefly, US aid was resumed and then Israel continued to work on the diversion project, which was soon complete. Syria and Jordan protested against Israel’s appropriation of their water and the PLO attacked the pipeline. Israel subsequently ignored several UN Security Council Resolutions and occupied the Golan Heights in 1967.

In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and took control of the Hasbani and Wazzani rivers which flow into the Jordan. They also took control of the Litani river.

A quarter of Israel’s remaining water comes from underground reservoirs in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in 1967. This water supplies 30% of Tel Aviv households. Israel uses 17% more than the 1.9 billion cubic meters of water it obtains from renewable sources, so it is causing the water table level to drop.

In 1994 Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in which Israel agreed to share the water from the river Jordan with Jordan but in 1999 Israel cut Jordan’s supply by 60% because there was a drought.

The 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses states clearly how these waters are to be shared: equitably and reasonably. The Palestinian people therefore have the right to an equitable and reasonable share of the international watercourses situated in their land. They do not, at present enjoy this right. Israel’s severe restriction on Palestinian use of water in agriculture limits their ability to grow food.


India and Bangladesh have been quarrelling for twenty years over rights to extract water from the Ganges.


Egypt is totally dependant on the Nile. For the past twenty years Egypt has been diverting water from the Nile into land reclamation projects in the Sinai desert, in contravention of international law, since the Nile flows through Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire. The waters of the Nile should therefore be shared equitably and reasonably among all these countries and not be diverted outside its catchment basin.

In 1996 Mubarak announced that he planned to divert water from the Nile under the Suez Canal into the North Sinai desert east of the Suez Canal, 40 km from the Gaza Strip. Many believe that this water will eventually end up in Israel. 86% of the Nile water comes from Ethiopia, which desperately needs to develop water projects in order to grow food for its own people, so Ethiopia is fiercely opposed to Egypt’s Nile diversion project. The Sudan threatened to cut Egypt’s water quota and all the other countries which border the Nile are opposed to the project, viewing it as a violation of international law.

Ironically, North Sinai has plenty of underground water and rainfall would be sufficient, if it were harvested, to support as many as a million people in the area.


Damming trans-national rivers sometimes contravenes international law, especially when countries upstream take more than their fair share of water from countries downstream. And yet the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have promoted the building of large numbers of gigantic dams throughout Asia. These dams displace millions of people who live in the areas to be flooded and deprive people downstream of the water the rivers once provided.


Turkey signed a treaty with Israel in 2004 to ship 50 million cubic metres of water a year, for 20 years, from the river Manavgat in Anatolia, in return for arms from Israel. Turkey is building dams on the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which flow through Syria and Iraq. This is called the Grand Anatolian Project and includes a vast irrigation scheme, seven dams on the Euphrates, six dams on the Tigris and the giant Ataturk dam. The Ataturk dam will deprive Syria and Iraq of most of the flow of the Euphrates. With Israel already appropriating water from the river Jordan from the Golan Heights, Syria will be seriously short of water when Turkey’s Grand Anatolian Project is complete.

China and the Mekong

Six countries depend on the Mekong river for food, water and transport. The Mekong rises in Tibet, flows through China’s Yunnan province, then through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Manwan dam, built by China in 1996 has resulted in shallower river levels and flash floods. Now China is building six more dams and the countries downstream are afraid that this will have a deleterious affect on their river. None of these Chinese dams have been assessed for their social or ecological impacts on the downstream countries.

In 2003 the Asian Development Bank recommended building a $43 billion electricity generation system, including major dams in Laos, China, Burma and Cambodia. The Mekong could become one of the most dammed rivers in the world, with more than 100 other major dams, diversions and irrigation projects. It is hard to imagine how Vietnam, the last country the Mekong flows through, will survive if all these projects are carried out. The dams planned for Laos will displace 5,700 people, impoverish 120,000 and saddle the country with enormous debts. All the electricity produced by the dam will go to Thailand. Thousands of indigenous people have already been dispossessed by the building of smaller dams in Laos.


International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, finance a large proportion of water projects in the third world: huge irrigation projects, without adequate drainage, to grow crops. 70% of global water diverted from rivers or drawn up from aquifers is used for irrigation to grow crops. It takes a thousand tons of water to produce a ton of grain.

Powerful diesel-driven pumps draw up water from deep aquifers previously unavailable. These pumps have only recently become available, making it possible for countries to pump groundwater faster than it can be replenished through rainfall. All over the world water tables are falling and the world is incurring a vast, largely invisible, water deficit.

China, India and the United States, which collectively grow half of the world’s grain harvest, are all depleting their aquifers to supply irrigation projects. China is over-pumping the North China Plain, where the water table is falling by 3 metres a year. He Quincheng, head of the Geological Environmental Monitoring Institute in Beijing, is concerned that the region is losing its last water reserve. In the area around Beijing wells now have to be drilled as deep as 1,000 metres before they can tap fresh water.

Indian irrigation projects are over-pumping water in the Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In some places water tables are falling by a metre per year.

In the US, the water table has already fallen by 30 metres in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, all major grain producing states that depend on irrigation.

In Pakistan, in the province of Baluchistan the water table is falling by 3.5 metres per year. The capital of Baluchistan, Quetta, will run out of water in 15 years, according to Richard Garstang, water expert with the World Wildlife Fund.

In the Yemen the situation is desperate. Over-pumping has depleted the country’s water to such an extent that the World Bank predicts that parts of the rural economy could disappear within a generation.

North Africa and Saudi Arabia have ancient aquifers which are never replenished. Saudi Arabia is drawing water from its aquifers for irrigation at such a rate that in fifty years there will be none left. Worldwide rivers are being sucked up for irrigation, leaving dry river beds.

When water becomes very scarce, countries sometimes stop irrigating and producing food, in order to divert what water they still have to their cities and industries. They then have to import grain. As underground water becomes more and more depleted, more and more countries will begin to rely on imports of grain. In China grain harvests are already shrinking and it will soon have to begin importing grain. The world water shortage will lead to a world grain shortage.

But about 80% of irrigation water is wasted through leaking pipes, unlined channels, evaporating reservoirs and canals. One quarter of all irrigated land has now accumulated salts, rendering it useless for cultivation, for example two million hectares have been lost to salinity in Pakistan.


450 cubic km of wastewater are discharged into rivers, streams and lakes every year. This polluted water reduces the amount of freshwater available. Groups such as International Rivers Network, Clean Waters Network and Friends of the Earth International have been confronting industry over the contamination of rivers.


Reducing consumption of water is essential.

Improving irrigation efficiency

Irrigation projects could cut down on the amount of water they use by as much as 80% if drip systems were used. Drip systems deliver exactly the amount of water a plant needs.

Water recycling

Water recycling, especially in industry, will also help cut down on water consumption.

Rainfall harvesting projects

1,500 women from 12 Indian states met together in Rajasthan, Western India for the National Women’s Water Conference in February 2003. They discussed ways of protecting water supplies in rural India.

Villagers in Madhya Pradesh have resolved the problem of heavy summer rainfall followed by months of drought by building small dams and wells, sharing both the work involved, the money invested and the water harvest. Women in Gujarat built check dams and revived old ponds.

Women in Rajasthan have begun to green the desert through community rainwater harvesting projects.

The women who attended the conference fiercely opposed the Government’s proposal to privatise water and resolved to fight to protect it. “We will take our sticks and chase out those who attempt to sell our water to us” one Rajasthani woman said.

Recycling of human waste

Recycling of human waste, rather than discharging it into rivers, will provide valuable fertilizer for growing more crops and will leave more clean water in rivers to be used as drinking water.

Stopping industrial river pollution

Cutting down on pollution from industrial processes will similarly help keep rivers clean and available as drinking water.

Planting Trees

Trees prevent soil erosion and conserve water. Village women in parts of India, for example Orissa, have planted trees.

Water is part of the earth’s heritage. It needs to be preserved for future generations and protected in the public domain by local, national and international law. Access to clean water for basic needs is a fundamental human right. We cannot continue to abuse the world’s precious water resources. International cooperation over sources of freshwater is possible and practicable. International legislation which enshrines the principle of equitable and reasonable sharing of water resources already exists. Similarly international legislation already exists for the control of pollution. Water privatisation is not the answer. A return to the principle of sharing this vital resource is possible and essential.