US can help stop brewing water wars

A global water crisis is brewing, scientists warn, and we must find new solutions or face the specter of widespread water warfare. Water management experts say the large-scale infrastructure projects traditionally offered as the solution cannot alleviate water conflicts. Instead, the emphasis must be on conservation and water equity. Unfortunately, the World Bank - the world's largest development lender and a powerful force in shaping water infrastructure - has been extremely slow to shift gears.

Instead, the bank maintains a water portfolio laden with huge, old-style water schemes. At minimum, such projects typically fail to solve the inequities in water distribution that spark water conflicts. In regions where most people have no access to fresh water and cannot afford the water from costly big dams, these projects can actually make things worse.

In September, a massive World Bank-funded water project in the African nation of Lesotho helped spark precisely the type of armed confrontation water experts predict. South African troops invaded Lesotho - a tiny independent mountain kingdom located within South Africa - ostensibly to quell public protests against the lack of democratic reforms. But newspapers in the region reported that protection of the South African-built Lesotho Highlands Water Project - which pipes water from Lesotho into South Africa's arid industrial heartland - was a major military priority. What has been called the region's "first water war" left 17 people dead near one of the project's dams, and dozens more in and around the capital.

The project has been fraught with social problems from the beginning. So far, two of the project's five proposed dams have received their key World Bank funding. The just-completed 182-meter-high Katse Dam is the tallest in Africa, while the proposed 145-meter Mohale Dam will flood some of the most fertile land in Lesotho, where agricultural land is extremely scarce and food security a serious issue. Local people have lost their land, access to water, and often their homes with little or no compensation. With water shortages already forecast for Lesotho, the reservoirs will become an increasingly cruel taunt.

Meanwhile, huge project costs have nearly doubled water prices in South Africa's most populous region, putting it out of reach of the poor blacks already suffering from water inequities created under apartheid.

Who are the beneficiaries? A clue came at a recent awards ceremony recognizing the project's "exemplary and excellent use of concrete." The Lesotho official in charge of the project called Katse Dam a "symbol of partnership between the project sponsors and the construction fraternity."

Unfortunately, the Lesotho Highlands project is far from unique among World Bank water-development schemes. In the past few years, nearly half of the bank's water-sector loans have been for large-scale infrastructure projects, while small-scale irrigation and watershed management and conservation remain a tiny slice of the pie at less than 6 percent of total water lending.

The bank's recent lending patterns show a disturbing resistance to experts' growing emphasis on sustainable water management. The institution has endured years of criticism over its support for more than 600 large dam projects that have created huge environmental and social costs while also contributing to the inequitable distribution of water and power.

This prejudice toward big infrastructure projects promotes unsustainable, inequitable water-management - in short, the perfect setting for future water wars. The World Bank urgently needs to reverse its approach to water management to one that will help avert rather than worsen the world's growing water crisis.

The United States, the largest World Bank donor, should request an in-depth evaluation of the Lesotho project and the bank's approach to water resources development. This would provide valuable lessons about more effective uses of public funds to help the poor and protect the environment. These lessons are critical to reducing the risks of future international water wars.

* Korinna Horta is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. Lori Pottinger is the head of southern Africa programs at the International Rivers Network in Berkeley, Calif.

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