Water ‘wars’ wash over the world



More people around the world are fighting over water, according to the Pacific Institute, a United States-based think tank. But in Africa the rate of the increase in water-related conflicts is proportionally less than it was in previous decades.

Data from the Pacific Institute shows that conflicts over water more than doubled in the past decade and increased five times in the past 20 years. The institute classes water-related conflicts as anything from air raids that damage infrastructure to protests over water shortages. Its database of these conflicts, spanning as far back as 3 000 BCE, is aimed at understanding the links between water and international security and violence.

According to the institute, worldwide there were 466 water-related conflicts between 2010 and 2019 and 224 conflicts in the decade prior to that.

In the past 10 years, Africa accounted for 26% of the total number of battles over water around the world — slightly less than in the two decades preceding 2010, when the continent accounted for about 30% of these conflicts.

But this does not indicate that things are getting better on the continent; the number of water-related conflicts in Africa almost doubled between the past two decades, rising from 67 to 122.

In the rest of the world these fights are becoming more common. War-torn Yemen, for example, accounted for 131 of the 466 water-related conflicts in the past decade.

According to the World Data Lab’s Water Scarcity Clock, 91% of Yemenis are living in areas where water is in short supply. The scarce resource has been weaponised in the country’s four-year war, resulting in water and sanitation infrastructure being destroyed.

The World Data Lab is an Austrian-based nongovernmental organisation, which collects data on “essential aspects of human existence” such as income, health, climate, water availability and food security.

Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan — along with Nigeria — were, in 2017, declared at risk of falling into famine by the United Nations.

In Africa, most of the water-related conflicts (26) between 1990 and 2019 happened in Somalia, according to the Pacific Institute’s database. Sudan and South Sudan also had 26 conflicts.

In the same 30-year period, there were 25 water-related conflicts in Kenya. A number of these clashes were between farmers and herders competing for scarce resources amid the country’s five-year drought.

A similar type of conflict gripped Chad last year, when fights between farmers and herders were reportedly driven by water shortages in the Sahel region. The drying up of Lake Chad has been linked to the increase in violence in countries bordering what is a crucial supply of water in a largely dry region.

Of 186 countries Chad was ranked most in peril on the 2016 Climate Change Vulnerability Index.

In South Africa there were 21 water-related conflicts recorded during the past 30 years, most of which happened in the past decade. These conflicts were largely associated with protest action over water shortages and poor infrastructure.

The most recent South African example of violence over water relates to the shortages in Cape Town in 2018, when residents were warned they were fast approaching “Day Zero” — the day the water level of the major dams supplying the city would have fallen below 13.5%. According to news reports, in January 2018 a fight broke out between residents lining up to collect water from the Newlands Spring in Cape Town’s southern suburbs.

Early South African entries into the database include the apartheid government’s efforts to cut off water to Wesselton, a black working-class township near Johannesburg, after protests over poor sanitation and living conditions in 1990. A 2002 plot by a right-wing group, the Boere Vryheids Aksie, to poison water supplied to townships near Johannesburg is also recorded on the database.

Like most other parts of the world, South Africa’s water crisis seems to be deepening. Between 1990 and 1999, the country recorded only three water-related conflicts and six clashes in the 10 years that followed, which doubled in the most recent decade.

This week the country’s water woes were thrown into sharp relief when Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu called for urgent government intervention to assist the Eastern Cape with drought relief efforts.

Sisulu visited the province earlier this month in response to warnings from Butterworth residents that they would shut down the town if the situation was not dealt with.

Last August, the drought and strike action by municipal workers left Butterworth’s taps dry for weeks. Three months later, all the dams supplying the area were also dry.

In the past decade, similar disasters have hit residents and agriculture in every province. Last year, Sisulu released a water “master plan”, which plotted out how to better secure the country’s scarce water resources, at a cost of nearly R900-billion.

Climate changes rainfall

For South Africans, the greatest effect of climate change will be on rainfall. The weather systems that bring rain — such as the cold fronts that ensure that it regularly rains in the Western Cape winter and the high pressure systems that bring spring rain to the highveld — are already shifting. And the country is more than 1°C hotter than it was a century ago.

These are the findings and best predictions of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the environment department, universities and United Nations climate change scientists.

Rainfall and drought are no longer as predictable. And the hotter the world gets, the more unpredictable climate becomes. Data from the environment department and the CSIR suggests most of the country will be drier by the end of this century. The rain will come in shorter and more violent spells, damaging crops and infrastructure. It won’t seep into the soil and refill the groundwater that supplies boreholes.

To secure against a dry future, South Africa has traditionally built big infrastructure projects. A network of large dams gives the highveld a buffer in times of drought, allowing homes, industries and farms to keep going over two to three years of drought. Smaller systems do that job in the coastal provinces. But limited investment in projects and corruption have meant that the next phase of many of these schemes — such as raising the Tzaneen dam wall in Limpopo and building a new dam in Lesotho to supply water to Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga — are behind schedule.

With population growth and more intense droughts, these delays will increase competition for scarce water resources. — Sipho Kings

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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