Sunday, May 04, 2008

Editorial: The Importance of International Hydrology

Source: "Rivers and conflict: Streams of blood, or streams of peace," The Economist, May 1st 2008.

Water is obviously a critical resource for human life, for agriculture, and for many industries. Hydrology as the scientific study of water resources is obviously important, and becoming more important as demands for water increase and it becoming a scarce resource in more and more populated areas.

Equally obviously, water does not respect national boundaries. Rivers flow across them, and aquifers are not limited to a single nation's territory. Indeed, not only do weather and climate systems ignore such boundaries, but they can not be understood without regional and indeed global data. Thus the science of hydrology gains from being international.

These facts alone would justify UNESCO's hydrology program. However, as this blog's postings have often described, UNESCO's programs are fundamentally oriented towards building the defenses of peace in the minds of men through intellectual cooperation. UNESCO's International Hydrological Program provides a forum in which hydrologists from different nations can come together to work to develop cross-national programs, and thereby reach consensus as to the true status of water resources shared by their nations, and indeed on the likely impact of alternative management strategies of those resources.

Does that contribute to the search for peace. I extract from The Economist article:
Researchers at Oregon State University say they have found evidence......showing that the world's 263 trans-boundary rivers (whose basins cover nearly half the land surface of the world) generate more co-operation than conflict. Over the past half-century, 400 treaties had been concluded over the use of rivers. Of the 37 incidents that involved violence, 30 occurred in the dry and bitterly contested region formed by Israel and its neighbours, where the upper end of the Jordan river was hotly disputed, and skirmished over, before Israel took control in the 1967 war. And some inter-state water treaties are very robust. The Indus river pact between India and Pakistan survived two wars and the deep crisis of 2002......

The Nile is vast. Geographers still argue over exactly where the White Nile rises. Its tributaries and tendrils extend over a tenth of Africa's surface, and 160m people live in the river basin, in ten countries. That number is predicted to double within a few decades. These pressures, and Egypt's record of posturing and occasional threats, have been cited by some as a harbinger of war....

There is certainly a mounting conflict of interest between China and some neighbours over the use of two rivers that rise in Xinjiang, a region that the government in Beijing wants to develop and populate. The Chinese have diverted part of the Irtysh river, which feeds Russia's Ob river and ends up in the Arctic, to a canal supplying the booming oil town of Karamai. And China is also making more use of the Ili river, which ends up in Kazakhstan's Lake Balkhash, a vast, shallow expanse. Perhaps exaggerating, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has said Lake Balkhash could turn into a salty mess, like the Aral Sea; and there are fears that wind-borne salt from its dried-up basin might speed the melting of glaciers on which China and Kazakhstan depend.....

For another “asymmetrical” relationship, take the one between Turkey, where the Tigris and Euphrates rise, and Syria and Iraq, both highly dependent on those rivers. Turkey's effort to build up to 22 dams on the two rivers is a constant source of tension, and tempers flared in 1990 when Turkey briefly interrupted the Euphrates.....

What about Israel, a country that (in matters aquatic, as in much else) views itself as eternally vulnerable while its neighbours often regard it as a hard-nosed bully? Israel's strategic situation was transformed after 1967: it no longer had to fight over water, and was able to co-operate “asymmetrically” with its neighbours in Jordan and (at least while the Oslo peace accords still worked) the Palestinians.

And as Israel builds up its capacity to turn sea water into fresh, a new form of co-operation has been proposed. This would involve pumping desalinated water from the Mediterranean to supply the West Bank—with the rider that Israel would retain access to a rich underground aquifer on the West Bank, under the terms of any settlement. This would lock the Palestinians into deep dependence on Israel.

Some of the gloomiest forecasts of water wars have focused on sub-Saharan Africa. The ever-cheerful UNDP said in 1999 that the basins of the Nile, Niger, Volta and Zambezi were all potential flashpoints. But even in Africa, outright inter-state war over rivers seems unlikely. As in other places, rivers in Africa often make for more neighbourliness, not less; the more countries a river passes through, the greater the regional co-operation. Indeed, as that UNDP report came out, Namibia and Botswana amicably accepted an international court ruling over an island in the Chobe river, a tributary of the Zambezi.
If the world is to continue its record of resolution of disputes over the allocation of increasingly scarce water resources it seems obvious that those negotiating water treaties and disputes will be well served by accurate, holistic hydrological knowledge gained through cooperative research and analysis, and agreed upon by a global consensus of hydrological experts.

UNESCO's hydrological program is modestly funded, making its impact by bringing together people and information. It makes a modest contribution to the maintenance of peace, but a contribution that alone may more than justifies its modest budget.

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