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.)

Other cases of ancient water wars include the opening in 104 BCE of the Jiuquan prefecture by Han Wudi of China in an effort to facilitate trade with the West. Wudi sent an armed envoy to Ferghana (in modern Uzbekistan) led by General Li Guangli. After the envoy was slaughtered by locals, Gen. Li cut Ferghana’s water supply. The digging of wells allowed the city to survive for 40 days. Fifty years later in Europe, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar at Uxellodunum (in modern-day France) cut the water supply to the Aquitanian Gauls, in one of the last battles of the Gallic Wars (58-51 BCE). The Gauls reportedly surrendered without further bloodshed.

The closer we move to the present, the richer the record. Notable 19th-century battles over water include Napoleon’s efforts to reroute the Rhine to divert trade from Holland (1804); the canal, dam and reservoir resisters of Ontario (Canada) and Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Indiana (USA) (1844-1887); and the destruction of dams by Confederate forces to isolate Union troops during the Civil War (1862). Notable 20th-century conflicts include Germany’s genocide of 70 percent of the Herero and Namaqua peoples (of modern-day Namibia) in part by driving them into the desert to dehydrate them (1904); the destruction of the Burguillo and Ordunte dams by the Nationalist Army in the Spanish Civil War (1938); the flooding of the Huayuankou part of the Yellow River by Chiang Kai-shek to defend against Fascist Japan (1938); the US bombing of North Korea’s Yalu-Amnok River dams (1950s); Said Barre’s destruction of Mudug and Nugal’s water-points in Somalia, as part of his scorched-earth policy (1980-82); and the US-British sanctions on Iraq (1990-2003), which deprived the nation of vital water purification chemicals.

Standing Rock

One of the great battles of modern times is the Standing Rock Water Protectors vs. the machinery of the state and local authorities. In the 1940s, the Columbia Basin Project led to the US Army Corps of Engineers constructing Lakes Oahe and Sakakawe, the creation of which submerged hundreds of miles of tribal lands, displacing thousands of Arikara, Brule Sioux, Cheyenne Sioux, Crow Creek Sioux, Hidatsa, Lower Mandan, the Nebraska Tribe, Standing Rock Sioux, and Yankton Sioux. But by the mid-2010s, the US Army Corps was back. This time it prepared to clear the way for the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous demonstrators alike, calling themselves the Water Protectors, camped at the construction sites demanding the project’s termination for fear that the pipeline will leak into sources of drinking water.

The North Dakota territory of the Great Sioux Nation or Oceti Šakowiŋ (Seven Council Fires) was recognized by the US in the Fort Laramie Treaty 1851. Today, the Standing Rock Reservation (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) is over 3,500 square miles (9.2 km) and straddles North and South Dakota. The indigenous residents include the Dakota Oyate (Ihunktuwona and Pabaksa), Lakota Oyate (Hunkpapa and Sihasapa), the Hunkpatina Dakota, and the Wiciyena (Ihanktonwana Dakota).

In 2014, the Obama administration announced the creation of the $3.7bn North Dakota Access Pipeline (NDAP) to complete the Bakken System, which takes oil from Canadian shale fields through North and South Dakota down to Nederland, Texas. Owned by the companies Energy Transfer, MarEn Bakken, and Phillips 66, the loans for the project were provided by international financial institutions, mainly ABN AMRO, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, BNP Paribas, Citibank, DNB ASA, ICBC, ING, Mizuho, RBS, SMBC Nikko, Société Générale, SunTrust, TD Securities, and Wells Fargo. The NDAP violates the 1868 version of the Fort Laramie Treaty (Sioux Treaty) by running through sacred Standing Rock land.

What started as a small protest consisting mainly of Oceti Šakowiŋ people ballooned into an international cause. From the outset, protestors faced arrest, intimidation, and infiltration at the hands of federal and local authorities. At Morton County, a warrant for the arrest of the Pueblo Water Protector, Brennon Nastacio, was issued following Nastacio’s disarming of a private security contractor, Kyle Thompson, who tried to infiltrate the group, possibly as a provocateur. Joint-owner Energy Transfer hired the company TigerSwan (founded by ex-Delta Force James Reese) to guard the pipeline. One TigerSwan contractor, Joel Edward McCollough, infiltrated the movement and paid Water Protector fellow travelers to inform on the group. The very prospect of informants helped to spread debilitating paranoia, McCollough said. McCollough worked with women in an effort to spread rumors about sexual abuse at the protests. In addition to raiding the camps with armored cars and making sweeping arrests, local authorities–notably ND governor Doug Burman–signed laws criminalizing trespass, increasing penalties for rioters, and banning the use of face masks and hoods, even in freezing ND temperatures. Despite the dedicated protests, Barack Obama signed a Presidential memo on 24 January 2017, authorizing the construction of the section of the NDAP that runs under Lake Oahe. Obama also signed the Notice of Termination of the Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

By June 2019, the pipeline was described as being “essentially full” by industry experts. Water Protectors continue the fight in court, asking federal judges to revoke the NDAP permit. There are political prisoners, too. After apparently being set up an FBI informant, convicted felon Red Fawn Fallis, a Oglala Sioux, pleaded guilty in January 2018 to civil disorder and possession of a Ruger .38 (reportedly the informant’s). Judge Daniel Hovland sentenced Fallis to 4 years.

Water Today

The Standing Rock Water Protectors could be a microcosm of the future. The UN defines water stress as “the proportion of water withdrawal by all sectors in relation to the available water resources.” More than 2 billion people across 32 countries experience water stress. In some countries, it is up to 70 percent of the population. Just 2.5 percent of all the Earth’s water is freshwater. Sixty-eight percent (of that 2.5 percent) comes from glaciers, 30.1 percent from groundwater, and 0.8 percent from permafrost. Yet by 2050, it is estimated that 9.7 billion people will live on the planet. By the same year, current water usage for manufacturing alone is expected to increase by 400 percent and by 130 percent for household use. Total water demand is set to increase by 50 percent by the year 2030. Today, 30 percent of extraction is lost due to leakage. Eighty percent of wastewater returns to the environment–to land, rivers, streams, the sea–without first being treated.

The biggest cause of water stress is agriculture, with 70 percent of all withdrawals used in that sector. The UN notes that the major problem with water is that it is subject to ideological differences between those who consider it a human right and those who use it as a commodity. By 2035, the UN estimates that 40 percent of the world’s population will live in “seriously water-stressed areas.” There are at least six overlapping contexts: “water scarcity and insecurity, water-related disasters, water sanitation and health (WASH) crisis, water infrastructure deterioration and destruction, unsustainable development, and ecosystem degradation (sic).” According to the UN, 60 percent of freshwater derives from river basins that cross national borders. This amounts to some 592 transboundary aquifers. Ninety percent of all global disasters–floods, drought, typhoons, burst banks, landslides, etc.–are water-related and account for 70 percent of all disaster-related deaths. By 2050, up to 200 million people could be displaced as a result of water-related phenomena, including desertification and sea-level rises.

Two billion people drink dirty water, resulting in the death of one child every minute. Now that more than half of the global population lives in urban areas, people will come under more water stress, including the drinking of dirty water. Inner-city water consumption is expected to grow by 15 to 20 percent by 2050. At the international level, major treaties designed to safeguard resources and diffuse international tensions include the Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes (1992) and the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of Transboundary Watercourses (1997). As populations increase and new nation-states are founded, more treaties will be needed. Other specific treaties, like the ones between Israel and Palestine outlined below, make explicit references to water security and shared responsibilities.

“Security” Threats

Given that the US military wants to rule the world by force and the threat of force in order to shape the global economy in ways conducive to US corporate interests (“full spectrum dominance” as they call it), it is imperative that the global hegemon incorporates water “security” (meaning others’ insecurity) into military planning. Freshwater is a finite resource. Be it glaciers that feed major rivers or subterranean aquifers, populations including states and insurrectionary or separatist movements could seek to maximize their interests around water, the way they currently do around oil and gas fields.

In 2012, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) wrote: “water problems—when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.” The DNI report presents a table of river basins affected by water stress, including the Indus Valley. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the transboundary Indus basin stretches from the Himalayan mountains to the Arabian Sea. It includes Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan. It covers the entire Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The river flows consist of glacier and snow melts, as well as rainfall and runoff. In 1960, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Water Treaty in recognition of their respective water rights. But similar territorial treaties, e.g., over Jammu-Kashmir, have failed to prevent war between the two nuclear-armed states. The DNI document predicts that by the year 2040, Indus water resources will deplete due to mismanagement, inefficient agricultural practices, soil salinization, and pollution.

The DNI document also cites the Jordan Valley as a potential flashpoint for water conflict. With Jordan as an internationally-recognized state and Palestine currently de facto annexed by Israel, the DNI document predicts that by 2040, pollution, depleted shared groundwater resources, vulnerabilities over available water, and poor inter-state coordination will reduce resilience to drought and flooding, degrade regional food security, and exacerbate geopolitical and ethnic tensions. According to experts, only rainwater replenishes the Jordan Valley, with 65 percent of freshwater coming from surface waters and 35 percent from groundwater. On average, per capita, global water resources equate to 1,000 cubic meters. But in Jordan, per capita share is just 140 cubic meters. By 2025, this is estimated to fall to 90 cubic meters. The average US citizen, by contrast, enjoys 9,000.

Jordan’s surface waters are spread across 15 major basins, 40 percent of which derive from just one; the Yarmouk River, which borders Syria. Owing to Syria’s agricultural practices, the amount of water flowing into Jordan from the Yarmouk has reduced over the last four decades from 400 million cubic meters (mcm) to around 150 mcm. The Israel-Jordan Treaty of 1994 sets out in detail the water rights of both countries with specific reference to the Yarmouk and other rivers. Only one reference is made to Palestinians–and that’s in the context of refugees. In the Oslo II treaty 1995 between Israel and Palestine, “water” is mentioned 120 times, including an emphasis in Article 40 of Israel’s recognition of Palestinian water rights in the Israeli-occupied (annexed) West Bank of the Jordan.

Referring to East Asia, the US military’s DNI report mentions Mekong River water stress as a threat to elite US interests. Spanning 2,700 miles, the Mekong runs through Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Seventy million people live in the region. The majority are farmers and fishers who live on less than the equivalent of $2 a day. In the wet seasons, half of all villages are inaccessible by road. The main Upper Basin flows from China, near Chinese-occupied Tibet, and decreases in altitude to Burma (Myanmar) and Laos, before forming the border with Thailand. The DNI reports notes that by 2040, the region will be affected by increased development and changes in sediment flows. This might reduce food security, particularly of fisheries, as well as resilience to floods. At present, the region is a dumping ground for Chinese waste and subcontracted industrial production, as well as a hub for Islamist and other armed secessionist movements. How long before these groups demand their water rights and the affected states crack down hard?


In addition to war, there’s corporate capture. The two often go hand-in-glove. What could be better for profiteers and speculators than a scarce resource over which armed forces and mercenaries are increasingly likely to fight? Today, iShares Global Water UCITS ETF invests in the top 50 global water companies, as does the Guggenheim S&P Global Water Index, while the PowerShares Global Water UCITS mirrors performance on the NASDAQ OMX Global Water Index. Top US water stocks include American Water Works, Aqua American, the California Water Service Group, Pentair, Primo, the SJW Group, and the York Water Co. But water privatization is nothing new.

In 1903, the government of the British colonial territory of Trinidad and Tobago raised the price of water to finance new infrastructure projects. After protestors rioted at the Red House (the parliament building), police opened fire on the crowd, killing 16 and injuring over 40. Nearly a century later in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between December 1999 and April 2000, six people died and over 100 were injured, mainly by state forces, in protests against the company Aguas del Tunari (part-owned by the US giant Bechtel) over its privatization of the city’s water. New privatization laws made it illegal for residents to catch rainwater.

Meanwhile, in the US, the NGO Food & Water reported that between 1990 and 2011, the 10 largest municipal water and sewage companies had nearly tripled their rates. Local authorities typically finance water projects with municipal bonds with a four percent interest rate. Yet private companies use equity and corporate debt to fund their operations at average interest rates of 7.5 to 14 percent. For workers, privatization leads to job losses. The average water workforce typically declines by 34 percent following privatization. As for consumers, the average household in the US pays around $185 more per year for 60,000 gallons of water provided by private companies than it does for the same amount of water provided by public companies. In addition to provision, private companies charge consumers 63 percent more than public providers for sewage services. Municipalities that revert to public ownership enjoy an average price decline of 21 percent. Private price-rises appear to be connected to operation and maintenance costs, which usually increase with privatization.

According to the Financial Times, the UK is the only country to have fully privatized its water and sewage systems. As in the US, British water companies finance their operations via debt. In the UK, consumers lose £2.3 billion a year due to water privatization, according to Greenwich University. Six of the nine English regional water and sewerage companies are privately owned and three are listed on the stock market. None have major shareholder equity, yet they have profited by adding £100 per annum to the average household bill. In addition to ripping off consumers, the environment is at risk from privatization, such as the cumulative dumping of 4.2bn liters of raw sewage into the River Thames by the Thames Water company. Private water companies could also pose a systemic economic risk by running on debt, with three companies–Anglian, Severn Trent Water, and Yorkshire Water Services–paying out more to shareholders than they make in profit.

But debt-based privatization means that volatile money mutuals, notably hedge funds, can profit. The asset company IG, for instance, writes: “Water is arguably the most important natural resource on the planet and, considering the growing fears about its availability as the world’s population grows and climate change makes it scarcer, it is unsurprising that investors are starting to pay attention.” At the moment, the relative stability of water companies means that hedge funds use them as long-term investments.

Hedge funds’ profiting from water scarcity, both artificial (via water purchasing) and induced by climate change, derives from the military sector in the form of intelligence-gathering and analysis. In 1999, CIA analyst John Dickerson founded the world’s first water hedge fund: Summit Global Management (SGM). “The maldistribution of freshwater is getting much more severe,” he says. SGM’s $600 million fund bought both water rights and hydro-commerce technology. SGM anticipated climate change-induced droughts in the US and elsewhere and laid foundations to profit by purchasing utilities, from Colorado to Australia. But SGM wanted the physical water itself, not just the utilities. Common law in the Eastern US prevented this kind of expropriation, but Western law did not; hence the trip to Colorado. Ironically, Al Gore’s climate change awareness-raising activities alerted hedge funds to emerging water securities markets, hence the flood of investments in SGM and other companies (pun intended). By 2014, SGM was managing $400 billion.

It is widely reported that the melting Arctic is a wonderful business opportunity for oil and gas companies hoping to exploit the region’s resources in the absence of the permafrost that otherwise prevents drilling and exploration. But what is being underreported is the buying of Arctic territory by hedge funds, including the Cooperative Arctic Hedge Fund, whose aim is to own the territories that make up the Circle in order to lease zoning and drilling permits and equipment, as well as betting on stock-price fluctuations.


Privatization and war are not the only factors jeopardizing our water. Jassmine McBride, mentioned at the beginning, was a victim of the broader effects of poverty and disinvestment. Once-upon-a-timem, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) drew its resources from Lake Huron. But the County’s drain commissioner, Jeff Wright, saw a business opportunity in effectively replacing the DWSD with a new venture, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), ironically titled after the indigenous name of Lake Huron. Unlike its predecessor, the KWA decided it would use raw, pumped water and rely on local retreat plants to make the water safe for consumers. But deindustrialization had collapsed the town of Flint’s treatment plants.

Raju’s daughter, Sohani, also mentioned at the beginning, perished in large part because of pollution. The World Bank reports that “[p]ollution in Udaipur is mainly because of the 200 small and large-scale zinc smelters and fertilizer, chemical and pesticide units.” Many of the products made there are for export to wealthier countries, such as ours. “In the case of drinking water and sanitation, the [price] gap ranges between 55 percent in Kota and 89 percent in Udaipur.” The Standing Rock Water Protectors, Cochabamba demonstrators, and indeed thousands of others across the world should give us the courage to take action to democratize and reform exploitative systems before it becomes too late.

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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