Water Conflict and Cooperation/History of Humanity and Water

From WaterWiki.net

Jump to: navigation, search
edit  ·  ToolkitWater Conflict and Cooperation
History of Humanity and Water | Shared Waters and Ethics | Legal and Institutional Approaches | Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms
Emerging Trends | Public Participation | Indicators | Means and Tools | Basin Management | Lessons Learned
Organisations and Projects | Publications | Glossary | Bibliography
Case Studies: Incomati | Nile | Columbia | Lempa | Lake Titicaca | Mekong | Aral Sea | Rhine | Jordan I | Jordan II
Events | Contacts


This article is based on Water security and peace - A synthesis of studies prepared under the PCCP-Water for Peace process, compiled by William J. Cosgrove, as part of a UNESCO-IHP, PCCP Series Publication (2003).

Water Wars and Water Peace: Hegemonic Concepts in Water Discourse

The complex relationship between humanity and water is shaped ultimately by the interplay of ideas expressed through various media of communication to engender and perpetuate certain actions (or inaction). In the current discourse on water, the idea that the coming wars will be about water, and the counter idea that water could lead to cooperation and peace instead of leading to conflict, have emerged as “hegemonic” concepts.[1]

Translating Ideas into “Common Sense”

In a state society, the kind of society most of us live in today, individuals belong to various social groups with varying degrees of influence and power over each other. Such groups include the governing ruling elite, the government functionaries, representatives of the public in government, civic organizations, professionals, religious leaders and their communities, media corporations, journalists and reporters, the military, and the financial, industrial, and commercial enterprises. A social group can become dominant and gather state power into its hands only if it succeeds in developing its hegemony within society. It does this by persuading the other groups to accept the values and ideas it propagates and by building a network of alliances based on these values and ideas. The hegemony of the dominant group is therefore very much ideological in nature. The dominant group generates what others will uncritically take for granted as self-evident “common sense.”

Hegemonic Concepts of Water

It is fair to say that the idea of water as a basic human right is well entrenched as a hegemonic concept around the world. The hegemonic concept of water and food as basic human rights has given rise to another concept: “water development”. As humans have a basic right to food and water, “water development” would bring clean water to them for their domestic use and allow the development of irrigation to provide food.

Sometimes the water available is not sufficient to satisfy the needs under these two hegemonic concepts. One commonly held idea is that this is liable to lead to conflict or even war over water. A newly emerging view sees it as leading to cooperation and peace. Protagonists of both ideas are trying to influence civil society and the decision makers to make their concept hegemonic. What matters here is the recognition that fundamental concepts about water that are current today are not “absolute” truths, but ideas shaped by social and historical forces. There is at present a competition between several hegemonic concepts that will eventually lead to one course of action or another, depending on the success by which parties to certain concepts will prevail in promoting their vision.

Water War vs. Water Peace: A War of Position

Clearly the idea of a causal link between water scarcity and war has grown over the past twenty years to the point that it could become ideologically hegemonic. In March 2001, even Kofi Annan declared: “and if we are not careful, future wars are going to be about water and not about oil.”[2]

One school of thought questions the causal link between water scarcity and international war. J. A. Allan developed the concept of “virtual water” to describe the water necessary to produce food which is imported. Importing one ton of cereal was virtually equivalent to importing the corresponding quantity of water necessary to produce this cereal. Allan demonstrated that more “virtual water” already flowed into the Middle East than real water flowed in the Nile. Indeed, by 1999 Jordan was already importing 91 percent and Israel 87 percent of their cereals. Food security does not necessarily entail food self-sufficiency, he argued. Calculating water stress indicators on the basis of agricultural production capacity does not allow prediction of the likelihood of war among states. Yet food security is an essential concern of all governments for their people. Importing of food products containing virtual water is only an alternative if it is affordable. Because food is virtual water and because other industrial commodities are also virtual water, all wars over resources are ultimately water wars. All countries have far more to gain from cooperation in keeping the price of cereals low in the international market than in wars against each other to appropriate the others’ water. Water because of its symbolic and emotive value could be mobilized either for war or peace, even when the source of conflict is something else.

The water war literature tends to perceive a rather anthropomorphic state, one that deals in a unified, coherent, and rational manner with its water needs. In the current discourse, it appears as if governments are viewed as single, unified entities that make rational decisions about water needs and development issues within the state’s foreign policy. This trend is much less dominant in the water peace literature. Tony Allan, for example, shows that states have spontaneously adjusted to importing their cereals without formulating a specific policy in this respect.

The press also plays a crucial role in the propagation of the water wars concept. References to water wars provide a catchy title, while a quarter-page article rarely allows a journalist to explain the complexity of the competition for water. Whereas much popular literature has been devoted to the topic of water wars, the water peace literature has always targeted an academic readership. This does not necessarily mean that the water peace concept is doomed never to replace the water war concept in its hegemony. For example, the joint Israel Palestinian call to protect water supplies on February 1, 2001 provided the water peace camp with a precious argument. This document concluded in an Israeli–Palestinian– American meeting of the Joint Water Committee at Erez Crossing, aimed at keeping the water infrastructure out of the cycle of violence. “The two sides wish to bring to public attention that the Palestinian and Israeli water and wastewater infrastructure is mostly intertwined and serves both populations. . . . We call on the general public not to damage in any way the water infrastructure, including pipelines, pumping stations, drilling equipment, electricity systems and any other related infrastructure,” said the document. This was repeated again between the two sides in 2002, again calling on one and all to keep water out of the cycle of violence. The fact that both governments agreed to issue this joint statement shows that they are bowing to another preexisting hegemonic concept: that of water as a basic human right.

Nevertheless, damage to water infrastructure that served Palestinian towns was carried out by the Israeli military in Salfeet in the fall of 2000 and in Nablus and Ramallah in 2002, and to wells in Gaza in 2003, to name but a few examples.

In fact there was a real effort to minimize damage, and to supply water without disruption. On December 13, 2002 Nabil Al-Sherif, Chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority, spoke at the Annual Conference of the Israeli Desalination Society at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. From the podium, in front of an audience of some 250, including delegates from the United States and Europe, he thanked the Israeli Water Commissioner, Shimon Tal, for the Israeli efforts to cooperate in maintaining water supplies to the Palestinian population. This demonstrates that the possibility exists for the water peace concept to eventually replace the water war concept in its hegemony.

An Anthropology of Water Management and Civilization [3]

Water shortages are nothing new, and throughout the history of our common human civilization various solutions have been implemented to overcome water scarcities and enhance water security. Such solutions were always short-lived – a temporary relief on an historical time scale – because the social and cultural consequences of each solution led to a gradual, cumulative increase in the demand for water. Civilization is faced with the opposing hegemonic concepts of water wars and water peace. History suggests that while technology may provide a partial solution, only a return to fundamental human values of justice and equity will provide a sustainable solution to the world’s accelerating water crisis.

Human societies have throughout history found new means to secure the availability of water where they settled. They have devised ingenious methods to harvest, transport, and store rainwater, spring water, groundwater, and even air moisture. Human societies will thus continue to search for new sources of water, but the cost of procuring water is a function of the combined cost of extraction/harvesting, transportation, treatment, storage, and delivery. There is thus inevitably an economic aspect of water availability. As water scarcity increases, the cost of water also increases. Accordingly, the fundamental issues throughout history have been: Can society afford to meet the increasing cost of water works? Who pays? And who benefits? These questions imply that there are various social and political aspects to water economics. In turn, social issues are never divorced from beliefs concerning the world, the social order, and ethics.

Water shortages have been an engine of human innovation: propelling, motivating, and prodding societies to devise, accept, and perpetuate means to avoid or remedy water scarcity. Water is thus the mainspring of civilization and all its works. However, relief mechanisms have so far always entailed in the long run greater demands for water than what is available at prevailing withdrawal, transport, and treatment cost. The reasons for this paradox lie in the fact that the historical solutions to water scarcity involved:

  • increasing population size
  • greater water consumption per person
  • progressive depletion of utilized water resources
  • progressive deterioration in the quality of water.

This leads to the conclusion that further water scarcities cannot be overcome simply by new technologies. All technological innovations aimed at relieving water scarcity are embedded in a social and ideological matrix. All such innovations also have an impact on society and its ideology. To gain a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between water, people, and culture, the following sections of this chapter endeavor to develop an analytical perspective on the relationship between historical cultural developments and water management from the dawn of prehistory to the present.

Foragers in Nature

History begins with the first hunter-gatherers, who roamed the earth for millions of years before agriculture began 10,000 years ago. As foragers and hunters, they were tuned to seasonal variations in edible resources. In general, the available yield from wild resources for human consumption was only sufficient to sustain a small number of people within the perimeter of a territory determined by a day return journey to a home base. The size of a local group at any one time of the year thus rarely exceeded fifty persons, and was often between fifteen and twenty-five persons. Even such small groups could not survive in the same locality all year round because of seasonalvariations in food availability. As such, seasonal scarcities or abundance in certain desirable resources prompted people to relocate frequently in tune with the seasonality of rainfall and temperature variations that were critical for the growth and maturation of plants and the movements of animals.

Hunting and gathering was common everywhere in the world, with a broad range of regional adaptations. The range included various degrees of emphasis on hunting big game animals with spears and other hunting devices, small animals with bows and arrows, nets, and game traps, fishing, fowling, and even whaling. With a few exceptions, foraging for plants provided most of the dietary items.

Agriculture: Overcoming Climatic Variability

From the end of the last ice age (14,000 years ago) and until approximately 10,000 years ago, the world experienced frequent climatic oscillations as global climatic conditions were undergoing major changes in the heat budget and the differences between ocean and earth temperature. In certain localities wild cereal grains proved to be a viable staple food, allowing communities to settle near fields to harvest and process foods, utilizing a new technology based on stone tools such as sickles. The use of grinding stones to process cereals also became widespread. The wild cereals proved to be an alluring resource.

In Southwest Asia, a return to ice age conditions from 13,000 to 11,500 years ago transformed the landscape and influenced the distribution of wild cereal stands and animal game. These changing climatic conditions encouraged some groups to become fully committed to growing wheat and barley as staple foods. In China, populations in the area of the Yellow River began to cultivate millet, whereas some communities along the Yangtze River began to domesticate rice as a significant source of food. Another key development was the cultivation of root crops in New Guinea. This was also the case in West Africa, where root crops were introduced during the fourth millennium before the present. Still later, rice was also cultivated there. In South America and Mesoamerica, cultivated plants included maize, beans, squash, and various seed crops. Cultivated cereals spread from Southwest Asia to Europe and eastward to India. The latter received rice from China.

In Southwest Asia, goats and sheep were added to the subsistence base c. 10,000 years ago. In the Egyptian Sahara, foragers were taking advantage of the greening of the desert due to an increase in rainfall associated with post-glacial warming. One of the remarkable recent discoveries is the growing evidence for cattle keeping in Africa almost at the same time as sheep and goat were domesticated in Southwest Asia.

The beginning of a strategy focusing on keeping goats, sheep, and cattle, with or without horticulture, appears to have been initiated in the natural habitats of these crops and animals. Agriculture initiated an increase in the number of inhabitants, who remained for most or all of the year in villages and hamlets, significantly altering the relationship between people and water. A commitment to keeping animals entailed providing them with water or taking the herd to a water hole or a stream. For some groups, the idea of relocating settlements close to permanent springs and streams was a solution to the problem. Natural irrigation provided water needed for growing crops. Dependence on water from streams also militated against the capricious pattern of rainfall in arid and semi-arid lands. Not only is rain seasonal, with marked variability from one year to the next, but it is also not certain that rain will always fall in the same area.

Early State Societies: The Benefits of Cooperation

Having overcome the major problems associated with dry farming, the earliest generations of farmers in river valleys found themselves after a few generations eventually faced with periodic water shortages when rivers dried up, silted, or changed their course. In response, they dug canals and drains, and constructed dikes and earthen dams in order to either get rid of excess water or bring water to parched fields. In a sense, the first attempts to manage drainage and irrigation water, no matter how feeble or elementary, marked a revolutionary shift in the way people interacted with water.

There were also other changes that proved in the long run to have been equally revolutionary. People from neighboring villages made deals and mutual support pacts, since they suffered equally from flood disasters, and went hungry when droughts ruined their crops. Such deals included cooperating to repair breached embankments or dig canals. Sharing grain and other foodstuffs in regional networks (using boats or donkeys whenever available) was a successful mechanism to buffer local communities against food shortages.

In good years, herds are plentiful and herders prosper and become numerous. However, when pastures wither and water holes dry up, especially when farmers are better off, the peaceable pact between pastoralists and farmers may break down.

The importance of water holes and pastures led to a sense of territoriality and the organization (coordination) within and between groups of movements over long and short distances. This encouraged the emergence of a managerial strategy based on tribal affiliations and political organization.

In the American Southwest, in the uplands of the Gila and San Juan rivers, long irrigation canals were dug to water the crops. The Hohokam in this region built mound platforms and ball courts associated with the canals. Ceremonial ball games and other activities were apparently carried out, perhaps with irrigation rites involving various segments of the population.

Early States: Managing Inequality

The early state was not responsible for or involved in massive irrigation programs, and nowhere is there any evidence in early civilizations for a centralized despotic organization based on elaborate water works. However, the rise of the state created a destabilizing force. This force consisted of a greater demand for food to meet the progressive increase in the number of non-food-producers, from the king and his court to the scribes and the carpenters.

This force gained more intensity as the demand of each of the non-foodproducers soared to fit their elevated social status. With an increasing demand for food, the farmers were forced to work harder, to work longer hours, and to beget more children to increase the size of the labor force. Social and ideological mechanisms were put in place to ensure that farmers remained in the fields, living in misery and destitution in hovels. At the same time, the state elite – and the supporting cast of priests, scribes, soldiers, and artisans – retreated to palaces and town houses on royal estates in capital cities and provincial towns. Social inequality and poverty thus began, and were to plague humanity throughout history.

Greater productivity, to feed both the peasants and the rising number of non-food-producers, could only mean that more water was needed, especially when the stretched system of production suffered from lack of rain or poor floods. The answer was for the kings to dig longer canals, construct bigger dikes, and on occasions to reform the organizational bureaucracy. In some state societies, urban centers for the state elite, craft specialists, priests, and scribes led to the emergence of the earliest large cities with as many as 20,000–40,000 persons. The permanent location of these cities required protection from floods, transport of water, supply of goods through water canals, storage of water in tanks or ponds, and water distribution and sewage systems.

The Clash of Empires: The Thirst for Water

The age of empires, beginning about 2300 BC and culminating around 1500 BC in Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean region until the founding of the Roman Empire, followed in the wake of the establishment of city-states in Mesopotamia and the nation-state in Egypt, beginning about 3200 BC. This was mainly a result of the voracious appetite for revenues and trade goods by the state elite. A thousand years of agrarian developments under state rule pushed the early agrarian societies to their uppermost level of production. Large-scale military operations by armed forces dedicated to warfare were a novel strategy to secure more land, more laborers (often slaves), and to guarantee the flow of coveted exotic goods for the consumption of the elite. The only recorded incident of an outright war over water took place during this time (4,500 years ago) between two Mesopotamian city-states, Lagash and Umma, in the region now called southern Iraq.

Chan Chan, a city in the Peruvian Desert that was the center of the South American kingdom of Chimor, depended on large-scale irrigation and amassing large amounts of food, apparently obtained by conquest, to overcome periodic droughts. The city was guarded by high walls, which did not stop the Inca from destroying it. Almost everywhere, the development of state societies was followed by warfare, often associated with expansion and annexation of territories. In addition to the above mentioned civilizations, there are the notable cases of the Chinese empire, the Inca, and the Aztecs.

It may be said that conflict over water rarely leads to war (see the section on hegemonic concepts). But it is foolish not to consider that water is an indirect cause for many conflicts. Wars for agricultural products, for example, are wars for the water resources essential for farming. Wars for cotton, sugar, or rubber are wars for water, because water is required to produce them. Today it is recognized that these goods contain “virtual water.” The spread and expansion of waterworks under the Romans and the world preoccupation ever since with hydraulic engineering and water technology are excellent indicators of the thirst for water as the indispensable ingredient for economic activities from agriculture to mining. Water scarcity under the Romans was a result of greed for water, a greed precipitated by the desire for greater production to meet the demands of the imperial elite.

Greeks and Romans: Globalizing Water Technology

The pace of technological advance was slow as a result of a closed system of absolute monarchy and monopoly, a religious ideology structured around the glorification of the king, and the low rate of economic agrarian growth. There were few literate scholars. They were not organized in national or international organizations, and their learning devices were not geared for practical knowledge. The achievements of the Alexandrian scholars, including Euclid and Archimedes (287–212 BC), definitely represent a breakthrough in water history, because they laid the foundations of theoretical hydrology in connection with practical applications. The world owes to them the water wheel and the Archimedean water screw.

The Persians made an ingenious contribution to hydraulic engineering by developing a water delivery system known as qanats: a subterranean system of tunnels connecting wells and dug using vertical shifts designed to collect and transport water, sometimes over distances of more than 50 kilometers. From Persia this method for utilizing groundwater spread to drylands in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, and Cyprus. Qanats also diffused to Arabia, the Gulf States, and Oman, as well as to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. They were introduced by the Muslims to Spain, to be exported subsequently to Mexico (Tehuacan), Peru (Nazca), and Chile (Pica and Matilla). This is one of the major early historical examples of the diffusion of water technology from one civilization to another.

The Romans, who in essence capitalized on the knowledge accumulated and generated by the Ptolemies (notably at the Alexandria school) and the Persians, were instrumental in the spread of hydraulic engineering to various parts of their empire. The Nabateans, who in AD 62 came under Roman occupation, had by then constructed more than 1,000 small reservoirs using small gravity dams in what is now the region of Jordan. The Romans transported the idea to Italy in the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 54–68) on the River Arniene, about 50 km east of Rome. The Romans also introduced gravity dams to Turkey, Syria, North Africa, and Spain.

Greece and Rome thus left a lasting legacy – the legacy of a cosmopolitan world from Rome to India that permitted the flow of information, ideas, and mechanical devices on an almost global scale. Asia also contributed to a highway of information along the trade route that linked China, India, Central Asia, and Southwest Asia, which in turn was connected to Japan, Europe, Southeast Asia, Arabia, and East Africa. The road followed drainage channels from the mountains to the desert, where it clung to the footslopes of the mountains where wells were dug to benefit from underground water fed by rainfall on the mountains. The first information highway was thus a waterway.

It is remarkable that the Roman period, which entailed an unprecedented phase of economic boom, land reclamation, intensification of agrarian production, and trade on a global scale, was also a period of worsening conditions for peasants and for those who had the misfortune to become slaves.

The City–Water Arteries for Urban Life

The Roman Empire left another legacy, glorious or inglorious depending on how you look at the metropolis. Greater Rome had as many as 500,000 inhabitants, more than ten times that of earlier cities. Ptolemaic Alexandria in its heyday also approached 400,000. The water demands of both Alexandria and Rome were met by ingenious solutions. In Alexandria, the city more or less floated on top of hundreds of cisterns fed from a canal connected to a branch of the Nile. In Rome, aqueducts and tunnels were constructed to deliver water to a city that needed water not only for drinking and domestic use, but also for public baths.

One of the remarkable urban centers was Moheno-Daro of the Harappan Indus civilization. The mature Harappan civilization covered a vast region of about a million square kilometers. The city was remarkable for its water management system, which followed the city grid system, a notable feature of many mature Harappan sites.

In La Venta and San Lorenzo, urban centers of the Olmec civilization, ceremonial platforms emerged following thousands of years of farming, fishing, and fowling. Ruled by an elite who practiced human sacrifice, by the second millennium BC, the Olmec city of San Lorenzo had substantial reservoirs and drainage systems.

In Guatemala, Tikal was probably the greatest of all Mayan cities, with monumental buildings dating to about 400 BC and a royal cult of warlords dating to the third century AD. To feed the large population of the city, narrow canals were dug between raised earth platforms used for cultivation. The canals were stocked with fish and snails. The city was situated in a vast, flat expanse of rainforest in the Petén region.

Another great city of the ancient world was Angkor, which commanded a huge agrarian area from the Gulf of Siam to Vientiane and from Saigon to the Menam valley. The agrarian wealth of the region was due to the monsoon-fed Mekong River, which allowed three rice crops per year.

The Moslems: Waterworks and Water Courts

Under the Moslems, originally from a barren desert region, irrigation waterworks, aqueducts, subterranean qanats, water mills, baths, and fountains spread to many parts of the world from the eighth to the twelfth century AD. Moslems also introduced a system of water management and water courts. The court in Valencia in Spain still functions today. Attention to hydraulics by the Arabs was one of the main sources of modern mechanics and industry: the forces that were to shape the world to come.

The Rise of the West: Industry and Water

By 1650, the advent of mechanized industry and the introduction of food crops from the New World were associated with a phase of urbanization based on manufacture or commerce; both were under the patronage of the king or the church. Manufactured goods were largely the prerogative of the state functionaries, to be awarded by the head of the state. The expansion of manufacture and trade in later times was related to not only advances in technology, but also the breakdown in the monopoly of “divinely appointed” kings over manufacture and trade. This allowed many individuals to engage in such activities, and raised the number of consumers by allowing commoners to have access to luxury goods.

In Europe, the development of medieval towns linked to trade and crafts in a climate of competition and warfare not only made it necessary to secure water for city dwellers, but also entailed the use of water for defense, mills, tanning, and papermaking. Sewage, sanitation, and water pollution became issues of concern, and had a major role in transforming water management methods.

At the same time advances in the natural sciences were instrumental in alerting communities to the danger of deforestation and the drying of wetlands. Science also provided other means for manufacture that eliminated putrefaction and reduced the ravages of epidemics. With increasing affluence, the cities enjoyed the benefits of parks, tree-lined boulevards, and fountains, the Renaissance legacy of a landscape of meadows, fountains, and nymphs.

Canals and water mills in the late eighteenth century paved the way to a world where water is controlled and manipulated. Canals also paved the way for the rise of nation-states by strengthening inter-regional links within water basins. The rise of the modern nation-state was closely connected with the management of water on an inter-regional scale for transport, commerce, and industry. Water was now needed not only for agriculture and domestic uses, but also as a raw material for industry and as a source of energy. Over the last 200 years industrialization, in association with urbanization, has thus created great demands for water, competing with the growing demands for water to produce food for the ever-increasing masses of humanity.

Industrial water pollution from suspended solids, organic materials, heavy metals, synthetic chemicals, and acidic waste is now compounded with pollution by modern farming, such as contamination by nutrients, pesticides, and animal waste. Industrial farming, involving the use of farm machinery, fossil fuels, fertilizers, and water works on an industrial scale, as well as scientific methods of breeding and management, provided the possibility of supporting very large numbers of people, who in turn became the source of a huge labor force. They became also the consumers of agrarian and industrial goods, with great profits to landowners, bankers, and industrialists. A part of the profit was re-invested in science and technology to increase the margin of profit.

The share of profit was greater for the industrialized West at the expense of colonial possessions and less developed nations. The frightful result of this disparity was that the numbers living in poverty were worsened by a population explosion. In the West industrialization, education, and higher incomes and pensions made small families desirable, leading to a reduction in birth rates. Families in poor countries wanted more children so as to gain more income and security in old age, but improved health conditions meant that more of them survived.

Poor countries are now facing the dilemma of having to undergo rapid industrialization, to face growing population numbers, migration to the cities, and greater demands for the amenities of urban living and middle-class lifestyles. In the process they are stressing existing water resources, hastily and rather inefficiently developing new water resources, overlooking degradation and the breakdown of the urban water and Sewage infrastructure, and failing to minimize or prevent water pollution from modern farming and industrial installations. Thus they are trying to repeat the patterns of growth of the industrialized countries, which appear to be unsustainable at the global level.

Water Resources Management in the Postmodern World

What Has Not Changed?

The technology of water resources development has not changed significantly for a long time. Improved mathematical approaches and computational capacity and new materials technologies at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries led to the last major innovations in engineering design (i.e., arched dams and the trial-load method). Also, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, computers allowed us to design water systems to meet more precisely divergent social objectives. In construction too, use is now made of reinforced concrete and steel, as well as rock, stone, and earth, to build levees, floodwalls, jetties, and dams. Nevertheless, recent innovations have been mostly in the details. Indeed, the most interesting thing about water resources technology is its essential atemporal nature: lessons learned two thousand years ago in ancient China or two hundred years ago in Napoleonic France may well be equally valid for current water management and engineering. This has been constant.

What Has Changed?

As has been seen in this chapter, our problems are not new, except that:

  • Our water demands are rising sharply.
  • Our ability to pollute is global.
  • Our pollutants are more deadly.
  • Our interference with ecosystems is both far-reaching and nefarious.
  • All societies are closely interlinked so that any regional catastrophe can have global repercussions.
  • There are increasing global social and environmental concerns.
  • The increased speed of transformation gives people less time to adapt to new situations.

Human societies have always needed to cope with unforeseen natural forces. They are most vulnerable when they are stretched to a meta-stable condition: a point of living dangerously when minor perturbations can plunge society into a state of chaos.

Today, climatic change, mostly as an external force that is now destabilized by human-induced variables, could suddenly and significantly influence the hydrological cycle, air mass movements, ocean currents, and regional distribution of water resources, with serious socioeconomic effects. This may require new approaches to create the necessary resilience to adapt and cope.

A Lesson from History

There has been a change in the scale of our relationship with nature and other societies. Yet humanity is still constrained by the sentiments, ideologies, and worldviews shaped in our remote and recent past. Societies are hindered in their ability to respond to change by nation-states, religious divides, racial discrimination, elitism, and consumerism. Other hindrances include so-called “rational” economic thinking, faith that technological fixes or “progress” will provide solutions, and the view that humanity is set above Nature and that the world was created for our pleasure.

Society cannot forgo advanced technology, and indeed we must have recourse to new technological measures to alleviate our current water shortage situation. The current scarcity is a function of the uneven distribution of financial and technical resources, as well as an explosive demand for worldly goods. Society might learn how to deal with this crisis from history.

Consider the collapse of the Old Kingdom, 4,200 years ago, when a series of severe, unforeseen floods on the lower Nile led to a devastating famine. Communications were disrupted, the peasants rioted and began to plunder palaces and tombs. The government collapsed and the social order was overturned.

The country, shattered and dying of hunger, was put back together by rulers who realized that a civilization could not be sustained without two things: first, attention to water management, and second, an ethical code of justice and compassion. The kings who succeeded in putting the country back together undertook major hydrological projects. In addition, they were no longer rulers by divine right. They proclaimed instead that they were sent by the Gods to protect the poor, feed the hungry, and help their neighbors. For the first time, the names of the kings were conjoined with the name of the Goddess of Justice, Ma’at.

Yet one should not neglect the possibility that the rate of change has accelerated to the point where it is disjunctive, and new generations will have to learn new ways.


  1. Concepts drawn from the PCCP Series Volume Water Wars: the Rise of a Hegemonic Concept. Julie Trottier, Oxford Center for Water Research, University of Oxford.
  2. Kofi Annan, question and answer after statement (SG/SM/7742) at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, New Delhi, March 15 2001.
  3. This section is drawn from the PCCP Series Volume Water Management and Early Civilizations: From Cooperation to Conflict. Fekri A. Hassan, Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

See also

External Resources

3704 Rating: 2.6/5 (62 votes cast)