The War Over Water
BY MANUEL E. YEPE*
Since ancient times access to water has been a source of power and conflict.
In the same place where US occupation forces fight a ruthless and unequal war against Iraq, some 4,500 years ago there was a bloody battle between two cities for the use of the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. History records it as the oldest war over water.
Obviously, the wars will no longer be between city-states. In today’s lopsided world that has accentuated the contradictions between the opulent North and the needy South, more than clashes between great powers, one can expect battles between the rich and poor nations.
The neoliberal economic order imposed on the world keeps national governments from creating conditions to face the dangers on the horizon from the growing lack of water.
The difficulties faced because of a lack of water —desertification, less food production, an increase in infectious diseases, epidemics and a loss of ecosystems— brings on political and social tensions that are already having bloody internal consequences in Latin America and Africa.
There is also a growing tendency that the internal problems created over access to water become international conflicts as possession of water resources determines the viability of societies.
With the value of water rising all the time, as a deficit resource on a worldwide scale, the issue becomes part of the global strategy of the great capitalist powers that impose their most common neoliberal formulas: privatization and militarization.
The major transnational corporations have fixed their sights on controlling the most promising water resources of the countries in the so-called “developing world.”
The World Bank, as a guardian of the economic interests of the United States and the great transnational companies, “recommends” that developing countries privatize their water reserves through concessions to foreign corporations, which in turn will make them as valuable as oil.
The poor do not have the money to fund the operating costs of the water companies that offer water as one more product; while governments, under the neoliberal scheme, lack the means to help the firms and much less their “customers.”
In some parts of the world, an unusual interest is taking place on behalf of the US and other powers to provide “military protection” to guard the largest water sources. The medium and long-range objectives are ever more open and the accelerated militarization of the areas were great water reserves are located is underway.
With the extending of market ruled economies in Latin America, especially via free trade treaties or their variants, the poor and indebted countries see themselves obliged, as the only way out of crisis, to open themselves up to foreign exploitation of their natural resources, often located on ancestral lands of the indigenous populations.
Governments and large multinational consortiums have grown accustomed to signing accords without respect for the rights of those native peoples, who over thousands of years have had the wisdom to care for “Mother Earth” and the water that sustains life, and who are showing their ability and will to struggle for those rights. They also have the support of social movements around the globe.
Latin America, with the greatest potable water reserves in the world, is being intensively ransacked. Soon its remaining forests will be converted into deserts.
And the water not consumed by foreign plunderers in their extensive plantations, is often contaminated by chemical products they use for their crops and the residues of extract industries like open shaft mining.
An era is boding where tensions and wars will take place over potable water. This can only be avoided or reduced by way of a system of relations that impedes an ecocide, which excludes using water as a resource open for marketing and, much less, converted into a bounty for powerful plunderers.
* Manuel E. Yepe Menéndez is a professor at the Higher Institute of International Relations in Havana.
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