The danger of water wars

Water consumption has tripled in the past 30 years and there's a growing danger that disputes over t

Water is rapidly becoming one of the defining crises of the 21st century. Climate change is making its availability increasingly uncertain. And we are using ever more of the stuff.

In the past three decades the human population has doubled but human use of water has tripled – largely because, tonne-for-tonne, modern ‘high-yielding’ crop varieties often need more water than the old crops.

A typical Westerner consumes, directly and through thirsty products like food, about a hundred times their own weight in water every day. That is why some of the great rivers of the world, such as the Nile, Indus, Yellow River and Colorado, no longer reach the sea in any appreciable volume. All their water is taken.

Many parts of the world, notably the Middle East, are running out of water to feed themselves. In response, a vast global trade is emerging. Not in water itself, but in thirsty crops like grains and sugar and cotton. Effectively the UK imports 45 cubic kilometres of water every year embodied in such crops – much of it from poor and arid lands.

Economists call this the ‘virtual water trade’. Many countries would starve without it. But as more and more countries run short of water, the trade will be disrupted. And the threat of wars over water will grow.

Already water shortages are at the heart of many injustices. Ever since Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, it has refused to let Palestinians sink new boreholes there. It says this policy is necessary to protect the underground water reserves, which are already being over-used. That is true. But the reality is that Israel takes most of the water, and the limits only apply to Palestinians.

Israeli settlers in their hilltop compounds on the West Bank have swimming pools and sprinklers on their lawns, while down below, their Palestinian neighbour go thirsty. Literally, in some cases. Some farmers I met there spend three hours every day carrying pots on their donkeys to get water for their children and animals.

Israel’s relations with its other neighbours are poisoned by its insistence on controlling the watershed of the River Jordan, its main source of water. The 1967 Six Day War was, according to former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s memoirs, fought as much for control of the River Jordan as for land. Israel hangs onto the Golan Heights less for military reasons than because it is where the river rises.

Scour the ‘in briefs’ in the broadsheets and you will see a constant drip-drip of stories about water riots in Pakistan, Mexico, India, China, Indonesia and elsewhere. The world is awash too with disputes over international rivers that threaten to become full-blown wars as water shortages grow. A disturbing number are legacies of British imperial rule.

The 1947 partitioning of India split control of the River Indus. Now India and Pakistan are at odds over a new Indian hydroelectric plant that, Pakistan claims, threatens its British-built irrigation schemes, which supply most of the country’s food. India’s control over the Ganges causes both floods and droughts in downstream Bangladesh.

In Africa, Britain left behind a Nile treaty that gives all the waters of a river that flows through ten countries to the two most downstream: Egypt and Sudan. Egypt now threatens to wage war on anyone upstream -- such as Ethiopia - who takes so much as a pint pot of water from the river.

Other festering disputes concern Chinese dams being built on the Mekong in Southeast Asia, and complex conflicts in central Asia, where upstream hydroelectric dams that keep the people of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan warm in winter disrupt water supplies for the huge cotton plantations of downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

One of the first items on the agenda of a future functioning Iraqi government will be to contest Turkish dams upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates.

A major problem in many of these disputes is that there are no internationally agreed ground rules for how nations should cooperate over shared rivers. One of the first foreign policy acts of the Blair government back in 1997 was to try and rectify this by sponsoring a Watercourses Convention at the UN. And yet a decade later, the government hasn’t got round to ratifying the convention in parliament. And partly as a result, the treaty languishes without sufficient signatures to enter into force.

This seems bizarre when successive Labour foreign secretaries, notably Margaret Beckett, have stressed the security threat posed by disputes over international rivers. And when former defence secretary John Reid recently warned that our armed forces needed to prepare for future "water wars".

Asked to explain Britain’s failure to sign a piece of paper it helped draft and recommended to the world, then international development secretary Hilary Benn told parliament in early 2007: "We do not believe that any potential domestic benefits justify the resources that would be required." And: "We need to ensure this does not just place a further burden on governments in our partner countries."

What resources? What burdens? Which "partner countries"? And what has changed since 1997 when this government saw no such impediment?

This article will appear in the World Development Movement magazine, Action. The World Development Movement has launched a campaign ‘Stop Water Wars’ calling on people to sign an online petition to Gareth Thomas, Minister for Water

Fred Pearce is a former news editor at New Scientist magazine, and is currently its environment and development consultant. He is a regular broadcaster on radio and TV on environmental issues and writes for a number of publications.
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain