Water Wars

A Ticking Bomb in Our Greedy, Overcrowded World

Jassmine McBride, a young black woman, was looking forward to her 30th birthday. Not letting her dependence on a recently-acquired oxygen mask get her down, she prepared her family for the celebration: “Just let [the kids] have fun, get some food and have a water balloon fight.” Jassmine lived to enjoy her 30th, but not her 31st birthday. She was one of the dozens of victims of the spread of Legionnaire’s disease caused by the Flint water crisis in Michigan. Smelling of a cover-up, Legionnaire’s is not confirmed as her cause of death. Nearly 8,000 miles away in Udaipur, India, Raju of the Bhil peoples showed journalists the death certificate of his daughter, Sohani. Sohani had died just nine days before her eighth birthday. Raju has no photographs of her. In fact, Raju has few material possessions, including sanitation. Like Jassmine’s death, contaminated water was the cause of Sohani’s demise; a cruel irony in what is known as India’s City of Lakes. Udaipur ranked the 417th cleanest city on India’s list of 476. Just like the spike in Flint deaths caused by money-saving mismanagement, the Bhil community has recently experienced a rise in disease-related water deaths underpinned by industrialization.

The ownership, monopolization, and exploitation of freshwater is a global problem. It has long resulted in ill-health and conflict. This article is about water, one of the most basic resources, as a source of conflict and profit.

Ancient Fights

Water can be used as a weapon by challenging coastal and river boundaries, fighting over trade routes, cutting off supplies to rivals and enemies, and more recently through privatization.

The oldest recorded water battle occurred in 2,500 BCE. A 28-mile tract of land called Gu’edena separated Umma and Lagash (in modern-day Iraq). At the time, Urlama King of Lagash diverted water from Gu’edena to canals, and in doing so dried the boundary ditches of Umma. The ensuing conflict prompted to King Mesilim of Kish (d. circa 2,492 BCE) to erect a stone stela. This created a new boundary and a temporary peace. But peace did not last. King Eannatum of Lagash (2,454-25 BCE) conquered Umma and established a new border, making part of it no-man’s-land. To give another example: Iluma-Ilum (circa 1,732 BCE), the Sumerian King of Isin, declared independence from Babylon. In doing so, he deprived southern Babylon of its access to the sea. As part of the secessionist war, Abī-Ešuḫ King of Babylon (circa 1,720-1,684 BCE) prevented the retreat of rivals from the marshes of Mesopotamia by damming the Tigris River and attempting to flood and drown Iluma-Ilum’s troops. To give a final case of water wars from Mesopotamia: Between 720 and 705 BCE, King Sargon II of Assyria defeated the Halidians (who lived in part of modern-day Armenia) and destroyed their sophisticated irrigation networks in order to flood their land. (Though the extent of Sargon II’s success may have been exaggerated.)

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T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

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