Conflict or Cooperation over Water 3

Conflict or Cooperation over Water Part IV

9: Water – plentiful and volatile

Access to water is a physical issue, but also a technological, economic and political issue. For states , it is common to talk about two types of water resources:

  • External: water that enters a country via rivers and groundwater reservoirs from other countries. 39 countries get more than half of their water from outside; 15 of them more than 75 percent.
  • Internal: water that comes from the precipitation that falls within a country’s borders, or groundwater that lies entirely within a country.

When it comes to rivers, we are also talking about upstream and downstream states . A state up in a river can sit with a lot of power over one (or more) states below. An upstream country is involved in deciding how much and how good water a downstream country will have available – and when it is available. In addition, a state can be both an upstream and a downstream state – Sudan, for example, is upstream in relation to Egypt, but downstream in relation to Ethiopia.

For political, geological and hydrological reasons, people in a country can usually only utilize a small part of the water resources that can at any time be found within the borders of this country. The decisive factor is not the amount of fresh water on earth, but the pace at which fresh water is renewed in the hydrological cycle – the water cycle.

In the long run, water is a renewable resource. The precipitation sinks into the soil or is collected in rivers, streams and lakes and returns to the sea again or to the atmosphere. The water can not be consumed for a longer period of time more or faster than the cycle produces it. Groundwater takes a particularly long time to renew.

Some experts claim that the upper limit for the world’s available water resources in practice is between 9,000 and 14,000 km 3 per year. And even this number must be reduced because a large part of the lake helps to maintain natural ecosystems in coastal zones, swamps, wetlands, etc.

If the percentage of fresh water is modest, it is important to emphasize that the amount of water is still large enough for both 8 and 10 billion people. The problem is that the lake is not evenly distributed and that population and precipitation concentrations do not coincide . Totals therefore have little practical significance. It is the access to water locally that tel. And it’s not just technical-scientific conditions that come into play. It also makes power relations and social distribution.

Nearly half of all freshwater in the world lies in international river basins (watercourses). About 40 percent of the world’s population lives by waterways that are common to two or more states. And 261 rivers are counted as international, 60 of them in Africa. In Europe, according to, precipitation over 17 countries contributed to the lake in the river Danube! 5 river basins – Congo, Niger, Nile (will Sudan be divided?), Rhine and Zambezi – will be divided by 9-11 countries. The agreements for managing them in a good way are the fewest and least robust in developing countries. These countries are thus more exposed to water disputes.

One of the oldest intergovernmental agreements on water concerns the distribution of river water; but it includes, for example, only two out of ten countries in the river course; Egypt and Sudan. At the same time, large-scale hydropower development is taking place in many areas without sufficient consideration for the need for plans and agreements that cover entire watercourses.

There are many examples of a country having its external water resources dramatically reduced – that the water tap is, so to speak, turned on from the outside. An upstream country may have built a dam in a river or pumped up water from a common groundwater reservoir, lakes, etc. The same distinction between external and internal resources can be drawn regionally and locally in the same country.

Different user interests also affect the supply of water in a quarter of individual countries. Hydropower plants stand against plants for water for irrigation; water for cities must compete with water for agriculture; rafting stands against the production of electric power; discharges to drinking water, etc. On the one hand, the same water can be used for many different and sometimes conflicting objects. On the other hand, the many user interests will counteract the most sensible utilization of the water from a physical point of view. Finding a good balance between efficiency and justice is therefore important in water management.

The pressure on the water is increasing. The distribution and management of existing water resources has therefore come to the fore in a different and more dramatic way than before and for the first time at a global level.

Conflict or Cooperation over Water 3

About the author