water wars

Is [water as a cause of war](http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v458/n7236/full/458282a.html) overrated? Wendy Barnaby argues that, because it is possible to import ’embedded water’ in the form of food, it’s usually better to trade food than to fight over water. I’m unconvinced (you could equally call industrial products ’embedded oil’ and deny the likelihood of energy wars). Nice to have an anti-cassandra, though.

1 reply on “water wars”

I agree with your scepticism about “embedded water”. Tony
Allan and his colleague A.R. Turton at SOAS are a funny wizened bunch
who have been knocking around with this for a long time. It’s a useful
corrective to ecologically determinist positions in environmental
history, or hyper-realist positions in IR, but in moving away from
material determinism it precisely ignores power. His case is built on
a narrow set of relatively well-off Middle Eastern countries (Israel,
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman…) able to water their populations because
they have other resources to trade for ’embedded water’: oil,
political influence…
It ignores the fact that some nations, or groups within nations,
simply can’t get ’embedded water’. Optimism entrenches injustice.
Writing from northern Kenya at the tail end of the dry season, where
right now ethnic groups are shooting each other for control of water
pans every day, the idea that water scarcity doesn’t cause conflict is
absurd. Arguably water doesn’t cause major wars simply because major
wars can only be fought by countries with sufficient resources to
import ’embedded water’. More importantly, big wars always have a
complex of causes, of which only one may be resources. Just because
there’s no explicit “declaration of war” over oil wells in Kordofan or
gold mines in DRC, doesn’t mean there aren’t (partly) oil wars or gold
wars. There’s a good argument, for example, that Iraq and Syria‚Äôs
desires to consolidate control over their northern regions in the
1980s and 1990s – often violently, in Iraq’s case – were partly driven
by the need to forestall Turkish control over the Euphrates and the
Tigris, threatened by long-held Turkish plans for a multi-dam scheme,
the South Anatolia Development Project (GAP). But there are also
plenty of other reasons why Iraq wanted to kill Kurds.
Allan’s idea is also hugely derivative. “Embedded water” is the
equivalent of a much older concept – “ghost acreage”, the idea
developed by Swedish food scientist Georg
Borgstrom
in the 1960s. But in contrast to Allan’s doddery
optimism, Borgstrom used ghost acreage to explain why land-poor,
population-heavy European countries aren’t hungry, and Majority World
countries are. From the early-modern period onwards, land-poor
countries consolidated control of “fish acreage” (oceans) and “trade
acreage” (land, oceans and trade routes), an often violent process
supporting a burgeoning European population. “Ghost acreage” and
“embedded water” are simply terms for control over other resources,
often violently appropriated.
More interesting is the idea that rivers encourage cooperation: major
river basins almost always cross national boundaries, and unless you
build a huge empire you have to cooperate with your neighbours to
share the watershed. During the various southeast Asian wars from the
1960s to the 1980s, there was one forum where everyone continued to
sit down – communist, capitalist, non-aligned – for over thirty years:
not a diplomatic forum, but the Mekong River Commission. The
Commission played host to all sorts of covert diplomatic efforts
between the region’s warring neighbours that sometimes presaged small
reconciliations on the ground.

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