Belt: Scarcity of water increases chances for military conflict


Don Belt, contributing writer for National Geographic magazine, speaks on water conflict and the “geography of hope” during the Friday morning lecture at the Amphitheater. One of the topics Belt discussed was the inequality of water distribution between Israel and Palestine, and its consequences. In this moment, Belt displays an image of Israelis using water recreationally and discusses how while Israel has plenty of water, it restricts Palestinian access. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Water is the key to survival, a resource that is in everyone’s best interest regardless of homeland or culture.

It could also become a future source of war.

Don Belt, a contributing writer for and former senior foreign editor of National Geographic magazine, spoke about the importance of cooperation at a time when water is becoming a scarce resource during Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. He was the last speaker of Week Four, themed “Water Matters.”

Throughout his lecture, Belt shared photos from other countries to showcase water issues in places he has visited during his career. He centered the presentation on what he calls “geography of hope.”

A dispute in ancient Sumer between city-states Umma and Lagash in 2500 BC was the first-ever water war in history. It also remains the only water war to date, Belt said. But that does not overrule the possibility of another in the future.

Scarcity of water and the effects of climate change could also increase the possibility of military conflict related to water, Belt said. Rather than acting in everyone’s best interests, countries act on their own interest regarding decisions based on water.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “This is a recipe for military engagement and wars.”

But it is also an opportunity to cooperate. That cooperation has been seen among countries that rarely cooperate on other matters.

Though India and Pakistan often dispute, for example, the two countries have cooperated about the division of the Indus River.

A prime area for a potential water war is the Jordan River, Belt said, as it is the focal point of Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Of about 37 water conflicts since World War II, 30 have occurred in that area, he said.

In the early 1960s, Israel built a national water carrier to take water from the Sea of Galilee through a canal to water cities and farms in the south. Syria saw that as a threat, because it controlled the Golan Heights at the time, and shelled the construction.

When the Syrians attempted to divert the Banias River — which flows into the Jordan River — it began secretly building a canal at night. Even though the canal was not being built on Israeli territory, the Israelis bombed the construction site because they felt threatened.

More recent water conflicts include Israelis and Palestinians. Though Israel gets much of its water from the Sea of Galilee, it also uses the aquifer along the Jordan River.

There is a small amount of surface water under the West Bank, and both the Israelis and Palestinians must rely on aquifers. But because of military occupation, Israel makes the decisions, Belt said.

“It’s just that simple,” he said, “so they take what many would say is far more than their fair share of water, and they deny Palestinians permits to dig more than 150 feet deep.”

The Israelis sell water to the Palestinians during dry seasons, Belt said.

Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have been at a stalemate, but conversations about the fair distribution of water have continued, Belt said.

“They kept talking about water, because it was too important not to,” he said.

Cooperation regarding water also occurred between Israel and Jordan during the 1950s even though the two countries were at war until 1994. Secret meetings to discuss water happened on the banks of Yarmouk River.

One country that inspires Belt is Bangladesh, which is located a few feet above sea level downstream of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers. The area often floods, Belt said, and Bangladesh is powerless against decisions China and India make about the water.

“It’s not their plight, but it’s their reaction to their plight that is inspiring,” he said.

Climate change causes the sea level to rise and more cyclones to occur, Belt said. As a result, salt water is getting into freshwater fields and farms. Those farmers have had to switch from growing rice to preparing shrimp and salt-based products.

Tigers looking for fresh water and prey, which have been lost due to cyclones, wander into the villages. While Belt was in a village for one week, he said, tigers killed two people.

“It’s a direct effect of climate change and the change in the environment,” he said.

As people lose land to climate change, Bangladeshis will be more inclined to migrate to India. Due to the number of Bangladeshis sneaking into India, Belt said, the Indian government is taking precautions, including shoot-on-sight policies. The UN predicts there will be 250,000 climate refugees by 2100, he said.

But despite their troubles, Bangladeshis have found ways to live in their environment. Non-governmental organizations have built boats that serve as floating classrooms for schoolchildren. When a flood occurred one day, a mosque was taken down, moved and rebuilt on higher grounds. A service still happened that evening, Belt said.

Belt showed a photo of a woman who continued to cook as her house flooded.

Bangladeshis have consistently shown they are the happiest and most content with their lives on surveys, he said.

“It’s because there’s this attitude that they will accept what life gives them,” Belt said, “and they’ll make the best of it.”

As climate change is felt in areas such as Bangladesh, cooperation is key to avoid water wars in the future.

“It’s a chance to build bridges between people, between countries, between communities within countries,” Belt said.