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The Water Wars: Are They Myths?
Find instruments of peace;cooperation is the key to survival!
"Water shortages are brewing wars," warned the BBC last year. People who worry about climate change are drawn to this dramatic, high-stakes idea. After all, persistent droughts and destructive floods are symptoms of a changing climate, and it seems irresistibly intuitive to claim that when water becomes scarce or unpredictable, states will go to war with each other to secure it. But by paying so much attention to an exaggerated, simplistic scenario (even with good intentions), we miss the true risks of water shortages, and the solutions at hand.
Take the current conflict in Ukraine, described by some people as a conflict over water: Russia intervened, they say, to ensure Crimea would get water that Ukraine has been holding back since 2014. But alleged causes of the ongoing invasion also include economics, identity, history, security, and an unhinged dictator.
This does not mean that water is immaterial. Water infrastructure can be a target in war, as when Russian forces cut off Mariupol from its water supply to conquer the city. Water can also be weaponized, as both Ukrainian, and Russian forces have done by breaching dams to flood the landscape, and shift the odds in the ground fight. And, of course, localized conflicts can ignite over water when institutions collapse, as when Russian-backed separatists took over parts of the Donbass region in 2014, cutting in half the Soviet-era integrated water system that served it. History is littered with examples of times when water, or the infrastructure designed to manage it, played some role in war. But that is not the same as being the cause of an international war. Attributing wars to water scarcity implies that material conditions inevitably determine armed conflict, when in fact military aggression is almost always a matter of choice.
Blaming war on water absolves politicians of their responsibility, and deprives people of their agency, undermining efforts to resolve the very conflicts water is supposedly driving. There are 310 river basins straddling national boundaries, covering nearly half of the earth's land surface and home to half of humanity. Many of those rivers are under stress today. Focusing on them as possible theaters of war—as the "water wars" story would have it—diverts us from seeing them for what they could be: 310 instruments of peace. In fact, cooperation rather than conflict is the most common response to a difficult water situation.
In the face of climate change, and deteriorating water security, the real challenge is not war, but successful cooperation.
OpenMind is a digital magazine covering