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.
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496