The challenge is as forbidding as it is global, verily the outcome of the cocktail of burgeoning population, poor management of resources, and extreme weather events linked to the climate crisis. And as with climate change, rise in sea levels and global warming, governments in general are floundering in search of a solution to the water crisis.
If the report of the California-based Pacific Institute thinktank is any indication, the crippling scarcity of water, almost the world over, has doubled water-related violence during the decade that has just gone by (2010-19). The euphoric celebrations on New Year’s eve chimed oddly with the surge in attacks on civilian water systems in course of the civil war in Syria and increasing disputes over supplies in India.
The cruel irony must be that a vital resource, indeed life’s essential, has ignited conflicts, prompting the Pacific Institute, a leading authority on water-related issues, to craft an unnerving database of water-related violence. The trend illustrates the tension resulting from dwindling supplies of fresh water in many parts of the world.
“As water becomes more scarce, because it’s such a critical resource, people will do whatever they can to meet their basic needs,” said Peter Gleick, the founding president of the Pacific Institute. The database was first prepared in the 1980s and documents cases where water was a trigger for fighting, used as a weapon or supplies were disrupted by conflict. It is painful to reflect that water today is a weapon of sorts to settle conflicts both at home and the world.
The latest report of the institute has mentioned the shelling last June near a water pipeline in Ukraine, which has been a stormcentre for as long as it has. The incident left 3 million people on both sides of the frontline without a reliable supply. In India, five farmers were shot in June 2017 in the wake of protests over water and other issues in drought-hit Rajasthan. The short point is that cries for water were greeted with the bullet that targeted the peasantry.
The overall increase in water-related violence can be attributed to the fact that advances in connectivity have made it easier to report incidents than it was before. The database has noted a marginal decline in reported incidents between 2000 and 2010, indicating that improvements in communication technology do not wholly explain the trend. Conflicts over access to water and especially attacks on civilian water systems largely explain the water violence, now almost endemic.
Targeting civilian water supplies is a breach of international law, but attempts to prosecute leaders specifically for doing so are rare. One of the few examples is the International Criminal Court’s indictment against Omar al-Bashir, the former ruler of Sudan, who was charged with contaminating the wells and water pumps of some of the villages his forces were attacking. That was hideous, even at the mildest estimation.