Module 9: Water and Politics

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Overview

We have introduced the some of the science and society issues in the first eight modules, and you have, by now, soaked up what you need to know to begin to formulate your own strong impressions of the major local and global issues and to come to some conclusions regarding possible solutions to them. In modules 9 and 10, we will expect more of you in the way of synthesis and solution.

The Pacific Institute has compiled a very cool, comprehensive list of water conflicts (Pacific Institute: The World's Water) spanning recorded human history. Each event is accompanied by a brief account of the issue. Many of the earlier events chronicle attempts to use water as an instrument of warfare—as a barrier to invasion, poisoning of water wells to deprive enemies of water, or destruction of water impoundments and irrigation systems, for example. World politics and creation of new nation states in the twentieth century, however, created a different sort of conflict based on the need to divide crucial water resources between developing countries with burgeoning populations.

In this module we will entertain several examples of international "water wars," referring to conflicts that occur within or between countries as the result of failed treaties and agreements, water supply interruptions, climate- or population growth- induced water shortages, and related issues. You are already familiar with an early and ongoing water conflict that involved the California-based antagonism between the City of Los Angeles and the Owens Valley beginning in the early 1900s (a conflict briefly entertained in Module 8.1 and related activities). Such episodes have a familiar cause—population growth, growing water shortage, acquisition of water, conflict, growth stimulated or supported by new water resources—creating a vicious cycle, as in the Los Angeles case.

Chapter 7 in "The Big Thirst" deals with the effects of climate change on rainfall in areas of already limited rain in Australia and suggests that this may be a problem for the long term. So-called "cli-fi," films, with apocalyptic climate-change scenarios at the heart of their plots, have become popular. No less than the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all American intelligence agencies has released a report that suggests that climate change, and its influence on water availability, is a major near-future security issue. The United Nations World Food Program has estimated that 650 million people are living in areas where flood and drought can lead to food shortages and price spikes. For example, in East Africa, drought has led to warring among Somali clans for access to potable water. You should keep in mind the lessons of Module 8 Part 2 as we examine water "sharing" in this module—climate change enters into consideration of all of the examples herein, but is only explicitly mentioned in section call "The United States and Mexico—Sharing the Flow?" for the Colorado and Rio Grande River systems. A good example of internal issues related to recent climate change (prolonged drought) and poor government policy can be found here for Iran (The New York Times: Tackling Drought in Iran).