The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released alarming data on the consequences of global warming in some of the world's poorest regions.
By 2100, one to three billion people worldwide are expected to suffer from water scarcity. Global warming will increase evaporation and severely reduce rainfall-by upto 20 percent in the Middle East and North Africa-with the amount of water per person possibly halved by mid-century in these regions. This sudden scarcity of an element central to human life will exacerbate conflicts worldwide.
But while conflicts may be inevitable, wars are not. Our ability to prevent "water wars" will depend on our collective capacity to anticipate tensions, and to find the technical and institutional solutions to manage emerging conflicts. Such solutions do exist, and are proving their efficacy everyday.
Dams, if adequately sized and designed, can fight climate change and regulate water supply. Yet in a new context of scarcity, upstream infrastructure projects on international rivers may impact water quality or availability for neighbouring states, thus causing tensions.
River basin organisations such as those for the Nile, Niger, or Senegal rivers help facilitate dialogue between states that share hydraulic resources. These regional cooperation initiatives work to common ownership of the resource, thereby reducing the risk that disputes over water use will escalate into violence.
Most international waterways have such frameworks for dialogue, though at different stages of development. The international community should strengthen these initiatives. Where they do not exist, they should be created in partnership with all the countries concerned. Official development assistance can create incentives to cooperate by financing data collection, providing technical know-how, or by conditioning loans on constructive negotiations.
Yet the most violent water wars take place today within rather than among states, fuelling ethnic strife, as communities seek to capture the resource. In Darfur, recurrent drought has poisoned relations between farmers and nomadic herdsmen, and the war we are helplessly witnessing today follows years of escalating conflict. Chad risks falling prey to the same cycle of violence.
The basic human needs of populations must be satisfied through local development initiatives. Rural hydraulic projects, which ensure access to water for these populations over large stretches of land, can be efficient conflict prevention tools. So can secure grazing corridors established with the help of satellite imagery to orient nomads and their herds to appropriate areas. Such initiatives provide rare opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between rival communities. The key is to anticipate the need for action before tensions escalate boil over.
Water consumption also must be addressed. Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of water use in the world. Agronomical research and technical innovations are crucial to maximising water efficiency in this sector, and they must be taken much further. The development challenge no longer solely consists in bringing agricultural water to deprived areas. As the dramatic shrinkage of the Aral Sea, Lake Chad, and the Dead Sea illustrate, it is now preserving scarce natural resources and ensuring their equitable distribution. In West Africa or the Middle East, Central Asia or India, this, too, can contribute to abating clashes
The Cold War ended peacefully thanks to realism, foresight, and strength of will. These qualities should be put to work to stave off major water wars. This also demands innovation in global governance, which is why we support the creation of a UN Environment Agency, endowed with adequate legal and financial resources.
Mikhail Gorbachev is chairman of the board of Green Cross International.