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Water Wars

April 4, 2009

waterglass.jpgI caught an interesting review of an article written by Wendy Barnaby (published in Nature). It was intriguing because it neatly flipped assumptions about why nations go to war, and going to war over water is a base assumption for many strategic assessments held by our governments. Perhaps fuelled by Mark Twain as well who apparently quipped that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.”

Wendy was asked to write a book demonstrating water is a strategic variable in the decisions leading to conflict, but as with many of those who set out to prove the fallibility of the Bible, she had to turn over her assumptions and the presuppositions of the argument. Nations, she declares, do not go to war over water after all.  When I read this my mind flew straight to Washington and to an earnest young woman I met there who wrote comprehensive assessments and forecasts for the American military. Her predictions for Middle East water wars were always dire given the number of states which share the same water sources. None of us really tested her thesis. It seems intuitive that nations would fight over water. When I left school I worked on a  farm in an irrigated part of Australia – farmers engaged in intense bickering over water, and some (many) resorted to imaginative ways of stealing it. Given the level of emotion visible at this level in the community, it kind of made sense that nations would punch each other up over water as well.

But Wendy could find no evidence that nations go to war over water.  Water is used as a weapon once nations are at war (the allies tried to drown the Ruhr in WW2 and Saddam drained the southern marshes) but it seems it is not a variable in the decision to go to war as much as we all assume it to be. She argues this is mainly because nations make up for any deficit in their water supply by importing it in food. That is, water is imported in grain as it were. A nation that cannot grow enough food for itself because of water shortages simply imports its own food. I have a sneaking suspicion there is also a subconscious or primal recognition that water is the most base of all our needs and as much as we loath a neighbour, there is never enough hate to hold their water hostage or remove it altogether.

One voice beating against well entrenched strategic assessments by our governments is, well only one voice. But it will be interesting to see if her assessment meets with any objections by those who argue pending climate change and consequent reduced water supplies for some will lead to war.  But I will be interested to see if she publishes her actual findings other than those which she was paid to research. If she has a good set of evidence she can forensically footnote she will find herself stirring quite a few possums.

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