Water’s ubiquity makes you see water fights everywhere. And every shrill noise that “Water is the new oil” drenches news diets already soaked in mega-trend end-time prognostications. Steve Solomon declares, “Water is visibly showing through as a root cause of nearly every headline issue transforming the world order and planetary environment.” The same can be said for guns and sunshine, but nonetheless, water is just another thing to add to the list. So I undertook a survey to gauge the nature and potential volatility of water fights. I’m optimistic, but a half-full cup will drain pretty quickly when riddled with bullets.
Pour yourself a glass of water (that may or may not contain brain-damaging rocket fuel) and join me as we discover the Italian mountaineer providing clean water to Afghanistan by cashing in his pension, the Indian tribe inspired by Avatar to stand up to a corporation poisoning local rivers and threatening to blow the top off of their sacred mountain, and observe a Whole Foods guerilla standing up to Californian water oligarchs propping up a Pacific military junta. Let’s get wet.
Before Russia hosts the 2016 Winter Olympics in the sub-tropical resort of Sochi, ice at the North Pole could melt away. The potential for Arctic summers being served straight up will encourage the Kremlin—as well as Norway, Canada, and the United States—to make louder noises about their rights to mine the riches that ice-melt reveals, and claim ownership of new shipping lanes that will become available. Even China has laid claim to the North Pole.
Sochi is itself located in a potentially politically unstable region on the coast of the Black Sea. The sea was previously surrounded by the Soviet Union, but now N.A.T.O. allies are in the area and they’re increasingly threatened by Russia’s changing relationship with Georgia and Ukraine. The region is currently winning the contest to be Europe’s Next Top Trouble Spot with one analyst explaining that the Black Sea is a potential faultline for the East/West relations, a risk exacerbated by the United States’ revamped missile defense scheme in the region and Russian plans to underscore its dominance of resources with new pipelines—supplying energy can be a weapon too, the analyst notes. But with France selling miliary hardware to Russia—which would be very useful for a sequel to the war in Georgia—the question is not whether conflict in the region will lead to war but whether economic ties bind the rest of the world from intervening in future conflict.
The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan isn’t much better off. What used to be the world’s fourth largest lake is down to one-tenth of its original size; only a few ponds are left decades after the U.S.S.R. began diverting the rivers that fed it in order to provide irrigation for desert agriculture. The mass exodus from the former Soviet Republic of Karakalpakstan on its shores is an incredible story of ethnic displacement and detached people. It’s a story that’ll surely be repeated as glacier-fed rivers dry up, desertification spreads, and people are forced to move to where the water and food is, though the immigrants find resentment there too. Conflicts fueled by climate change have long been noted to be increasing the number of refugees.
Israeli authorities who are blocking a Polish Muslim hedge-fund analyst and surfer from shipping boards into Gaza contend they’re a security risk. Complicating things, a corrupt Palestinian official has been trying to monopolize control of a Gazan Surf Club. The Gaza War was also problematic. As well as limiting access to the waves, Israel controls water flow into Gaza and the West Bank, and they’re accused of unfairly restricting access to water.
Speculation about the sequel to Avatar begins now. Peter Bosshard, the policy director of the International Rivers Project, considers that instead of mining unobtanium, perhaps the Corporation will dam Pandora in Avatar II, setting up some hydroelectric plants, and beam energy back home. I’m looking forward to how the water fights, bursting dams, and underwater fights in Avatar II look in glorious 3D.
Survival International, an organization supporting tribal people, took out an ad in Variety on behalf of the Dongria Kondh tribe who are threatened by Vendata Resources in a situation similar to that which the Na’vi faced in Avatar. The corporation wants to do some opencast mining on the Dongria Kondh’s sacred mountain. Verdant Resources’ corporate social responsibility policy explains, “Our work with the indigenous people like the Dongria Kondhs…has been customised around their needs.” Toxic runoff from Vendata’s aluminum plants in the region is seeping into the ground—people can no longer drink the river’s water.
Taking fewer showers isn’t going to save the world; author Derrick Jensen reminds activists that their role “is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.” You can’t wash your hands of personal and national guilt as easily as turning a tap.
On the Mexican-American border, Walt Staton, an immigrants rights advocate, was jailed for leaving water bottles marked “Good Luck.” But you can play a World Bank-funded computer game. When linked to real-life activities, it’s intended to help people in Africa learn how to fight water scarcity and violence. The game will supposedly encourage entrepreneurship and innovation on a scale that the Italian mountaineer Aldo Magazzeni is undertaking in Afghanistan.
Magazzeni, with his non-profit Traveling Mercies, is doing some incredible work providing fresh water to Afghanistan. After climbing in the region he learned about the trouble locals have accessing fresh water. After selling his BMW and withdrawing $30,000 from his retirement fund to get the scheme off the ground, he has become a success story in Afghanistan, completing projects to provide water to 75,000 people in remote areas at a tenth of the commercial cost. He looks like a local and doesn’t need guards or guns. Imagine what he could do with how much the Afghanistan War is costing per hour: $5.5 million. Hearts and minds need watering.
In Kashmir, currently divided between Indian and Pakistani control, one parliamentarian told Foreign Policy that “This water issue between India and Pakistan is the key … much more than any other political or religious concern.” India and Pakistan split the rights to water coming from Kashmir’s rivers—Pakistan’s share provides water to 90 percent of its agriculture. With climate change melting glaciers, water flow is diminishing and Pakistan needs India to build dams, which isn’t easy—“In a warlike situation, India could use the project like a bomb,” one local journalist fears.
The U.S. Army’s latest quadrennial review explained in very certain terms, “Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity … While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict.” Bin Laden weighed in, too, explaining that, “Talk about climate change is not an ideological luxury but a reality.”
When 6,000 thirsty Australian camels stampeded and overran a small outback town the only option local authorities considered was to round them up and shoot them from a helicopter. The camels’ crime? They “approached houses to try to take water from air conditioning units, and knocked down fencing at the small airport runway.” The director of Animals Australia explained, “The real concern is the terrible distress and wounding when shot by helicopter. There will be terrible suffering.” I don’t think she understands that there are air-conditioning units under threat.
Meanwhile, on the Mexican-American border, Walt Staton, an immigrants rights advocate, was jailed for leaving water bottles marked “Good Luck.” In the court case, one of the prosecutions main arguments was that animals could get their antlers caught on the plastic: The area is a wildlife reserve. Stanton was sentenced to 300 hours of litter picking.
Environmentalists and Whole Foods guerillas are squaring off against a military junta and Californian “limousine liberals” over FIJI Water. It seems worse than North Korean bottled water, which comes from underneath the two-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone between the Koreas—the source area’s purity guarded by two nation’s armies. FIJI Water, American’s leading bottled water, a brand that represents the island nation, is fiercely protected by Fiji’s military junta—Mother Jones reporter Anna Lenzer was “threatened with imprisonment and rape” by police while reporting in Fiji about FIJI Water, though their spokesman Rob Six responded to Lenzer’s remarks by noting, “FIJI Water is committed to enabling positive change by means of social investment, capacity building, and sustainable development.”
The Resnick family, who co-owns FIJI Water, has helped privatize water in California, though Lynda Resnick surely can’t trust herself, explaining that, “You can no longer trust public or private water supplies.” Their hard work should certainly be rewarded with a title like water oligarch, which they seem to have very much deserved. A company newsletter further explained that an “electromagnetic field frequency enables FIJI Water to stimulate our human self-regulation system.” If it’s true for their water, I bet it’s true for tap water. And urine. Overall, though, it sounds as if a bottled-water sommelier (they exist!) is scanning every shipment with an e-meter and calling it holy.
Paying attention to whether the proverbial cup is looking a little more full or empty each day is important. As is seeing how easy it can be to share it around. Almost a billion people lack access to safe fresh water and climate change will worsen the situation, with Ban Ki-moon explaining, “the resulting upheavals from droughts to inundated coastal areas to loss of arable land are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict.” Most important is that these things all have happened slowly, that all hope is not lost, that there are some solutions to these problems, and that problems for the future will develop slowly, too. I’m glad we’ve at least got a chance to study the maps and charts before blindly heading up shit creek.