By Sandy Milne16th August 2021
Unprecedented levels of dam building and water extraction by nations on great rivers are leaving countries further downstream increasingly thirsty, increasing the risk of conflicts.
Speaking to me via Zoom from his flat in Amsterdam, Ali al-Sadr pauses to take a sip from a clear glass of water. The irony dawning on him, he lets out a laugh. “Before I left Iraq, I struggled every day to find clean drinking water.” Three years earlier, al-Sadr had joined protests in the streets of his native Basra, demanding the authorities address the city’s growing water crisis.
“Before the war, Basra was a beautiful place,” adds the 29-year-old. “They used to call us the Venice of the East.” Bordered on one side by the Shatt al-Arab River, the city is skewered by a network of freshwater canals. al-Sadr, a dockhand, once loved working alongside them. “But by the time I left, they were pumping raw sewage into the waterways. We couldn’t wash, the smell [of the river] gave me migraines and, when I finally fell sick, I spent four days in bed.” In the summer of 2018, tainted water sent 120,000 Basrans to the city’s hospitals – and, when police opened fire on those who protested, al Sadr was lucky to escape with his life. “Within a month I packed my bags and left for Europe,” he says.
Around the world, stories like al Sadr’s are becoming far too common. As much as a quarter of the world’s population now faces severe water scarcity at least one month out of the year and – as in al-Sadr’s case – it is leading many to seek a more secure life in other countries. “If there is no water, people will start to move,” says Kitty van der Heijden, chief of international cooperation at the Netherlands’ foreign ministry and an expert in hydropolitics. Water scarcity affects roughly 40% of the world’s population and, according to predictions by the United Nations and the World Bank, drought could put up to 700 million people at risk of displacement by 2030. People like van der Heijden are concerned about what that could lead to.
“If there is no water, politicians are going to try and get their hands on it and they might start to fight over it,” she says.
Over the course of the 20th Century, global water use grew at more than twice the rate of population increase. Today, this dissonance is leading many cities – from Rome to Cape Town, Chennai to Lima – to ration water. Water crises have been ranked in the top five of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks by Impact list nearly every year since 2012. In 2017, severe droughts contributed to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, when 20 million people across Africa and the Middle East were forced to leave their homes due to the accompanying food shortages and conflicts that erupted.
Peter Gleick, head of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, has spent the last three decades studying the link between water scarcity, conflict and migration and believes that water conflict is on the rise. “With very rare exceptions, no one dies of literal thirst,” he says. “But more and more people are dying from contaminated water or conflicts over access to water.”