There is a long history of conflicts over water. The first known water war was nearly 5,000 years ago: a conflict over irrigation ditches between the cities of Umma and Lagash in ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq.
In more modern times, most disputes and conflicts over water are resolved peacefully and diplomatically. There are many examples of negotiations over water disputes and hundreds of important treaties between nations, which allocate scarce water, ensure pollution is reduced, and share information and data. The United States has treaties that cover water sharing on the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers with Mexico and the Great Lakes with Canada. Even the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians have signed agreements over the intensely conflicted water resources of the region. And while these agreements are rarely perfect, they greatly reduce the risks of violence over water.
But water conflicts still exist. And as populations and economies continue to grow, pressure on limited water resources will also grow. Because water is so vital for all human activities, from sustaining ecosystems and human health to growing food to making semiconductors, these pressures will raise the political value of water. Evidence already shows that such pressures can, and do, lead to violence.
In a last, desperate, and despicable attempt to prevent the liberation of Libya from decades of rule by the despot Muammar el-Qaddafi, his regime had just added to his list of international war crimes by cutting off water to Tripoli and other cities dependent on a massive water engineering project that was once Qaddafi’s pride and joy.
In the 1990s, Qaddafi’s regime put into operation “The Great Man-Made River” – a project to pump vast quantities of non-renewable groundwater from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer in the south of the country to the northern coastal dry cities. Costing over $30 billion, this system was designed to move over 6 million cubic meters of water per day, enough to satisfy the domestic needs of millions of people, expand agriculture, and satisfy new industries.
Early in the war, Libyan government officials expressed concerns about NATO attacks disrupting the water supply and Qaddafi even claimed that NATO was interested in stealing Libya’s water. The water pipelines that bring water to Benghazi and Tripoli and other cities often run parallel to many of the oil and gas pipelines and fighting around Ajdabiya, Sirte, and Benghazi threatened the water system.
But just this week, with the regime crumbling, it was Qaddafi’s failing government that apparently used water as a last, desperate weapon. According to UN reports and officials of the National Transitional Council, Qaddafi forces vandalized water pumps, cutting off water from the Great Man Made River to western Libya including Tripoli. If these reports are true, they are a violation of international law, which clearly states that water shall not be used as a weapon to deprive people of their basic needs, and a violation of the newly declared and legally binding human right to water by the UN.
Efforts should be made as quickly as possible to secure the water systems of Libya to ensure that the Libyan people continue to have access to safe water. And if these cutoffs are shown to be intentional, they should be added to the list of international war crimes now accruing to Qaddafi and his supporters.
(A chronology with hundreds of examples of violence over access to freshwater resources is available for readers interested in history here.)
Originally published by Forbes on September 3, 2011.