Water Wars

Arizona Gov. Benjamin Moeur with is national guardsDuring the 1950s and ’60s, there were several disputes between countries over water that threatened to erupt into all out wars. In addition, water became a strategic target in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Farmers were in the middle of almost every one of these disputes because so much water is used for irrigation. It takes 1000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain and agriculture consumes almost 70 percent of the world’s water.

  • 1950-’51, the U.S. attacked North Korean dams along the Yalu River. North Korea released floods from the Hwachon Dam to damage U.S. floating bridges downstream; the U.S. responded by bombing the floodgates.
  • 1951-’53, Israel and Syria sporadically shot at each other when Israel tried to build a water project in the demilitarized zone between the two countries. Eventually, Israel moved the project to the Sea of Galilee.
  • 1958, Egypt sent troops into disputed territory in the Sudan because of tensions over irrigation projects on the Nile River. Sudan’s government changed and a treaty was signed between the two countries.
  • 1962, Brazil sent troops into the Paraná River area of Paraguay in a dispute over development of the river. The troops weren’t withdrawn until a study commission was set up in 1967.
  • 1963-4, several hundred people were killed in fighting between Ethiopia and Somalia. The dispute was over critical water sources in the Ogaden desert.
  • 1965, Israel and Syria again exchanged gunfire over an Arab plan to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, the same river that flows into Israel. Syria was convinced to halt its diversions a year later.
  • Late 1960s, the U.S. bombed irrigation systems in North Vietnam and tried to seed clouds and produce rain to stop the flow of materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  • 1969, Israel suspected Jordan was diverting too much water from the Yarmouk River and destroyed a new irrigation canal in Jordan. The U.S. brokered secret negotiations in 1970.

Even within the “United” States, there was a time when one state threatened to go to war with another over water. In 1935, Arizona Gov. Benjamin Moeur, a politician with a flair for the dramatic, dispatched his National Guard troops to the Colorado River to stop California from building the Parker Dam and “stealing” Arizona’s water. A hundred Guardsmen with machine guns showed up at the dam site, and bewildered construction workers climbed down off their bulldozers and laid down their shovels. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court said that California was illegally exporting water without Arizona’s permission. But then, Congress passed a law overturning the court decision and allowing California to go on “stealing.”

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, disputes between state’s continued in the courts, particularly in the American West.

There are some observers who believe that there will be water wars in the future far more serious than Gov. Moeur’s political stunt or the worldwide skirmishes of the mid-20th Century. Others say water is so important, particularly for growing food, that disputes will have to be resolved through negotiation before countries start shooting.

No one knows if or when the next water war will come, but we can be sure that it will be fought over either the quantity of water or the quality of water.

Almost half – 47 percent – of the world’s land mass is drained by river basins that run through more than one country. Aquifers also cross political boundaries in many parts of the world. Potentially, each of these flash points could produce a water war, for example, if countries upstream try to take water that countries downstream believe belongs to them, or if neighbors pump so much groundwater that the levels decrease across the region.

That’s why there are so many legal documents negotiated controlling the allocation of water resources. In 1978, the United Nations counted more than 2,000 treaties and “international instruments” dealing in one way or another with surface water and aquifers. The oldest go back almost to the time of Christ.

In the United States, there are 39 “compacts” or legal water allocation agreements between 44 different states, some Native American tribes and two Canadian provinces. In addition, the U.S. has a treaty with its other major neighbor, Mexico, governing how much water Mexico receives from rivers like the Colorado and the Rio Grande.

Within the U.S., states control who gets water within its boundaries, and the federal laws and court decisions control allocation between states. There are four major legal principals governing distribution of water from which lawmakers have chosen.

  • “First in time, first in right.” This “prior appropriation” doctrine is the system that most western and many eastern states have adopted. Basically, the first one to claim and begin using water is guaranteed as much as he or she needs as long as it’s needed. Often there is a related doctrine in state laws – “Use it or lose it.” If, for example, an irrigator doesn’t use all of his or her appropriation for five years, other, later water users can legally take over that allocation. Obviously, this promotes waste because irrigators who don’t use all of their allocations can lose water in years when they do need it.
  • The reasonable use doctrine allows allocations of water for any beneficial use, no matter when a claim was first made. In this system, regulatory agencies or courts decide whose use of the water will have the most benefits for the community as a whole.
  • A few states use the English rule of absolute ownership particularly for underground water supplies, which grants landowners complete autonomy to pump whatever quantity of groundwater can be extracted from beneath their property.
  • Finally, two states, California and Vermont, have adopted the “correlative rights doctrine” that provides that groundwater is to be shared by all owners of land above the aquifer. This approach may be gaining favor. The United Nations and the European Union of recently negotiated water use documents that take this more integrated approach to resource management.

Yet, these legal systems may already be straining under the weight of increasing need for water. As world populations grow and as the productivity gains that the Green Revolution produced stall, we may be reaching the limits of our world fresh water supply. Researcher and author Sandra Postel wrote in Pillar of Sand:

“All told, reaching the food production levels needed in 2025 could require up to 2,000 cubic kilometers of additional irrigation water – a volume equivalent to the annual flow of 24 Nile Rivers or 110 Colorado Rivers… Supplying this much additional water will be difficult.”

Water wars have also erupted over the quality of the water that one country is delivering to another. For instance, during Pres. John F. Kennedy’s administration in 1961, the water that the U.S. was delivering under treaty to Mexico had so much salt in it couldn’t be used to irrigate plants. It was killing most species of plants and was five times the level allowed in drinking water, 2,700 part per million (ppm). Mexico was able to force the U.S. to agree to reduce salt levels, but the conservation measures that program required are still being implemented. There are other water quality disputes all around the globe.

According to one report in 1999, more than half of the world’s rivers are now so polluted that they pose serious health risks. Only the Amazon and the Congo remain healthy. Water underground is also being polluted, especially in the U.S. where chemical pesticides and fertilizers are migrating from the surface down into groundwater.

Sometimes, regulators and researchers can point to a specific point that is the source of the pollution – a specific industrial plant dumping chemicals into a river or a feedlot that has manure collection ponds that leak into the groundwater.

film_turnbull_RNon-point source” pollution is more wide spread, is harder to control and produces more contamination than point sources in many parts of the world. For instance, if farmers in one part of the world put more fertilizer on their fields than the plants can use and do that year after year, the excess nitrogen will eventually reach underground
aquifers. The nitrogen turns into nitrates and if they are pumped back up as drinking water, young babies can die. Nitrates destroy the blood’s ability to carry enough oxygen and babies essentially suffocate. The disease is known as “blue baby syndrome.” Since the source of nitrate contamination is not a single point source, it’s sometimes harder to control non-point source pollution.

John Turnbull is the manager of the Upper Big Blue Natural Resource District in York, Nebraska. He has seen contamination increase. “As an example, nitrates [are] a big problem in this area, now,” according to John. “More fertilizer was put on than the crop could use during that growing season.” We have more about nitrate pollution in the Crops section of this website.

Because farmers are the primary users of both surface and groundwater, they are often the primary polluters as well. So, when international or inter-regional conflicts over water quality arise, changes in farming practices are often mandated. That may mean better conservation of the water resource. It may mean forcing farmers to pay higher rates for water that are closer to the actual cost of supplying it. In some areas, it already means paying farmers not to farm and saving the water that they would have used for other countries or other uses. It may mean treating wastewater to use as irrigation. Or it may mean reducing the growth of world populations – either voluntarily through family planning or involuntarily through starvation – thereby reducing the need for water.

Whatever the strategy, farmers will be in the center of any future water wars.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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