Passions over Water
№2 2009 April/June

The struggle for oil and gas resources that became so intensely
debated in the previous years of the price boom, has overshadowed
the aggravating problem of shortages of other natural resources,
including water. In the meantime, the situation around it is
fraught with various conflicts already in the medium term.


Mere 2.5 percent of all water reserves on the planet is good for
human consumption, and even this amount is distributed irregularly.
At the end of 2006, as many as 80 countries that are home to 40
percent of the Earth’s population said they were experiencing a
shortage of water. While the averaged distribution of water
resources on the planet stands at 7,500 cubic meters per capita,
the ratio for Europe is only 4,700 cubic meters and for Asia, as
little as 3,400 cubic meters. Consumption of water per capita
differs largely even in developed countries, and the gap between
Europe and the U.S. measures several hundred percent. The UN
assesses the annual shortage of fresh water at 230 billion cubic
meters, saying that the figure is likely to increase to 1,300 to
2,000 billion cubic meters by 2025. And some estimates indicate
that up to two-thirds of people on the planet will feel the deficit
in some 25 years from now.

About 6 million hectares of the land surface of the Earth turn
into desert every year, and unsatisfactory hygienic conditions
caused by the deficit of water result in the death of about 6,000
people a day. Anthropogenic activity has overstepped the
sustainability limits of natural ecosystems, which now only serve
to satisfy man’s everyday needs and do not have the properties of
natural objects anymore.

The quality of water is degrading, too. Each year, humankind
takes away 160 billion cubic meters of potable water from
subterranean reserves and drops up to 95 percent of liquid
industrial waste into water basins in the absence of whatever
control. Acid rains have become a regular fact of life in many
countries. If contamination gets irreversible, water may turn into
a non-reproducible resource.

The UN set up the UN-Water Secretariat in 1978. It declared 2003
to be the Year of Freshwater and the period from 2005 through 2015,
the Decade of Freshwater. Drinking water supplies to urban
population rose 2 percent during the first International Decade of
Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation in the 1980s. This time the
number of people experiencing the shortage of freshwater is planned
to be reduced by half.

The problem, however, is that about 50 percent of regions get
water from river basins belonging to two or more countries, which
sometimes do not stop short of blaming the water deficit on
neighbors. Given the situation, imposition of control over water
resources becomes a source of international conflicts increasingly
frequently, all the more so if the neighbors have had a record of
past conflicts or one of them can block the water supply. Extremist
and criminal groups, too, throw their shoulder into the strife for
the vital sources, especially where the government is corrupt or
showings of a failed state are present.

Yet the spectrum of problems of water resource utilization that
are related to national and international security is much broader
and they can stand a review only if they are addressed

Depriving an enemy of water supplies is a time-tested method of
destroying him in the course of a military conflict. It involves
putting up dams, filling water wells with dirt or contaminating
them. Sources of water get into the focal point of fighting in
desert areas. It is not accidental, for instance, that the Georgian
authorities slashed water supplies to Tskhinval practically every
time the conflict with the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia

Vulnerable developed societies have to take account of the
possible destruction of hydraulic engineering installations and its
catastrophic aftermath as they plan antiterrorist operations.
Several decades ago, German sociologist and jurist Carl Schmitt
wrote that he could well imagine a demolitionist coming to his
native Sauerland under the guise of a pediatrician, going to the
nearest hill and destroying from there all the dams blocking the
floodplains of rivers in the locality and adjoining areas. As a
result of this, the entire Ruhr area would transform into

Russian security services averted an extremist attempt in
November 2006 to carry out a chain of explosions at hydraulic
engineering facilities in southern Russia. “A subversive act at any
of them may bring about disastrous aftereffects, including a
paralysis of life in a whole area, a huge loss of human lives, and
grave economic losses,” FSB director Nikolai Patrushev said


In all probability, even the first ever conflicts between
political subjects of human society were waged for rivers and
sources of water. Recall the Sumerian civilization that evidenced
an acute strife for the right to use the waters of the Tigris and
the Euphrates in Mesopotamia some 2,500 years BC.

Today, many experts share an opinion that the era of
anti-terrorist struggle will be followed by decades of armed
conflicts for resources and water will turn into a major object for
the brawling powers. The loudest sounds of alarm are coming from
the expert community and politicians in the West, while Russia has
not aired any competent position yet.

In 1995, Ismail Serageldin, the then Vice President of the World
Bank, voiced a conviction that wars of the future would be fought
not for crude oil but for water. British Defense Secretary John
Reid said at a summit on climate change in 2006 that violence and
political conflicts would grow ever more realistic as long as water
basins turned into deserts, glaciers continued melting, and water
reservoirs got contaminated. In his opinion, the general water
crisis is posing a threat to global security. In light of it, the
British Army should be ready to take part in untangling armed
conflicts that might erupt after the exhaustion of freshwater

Reid was not the only person to make such forecasts. Michelle
Alliot-Marie, then the French Defense Minister, said at much the
same time that wars of the future would be the conflicts for water,
energy and, possibly, foodstuffs. Her words call for special
attention on the background of the foodstuff crisis that has
enveloped the whole planet. Dr Hans van Ginkel, the former director
of the United Nations University in Tokyo, also indicated that
international and civil wars over water resources pose the risk of
becoming the main element of political life in the 21st

Research organizations in the U.S. are increasingly often
inclined to tie up hydro resources, on which stability in many
petroleum-exporting countries is hinged, to energy security.
Reduction of water resources pose a “serious threat” to America’s
national security, the Center for Naval Analyses told the U.S.
President in an April 2007 report. A group of retired admirals and
generals warned the country’s leadership that a time would come
when Washington would find itself enmeshed in a chain of harsh wars
for water. Experts close to the Bush administration voiced equally
categorical assessments: “Water issues are critical to U.S.
national security and integral to upholding American values of
humanitarianism and democratic development.”

The U.S. is reluctant to watch idly the deterioration of the
situation on the global scale and hence it is getting ready to
unilaterally manage – with the aid of armaments – the water
reservoirs that have been co-owned with neighbors. In 2006, the
Administration made public its intentions to place patrols armed
with submachine-guns on gunboats for guarding the shores of the
Great Lakes that are getting contaminated at a menacing rate and
continue going shallow due to a huge growth of the population and
industries around them. The Americans have built 34 firing ranges
along the Lakes shoreline for training and have held numerous
combat drills there.


Water can be used as a powerful instrument for enforcing national
interests. This is what China and some other countries do. However,
the most pragmatic and rationalistic utilization of hydro
resources, as well as the natural/geographic situation, has been
displayed by Turkey.

That country has impressive experience in selling big amounts of
potable water, and it is not only the commercial aspect of the
activity that presents special interest. The Turkish authorities
intensively use the ‘aquatic levers’ for exerting political
influence on neighbors. It squeezes maximum benefit from the fact
that the upper reaches of both the Tigris and the Euphrates are
found on Turkey’s territory. By 2010, the Turks plan building 22
dams, as well as hydro stations and water reservoirs there.

Since countries located in the Tigris/Euphrates basin have low
rainfall, they have to resort to artificial irrigation of lands,
and if Ankara’s plans materialize, the amounts of water getting to
Syria and Iraq, both of them located downstream, will shrink
considerably. Turkey will get an opportunity to meter water out to
its neighbors and the amounts they will get will depend on their

Incidentally, the Turks resorted to pressuring Saddam Hussein –
upon an agreement with Syria – with the aid of stream flow
restrictions in 1990 and 1991, shortly before the first Gulf
Ankara uses water for influencing Syria, too. In 1987, the two
countries signed an agreement regulating the problems of water
supplies. Turkey then set forth a condition – that Syria renounce
support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Emblematically
enough, the Turks are building new hydro installations right in the
places populated by the Kurds struggling to create an independent

Turkish supplies of water to Israel deserve notice, too. The
countries signed an agreement in August 2002 for deliveries of 50
million cubic meters of water a year, which accounts for only 3
percent of Israel’s annual need for water. The sides chose to
deliver water by pipeline, which is more expensive than deliveries
by tankers. The capacity of the pipeline is greater than the
initially conceived shipments by tankers by a factor of four to
six. On the other hand, this will be much more expensive than the
construction of seawater desalting plants on the Israeli territory.
And the production costs of desalted seawater are much smaller than
the price of Turkish water.

The get clarity around this situation, we must take account of the
political – rather than economic – significance of this agreement.
Turkey has become a strategic partner for Israel in recent years
and they have signed an agreement on expanding cooperation in the
field of security. Quite possibly, the prospects for selling
Israeli weaponry to Turkey depended on the signing of the water
supply agreement. Yosef Paritzky, the then Israeli Minister of
National Infrastructure, said unambiguously during a discussion of
the project that Israel was interested in far from water only. This
means that Ankara made pumping the water by pipeline a condition
for expanding cooperation in defense technologies.


Conflicts of various intensity over fresh water exist on all
continents. Let us concentrate on the situation shaping in the
vicinity of Russia, namely, in Central Asia and China.
Incidents related to water would occur in Central Asia even back in
the Soviet era, but the authorities succeeded in containing them
then. Today the situation keeps getting worse for a number of
reasons, and it is expected that the region will lose about a third
of its water reserves within 15 to 20 years.

First, the region is facing climate change.
Drought has been suffocating the once super-fertile Fergana Valley,
and western regions of Uzbekistan have become waterless.

Second, the anthropogenic pressure on the
ecosystem continues growing. The region has high rates of
population growth and it is experiencing a deficit of food, which
rules out a slashing of land areas under crops. Meanwhile, land in
the region is irrigated by archaic methods as water flows down
primitive irrigation ditches. As a result, the growing of crops
takes several times more water than up-to-date technologies would

The story of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake
abounding in fish, offers an especially graphic and pitiable
example. The ‘cold war’ that nations of the region have been
leading over freshwater resources of the rivers Amu Darya and Syr
Darya, the sea’s tributaries, has wiped out more than a half of the
Aral Sea’s water area within five decades.

Third, relations between countries as regards the
use of water resources remain unregulated.

The sharpest contradictions arise over water from the Toktogul
reservoir in Kyrgyzstan, which contains about 40 percent of all
freshwater reserves in the region. Kyrgyzstan itself does not need
more than 10 percent of the annual flow of water but financial
shortfalls have forced the country to use electricity for heating
for the last few years. Electricity is produced by local hydro
plants. As a result, the winter discharge of water is bigger than
neighboring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan need, while in the summertime
the flow of water is restricted, although the demand for water at
that time of year is much greater.

Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have signed a
framework agreement on the use of hydro resources of the Naryn-Syr
Darya river basin. It envisions an annual adoption of ancillary
four-partite documents, to be followed up with bilateral
agreements. However, Uzbekistan has shunned their signing for a
number of years.

The difference of outlooks concerning methods of solving problems
with water and energy utilization in the region came into the focal
point of the August 2007 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO). Specifically, the presidents of Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan exchanged peppery remarks regarding the Tajik
government’s plans to complete the construction of the Rogun Dam,
frozen for years. Uzbekistani officials have apprehensions that an
overly high dam would give the other side an opportunity to
regulate the stream flows that irrigate Uzbekistani valleys.
Frictions between the two countries intensified, even though
Tajikistan tried to allay these fears. A statement that Russian
President Dmitry Medvedev made during a visit to Uzbekistan in
early 2009 was interpreted by the Tajik government as support for
Tashkent’s position. This triggered a diplomatic conflict with
Moscow and almost brought about a cancellation of Tajikistani
President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Russia.

Back at the 2007 summit, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of
Kazakhstan voiced a number of claims against China, as Astana has
grave concerns over a number of water projects being implemented by
Beijing. Nazarbayev’s fears are easy to understand if one considers
the bottom position that Kazakhstan has on the list of post-Soviet
countries in terms of sufficiency of freshwater.
In the meantime, the Chinese leadership is planning a speedy
development of the country’s backward western regions. The
construction of a canal that will siphon water from the upper
reaches of the Irtysh River to the Karamay oil province plants and
farmlands is drawing to an end in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous
Region. The authorities also plan building up an intake of water in
the upper reaches of the transborder Ili River which ensures 80
percent of the influx of water into Lake Balkhash. At present, the
intake of the Ili’s waters on the Chinese territory totals 3,500
cubic meters a year and its buildup to 5,000 cubic meters will
entail a shallowing and salinization of the Balkhash. Add to it
that the Irtysh is the largest tributary of the Ob, one of Russia’s
major rivers, and it also yields water to Lake Zaysan in
Kazakhstan. The materialization of Beijing’s plans will slash the
inflow of freshwater into the eastern and central regions of
Kazakhstan, will put the cities of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk
and Pavlodar on the brink of full water deficiency, dry up the
Irtysh-Karaganda canal, and will lower the water level in the
Irtysh in the area of the Russian city of Omsk by 0.6 meters.

China is experiencing a shortage of good quality water supply, as
70 percent of all water there cannot be utilized even for technical
purposes. The contamination of Chinese rivers with extremely
hazardous waste has become a routine feature of life and industrial
facilities have practically no wastewater treatment facilities.
Beijing conceals the real scale of industrial accidents and
disasters in most cases, thereby making it difficult for the
neighbors to assess the aftermath and take adequate
countermeasures. The Chinese have built hundreds of industrial
facilities along the shores of the Songhua River that adjoins the
Russian border. The factories do not have wastewater treatment
facilities, and the Songhua’s waters get straight into the Amur.
Russia has already had to bring army units into efforts to
eliminate chemical slicks.


Maude Barlow, the author of Blue Covenant, singles out three water
crises in the world, which “pose the greatest threat of our time to
the planet and to our survival:”

  • dwindling freshwater supplies;
  • inequitable access to water;
  • and the corporate control of water.

She proposes starting with a global covenant on water that
should have three components:

  • a water conservation covenant from people and their governments
    that pledges to protect and conserve the world’s water
  • a water justice covenant between those in the Global North who
    have water and resources and those in the Global South who do not,
    to work in solidarity for water justice, water for all, and local
    control of water;
  • and a water democracy covenant among all governments
    acknowledging that water is a fundamental human right for all.

Governments “must also recognize that citizens of other
countries have the right to water as well.”

The fact that Barlow proposes giving uninterrupted access to
water in any country to the abstract “all” is disconcerting, to put
it mildly. While the answer to a question who has enough water and
who wants it badly is a widely known secret, her scheme does not
envision compensations to the owners of water resources. Most
obviously, an approach of this sort will rally many followers in a
situation of mounting global struggle for freshwater. An idea that
Russia’s natural resources are a heritage of the entire humankind
is already being driven home to the international community today.
That is, Russia’s resources should be free for use by everyone who
may need them. In plain words, countries rich in freshwater – and
Russia is one of them – are offered to share it with others.

Russia’s position is unique. Suffice it to recall that the
23,600 cubic kilometers of water in the Baikal make up 80 percent
of Russia’s freshwater reserves and about 20 percent of global
reserves. On the whole, this country possesses one-third of
freshwater on the globe and is second only to Brazil. In addition,
Russia’s geographic location close to countries experiencing
freshwater shortages has more advantages.

One may have a wild guess about the initial conceptions of the
organizers of the 5th World Water Forum that gathered in Istanbul
in March 2009, but its overarching theme – “Bridging Divides for
Water” – sounds ambiguous in light of the above-said. An era of
love, affluence, equal opportunities, full reconciliation, and
prevailing humanism will not come about soon. Reality suggests that
pragmatism continues reigning in international relations, that
political subjects defend national interests (most typically, at
the expense of others) and that the deficit of natural resources is
getting acuter, along with all of its consequences.

At any rate, Russia is heading for a moment where it will have
to make a choice. One would like to hope it would be a clearly
thought-out and well-prepared choice, not a spontaneous one.


Meanwhile, is everything perfect in Russia itself? We still have
many towns and villages where tap water is supplied for just
several hours a day. Government officials correctly call attention
to its poor quality, which has produced a number of cases of mass
poisoning and outbreaks of infectious diseases in recent years. The
absence of quality drinking water rules out any talk about
improvements in the demographic situation, as the Russians’ health
and lifespan correlate with water quality immediately.

Although Russia occupies the seventh position in the world
standings for water purity, this much rather reflects the hugeness
of its overall freshwater resources. The Urals, Western Siberia,
and the Amur River basin are the most contaminated areas. Vladimir
Putin, then Russia’s president, told a session of the country’s
Security Council on January 30, 2008, that 35 to 60 percent of
potable water did not meet sanitary requirements in some regions.
In addition, “efforts to stop the contamination of a whole number
of river basins in the European part of the country and in Siberia
have proved futile, and the contamination rates are especially high
near our megalopolises and big cities.” He also made reference to a
heightening “trans-boundary contamination of territories […] in the
basins of the Amur and the Irtysh,” thus virtually openly pointing
at China. And Dmitry Medvedev said in his report that 40 percent of
surface and 17 percent of subsurface water sources did not meet the
sanitary norms. The session mapped out a range of measures to cope
with the situation. A new Water Code that took effect January 1,
2007, is aimed to bring things into order in the sphere of water
resources, too.

Russia’s efforts to save water consumption have begun to yield
results, as well. For instance, an average resident of Moscow uses
280 liters of water a day now, while fairly recently he or she
would use 380 liters. Yuri Trutnev, Russia’s Minister of Natural
Resources, told the 5th World Water Forum that Russia has reduced
water consumption per unit of the Gross National Product by almost
a half in the past five years.

The situation around freshwater resources calls for an
all-embracing assessment. We must figure out all the possible
scenarios, including the most unfavorable ones, and get ready to
offer appropriate reactions to them.

The time has come for bearing out a comprehensive, cohesive, and
conceptually organized water resource policy (hydro policy) that
would unite internal and external aspects. Its objectives should
comprise sparing treatment and protection of existing water
resources; the opening of new resources; rational use of existing
water reserves; refraining from water contamination; and
satisfaction of the current demand for water with account of its
projected growth in the future.

Russia, a country possessing so many full-flowing rivers and
water reservoirs, will unavoidably get into the epicenter of the
unfolding strife over freshwater resources, and this calls for a
clear-cut official position that would send unequivocal signals to
our foreign partners. For this purpose, it would be reasonable to
draft an independent document in the field of hydro policy. In any
case, relevantly formulated ideas should become substantial
elements of concepts and doctrines stipulating approaches to
Russia’s development and maintenance of national security. Given
the situation as it is, we must consider setting up an alliance of
countries rich in hydro resources so as to coordinate resource

Russia needs a package of measures for protecting water
resources against terrorist attacks and encroachments on the part
of other political subjects. The intensifying struggle for
resources occupies an increasingly more important place in the
system of factors determining the contents of state policy in the
fields of defense and Armed Forces construction. One should not
discard scenarios involving the use of force and thus dictating the
use of the Armed Forces for defending our interests in this sphere.
Since the system of inland waterways ranks among the critical
infrastructures, the importance of a system of data gathering and
processing and the employment of scientifically grounded methods
enabling a timely identification of potential threats moves to the

The antiterrorist element can be illustrated by Moscow City’s
example. Owing to its status, emblematic significance and some
other factors, this city has special attractiveness for

Moscow’s water supply system provides water for some 14 million
people, or 10 percent of Russia’s overall population. Meanwhile,
the megalopolis and its environs occupy a mere 0.3 percent of the
country’s territory. The big concentration of people pushes up the
probability of terrorist acts at Moscow’s hydro installations.

Since water has a tangible and ever-growing value, the
management of hydro resources has a commercial aspect to it.
Freshwater shortages put brake on the social and economic
development of a whole range of countries bordering Russia and this
makes water a highly demanded commodity. The price of a cubic meter
of water has climbed to about 3 euros in the countries of Europe,
which means that the idea of freshwater as a commodity for export
has acquired practical sense.

At a meeting of ministers and regional governors with members of
the United Russia parliamentary faction in 2008, State Duma speaker
Boris Gryzlov proposed making water into Russia’s third largest
export article in terms of revenues after oil and gas. Nor should
one forget a regularly re-emerging idea of diverting part of the
water-flow of Siberian rivers to Central Asia with a view to
selling it there.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has supported this idea persistently
over a number of years. Back in 2002, he sent an analytical note on
this subject to President Putin. The history of the concept and the
arguments in favor of its implementation are featured in his book
“Water and Peace” published in 2008. Luzhkov believes that Russia
will thus get sizable political dividends.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev called for reviving
this long-forgotten project as he addressed the Commonwealth of
Independent States’ summit in St. Petersburg in May 2007.
Nazarbayev and his counterparts’ statements at international forums
point to the acuteness of the situation in Central Asia and contain
a hint at potential conflicts over water resources that may spread
beyond the region’s boundaries.

Russia can take part in commercial projects in other ways, too.
For instance, Russian defense industries have developed unique
desalination equipment that can produce distilled water from
seawater on an industrial scale. Assessments indicate that the
global demand for such equipment comes to $5 bln to $7 bln a year
already now.

A well-balanced and rational approach to the use of existing
hydro resources can help Russia defend its national interests and
extract benefits out of the situation, however problematic it might