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Could water scarcity cause international conflict?

Some have predicted that conflicts over water scarcity are inevitable, but what does the record show?

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / October 26, 2009

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico once suggested that the Great Lakes -- shown here is Lake Michigan -- might be a source of water for the dry Southwest.

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In reporting a recent story on a fight over water between residents of a small Colorado town and Nestlé Waters North America, a bottled water company, I learned much about water scarcity around the world, and the sense — also growing — that shortages of water could spark much future conflict.

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In recent years, there's been a proliferation of books on the world's present and future water woes, from Maude Barlow's Blue Covenant to Robert Glennon's Unquenchable.

Many, including the authors mentioned above, argue that water must be viewed as a human right, not solely as a market commodity.

That's been the United Nations' position for years – not least because a lack of access to clean water constitutes a huge health problem in much of the developing world. About 1 billion people don't have potable water.

Another reason: water scarcity's potentially destabilizing effects. Many view the conflict in Darfur, for example, as partly motivated by a growing population and a shrinking supply of water.

It's not as though conflicts over water are an entirely new phenomenon. The Pacific Institute keeps a running list of water conflicts [PDF] that stretches back 5,000 years. The first human-on-human conflict over water occurred around 2500 BC in Mesopotamia, according to the list.

A Mesopotamian city state, Lagash, diverted water from its neighbor, Umma. The most recent water conflict: In 2008, the Taliban threatened to blow up Pakistan's Warsak Dam. (The list hasn't been updated for a year.)

Some see evidence of increased risk of conflict in a warming world where some regions are drying.

A report titled “Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions: Climate change and the risk of violent conflict in the Middle East,” which was released earlier this year by the International Institute for Sustainable Development,  found that after the 2007-'08 drought in Syria, residents abandoned 160 villages.

Rainfall in the area has diminished markedly in the past 50 years, probably due to global warming. In Syria alone, some 300,000 farmers and herders abandoned their homes, families in tow, for urban camps because of the drought. Around 800,000 lost their livelihoods entirely

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