Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In Canada, Indigenous communities can now apply for billions of dollars in compensation for decades of dirty drinking water. The CBC reports that last week the claims process opened for an $8 billion settlement, which was approved three months ago by federal courts. The settlement stems from separate lawsuits filed by two Ontario First Nations over lack of clean water. Because of inadequate infrastructure, many First Nations communities in Canada have had to boil their water before drinking it. A few of these boil-water advisories have lasted for decades. First Nations communities must file their claims by December of this year. Their funds will go towards water system improvements. Individuals who have been affected can also apply for compensation, but they have until March 2023 to do so.
In the Horn of Africa, a severe drought shows no signs of relenting. Climatologists and relief agencies fear that dry conditions will persist in the region, leaving as many as 20 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia facing extreme hunger. The United Nations’ World Food Program says the region is facing its driest conditions in four decades and is approaching a hunger crisis.
Increasingly intense droughts are a concern not only for hunger. They could also trigger competition over water. This week, Circle of Blue reports on a database that documents the rising number of violent clashes involving water.
One of the first casualties of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not a human life. In late February, as Vladimir Putin’s war machine was beginning to uncoil, Russian forces destroyed a dam in Ukraine. That dam was blocking water from a Soviet-era canal that flows into Crimea, which Russia had wrested from its neighbor in 2014. Ukrainians built the dam, pushing back against the loss of territory.
The destruction of the dam across the North Crimean Canal is the most recent entry in the Water Conflict Chronology, a compendium of violent acts related to water throughout 4,500 years of history. The database is maintained by the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank.
In a March 2022 update to the chronology, the Pacific Institute is adding 376 entries, most of which occurred in the last three years. The newly added incidents reveal the geographic and political dimensions of water-related violence in an era of social turmoil and ecological upheaval. They range in scale from local disputes to longstanding regional and international flashpoints, and they include killings over water rights, violence at water protests, and destructive efforts to use water as strategy.
Peter Gleick, president emeritus and senior fellow at the Pacific Institute, helped compile the chronology. He told Circle of Blue that an array of environmental, social, and political forces are contributing to the rise in water-related violence. Droughts in farm regions have put pressure on farmers, whose livelihoods depend on water for their crops. Meanwhile, the absence of basic services can aggravate existing tensions. Billions of people worldwide do not have access to safe water. The chronology divides incidents into three categories: water used as a weapon, water as a trigger of conflict, and water as a casualty of conflict. Most of the entries are for water as a trigger or a casualty.
Other water scholars are also keeping close watch on water conflict, including Erika Weinthal of Duke University, who advises attention to how politics plays a role. Weinthal and her collaborators maintain a database of attacks on critical water, energy, sanitation, transportation, and health infrastructure in the Middle East. In the last decade, damage to wells, canals, water pipelines, and treatment works have frequently occurred alongside political conflicts in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Years ago, public officials and outside observers were concerned that conflict between countries over diminishing water supplies would lead to war. Research has shown that cooperation among countries that share rivers is a far more common outcome. Nevertheless, there are reasons to worry that the future might not resemble the past.
While armed international confrontations directly related to water are rare, Gleick said that sub-national conflicts are increasing. That includes disputes over irrigation canals in India and access to grazing land in the Sahel. Cyberattacks on computer systems that operate dams and water treatment plants are an emerging threat.
In larger conflicts, like the war in Ukraine, water is often collateral damage. Weinthal worries about cascading effects and “slow violence” that stems from attacks on critical infrastructure: for example, oil leaks that pollute watersheds and fields, hospitals that are unable to function because of fractured water supply pipes, or the inability to access land to drill a new well.
Databases like the Water Conflict Chronology are helping scholars plot the future of water-related violence, to inform predictive models and preventive action. For example, the Water, Peace and Security partnership is a joint effort from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and the German Agency for International Cooperation. It unites the expertise of six research institutes and non-governmental organizations. The partnership uses computer modeling to create quarterly forecasts that attempt to anticipate regions where water might spark conflict in the next 12 months.
Charles Iceland is the acting director of the water program at the World Resources Institute, one of the project partners. He told Circle of Blue “We literally tie past conflict to projections of future conflict.” The predictive model has a specific focus, Iceland said. To use the Pacific Institute’s language, the model is not evaluating the odds that water will be a casualty of war or used as a weapon. It is instead looking for areas in which water might be a trigger for violence. Iceland said the project aims to prevent conflict before it begins, giving international agencies and national governments the information they need in order to calm tensions before they boil over.
In Ukraine, however, peace has already been shattered. The war, now in its third week, is testing the bounds of international law, which forbids targeting civilian infrastructure, such as wells and water delivery systems. Weinthal said that Russia’s tactics in the initial assault amount to what she called a “scorched earth policy” where few targets are left untouched, be they civilians, hospitals, or water systems. It is, she said, “a level of brutality we have not seen in a long time.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at circleofblue.org. This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.