Water-related conflicts rise worldwide amid scarcity, drought


Gaye Taylor

The Energy Mix

As statistics show an acute upswing in the number of global conflicts involving water, urban planning experts and alarmed policy-makers are devising ways to protect citizens from the harms of too little water—as well as too much.

Water conflicts—where water is either a trigger, a weapon, or a casualty of violence—rose sharply in number around the globe over the last decade, reports Statista, citing research by the Pacific Institute that pinpoints Asia as a hotspot. Between 2009 and 2019, a staggering 388 conflicts related to water occurred on the continent, compared to 111 such incidents in the years between 2000 and 2009. This number includes last year’s dispute over irrigation water that led to clashes along the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, leaving at least 41 people dead and more than 200 injured.

Africa is also in the crosshairs of water conflict, as well, with the continent suffering 150 incidents in the last decade, more than double the number experienced between 2000 and 2009. The analysis cites Ethiopia’s plan to dam the Blue Nile as an acute and worsening flashpoint.

Drought-stricken Latin America and the Caribbean are also seeing significant clashes, with 61 conflicts recorded between 2009 and 2019, up sharply from 18 in the previous decade.

As for the developed world, Europe saw 18 water conflicts in the last decade, up five from the previous one, while North America logged 10, up from seven.

Australia recorded no water-based conflicts in the last decade despite its ongoing experience of megadrought. It experienced two between 2000 and 2009.

As the incidence and ferocity of these conflicts rise around the world, particularly in the poorest and most underdeveloped regions, cities like Los Angeles are trying to figure out how to persuade residents to live with less water now, and for generations to come.

Still in the grip of devastating drought, “Los Angeles and many of its suburbs will soon restrict outdoor watering to once a week—and if that doesn’t work, ban outdoor watering altogether,” reports the New York Times.

With the first three months of 2022 the driest on record, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has “little more than half of the water it needs to make it through the rest of the year,” notes the Times, a situation that the district’s chief operating officer Deven Upadhyay described as “a crisis unlike anything we have ever seen before.” 

In its thirteenth year of drought, Chile is also in very deep trouble, water-wise. With the two rivers that supply water to Santiago at just 65% of normal volumes, Chile has come up with a plan to ration water to the capital city’s nearly six million residents, reports Reuters.

“A city can’t live without water,” Claudio Orrego, governor of the Santiago metropolitan region, told media. “And we’re in an unprecedented situation in Santiago’s 491-year history where we have to prepare for there to not be enough water for everyone who lives here.”

Santiago has rolled out a four-tiered warning system that goes from green to red based on water levels, with red giving utilities the authority to cut water for up to 24 hours in parts of the city.  Over the longer term, Santiago needs to learn to think very differently about water.

“It worries me that there’s zero consciousness of scarcity of water in Santiago,” Orrego said. “We use the water as if we had it in abundance.”

Across the Pacific Ocean in China, urban planners and policy-makers are fighting the equal and opposite water challenge, as are their peers in India and Bangladesh, with the problem of too much water at crisis levels, writesDeutsche Welle. At work on this problem for the past 20 years has been Konjian Yu, dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and pioneer of the “sponge city”.

As their name suggests, such cities utilize both natural and purpose-built materials to turn themselves into “sponges,” encouraging rain and storm water to follow a natural meandering course, rather than attempting rigid control and containment with the “grey infrastructure” of concrete levees and channels. Adopted by the central government in 2013, following devastating floods that crippled Beijing and killed scores, Yu’s sponge cities plan was piloted in 30 cities. “After successful trials, cities are now obligated to build sponge city elements, with authorities hoping to turn 80% of urban areas into sponges by 2030.”

Allocating just 1% of city land to sponge principles that allow water drainage could stop most urban flooding outright, Yu said. A 6% allocation would protect cities from “biblical, 1-in-1000 year floods,” writes DW.

And such a design shift will do more than keep flood waters from rising and rushing at lethal speeds through city streets. Sponge cities will also be cooler, thanks to evaporation, and they might even have cleaner drinking water. Yu said the micro-organisms, sediments, and vegetation that are inherent to sponge city water systems “could eventually replace a lot of energy-intensive urban water filtration systems, or at least reduce the burden on them.”

Sponge cities also have smaller carbon footprints, as they are far less energy-intensive to operate and maintain than concrete and steel, and their green spaces absorb a lot of carbon.

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