Waterwars

Written By: Vincent Gauci, Exec. Member of the Malta Water Association

Some may be surprised by this title because “Wars are fought on oil, not water”.  Yet, John Bulloch in his book Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle Eastsays that it is conflicts over the control of water, not oil, which are likely to threaten the stability of this region in the years to come.

Freshwater is essential for life on this planet.  Human beings use water for drinking and washing – lack of regular washing increases the incidence of gastrointestinal diseases including cholera and dysentery.  Water is also essential for irrigation, navigation, recreation and tourism.  Manufacture of goods needs substantial amounts of water: 1 kg of beef needs 15 000L of water while I cup of coffee needs 150L of water.  Water is indispensable for the economy of nations, and since the beginning of civilization, communities built cities close to a freshwater source: a river or a lake.  Moreover, demand on water sources increases with the affluence of the community.

It comes as no surprise therefore, that people fight for their share of freshwater whenever there is the feeling that this basic right is threatened.  In many parts of the world this threat is a reality.  Some 10% of the world’s population suffers from lack of good-quality water.  Climate Change predictions indicate a worsening of the water situation in many parts of the globe.  In the Mediterranean Region, for example, less rainfall and more violent downpours that encourage floods and reduced percolation, are predicted.

One type of threat that often results in conflict originates from human activities: a factory established along the water’s edge abstracts so much water for its needs that a community further downstream is deprived of its legitimate water rights.  Alternatively, the discharges from the factory pollute the common source of water, again rendering the water unsuitable for the downstream community.

The situation is particularly critical when a country abstracts water from a transboundary river.  This is a common situation along such rivers as the Danube and the Nile.  The Danube originates in Germany and passes through 18 countries before it discharges in the Black Sea.  Each if these countries abstracts water from the Danube and discharges its wastewater back to the river, only for the same water to be re-abstracted, used and discharged further downstream.  Hydroelectric projects and the associated damming infrastructure are particularly damaging to downstream communities.

In a number of cases, countries which share water sources have signed collaboration agreements to prevent conflicts from arising and to ensure sustainable use of the resource.  In spite of such measures, conflicts on water issues have occurred in many parts of the world.  The following table lists a few of these conflicts.

Year Conflicting countries
1969 China and the Soviet Union
2002 Ethiopia and Somalia
Ongoing Israel and Palestine

And how does Malta feature in all this?

Because of its geography, and as long as Malta does not get water from other countries, Malta will not have water conflicts as described above.   Yet, in the last 20 years of so, Malta has become very vulnerable due to its dwindling natural water supply.   Malta has only a 2-day storage capacity of good quality water and Malta has become very much dependent on the desalination of sea water by Reverse Osmosis.  In a situation of a hypothetical conflict, a hostile country can easily and quickly cripple the well-being of the population, indeed even Malta’s economy by polluting the sea-water intakes of the RO plants.  This is another reason why Malta should rehabilitate its groundwater reserves and reduce dependence on RO water.

A much more real risk for Malta is, however, infighting between different sectors of the economy for the little amount of groundwater that is left. At present groundwater is over-exploited by all – WSC for the production of potable water to the general population, manufacturing industry (including beverage companies) as process water, private bowser water suppliers selling water to all and sundry (sometimes as potable water), agriculture, and also landscaping companies.

As pressure mounts on Government to safeguard Malta’s water resources, Government will be forced to make choices on quotas and cutbacks.  This will trigger certain sectors to become more vocal, and that’s when the water wars in Malta really start.

In 2014, we are almost at this point – a mere 100 years since groundwater started to be exploited.

For those that want to know more.

http://www.siwi.org/documents/Resources/Reports/2012_TWM_REPORT.pdf

http://jveilleux.blogspot.com/2013/03/transboundary-freshwater-dispute.html

http://www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu/database/DatabaseIntro.html

http://ocid.nacse.org/tfdd/

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