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Consider the following statistics that illustrate the concept of international hydrological interdependence:
Water stress also impacts domestic politics as populations within a country’s borders compete for scarce water resources. This is vividly illustrated in the intense hydropolitics of the western US: farmers and ranchers compete for water with growing urban areas; states are determined to cede as little control as possible to the federal government; growing urban populations and their water needs are forcing growers to turn to less water-intensive crops.
In China, the northern region of the country is home to two-fifths of the nation’s population and three-fifths of its crops. This region receives only one-fifth of the country’s annual rainfall, however, and competes with the rest of the country for valuable water supplies. Frequent droughts intensify this competition, as do demographic tensions created by the shifting population.
The lack of water resources to meet the needs of a quickly growing population is a significant factor in the ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan. Drought and desertification is causing competition among tribes attempting to make a living as either farmers or herders. The conflict has been largely characterized as a racial conflict between Arabs and non-Arabs in the region, but since herders have traditionally been Arab and farmers non-Arab, there is a strong environmental component underlying the conflict. As refugees spill across borders into countries like Chad, suffering from its own water scarcity issues, these underlying tensions are likely to spread.
In fact, Africa is home to considerable water stress, much of it crossing political boundaries and fragile states.
The Middle East/North Africa is another area of great concern.
Another prominent hot spot lies in Central and South Asia where India and Pakistan – long-time rivals, historic enemies, and nuclear powers – share the Indus River System, which also flows through the contested Kashmir region. In 1960 the two countries signed the Indus Waters Treaty to regulate water use. The treaty’s provisions have continued to ensure cooperation on water issues between the two countries, and it has become a symbol of the power of international cooperation over water.
Elsewhere in Asia, other rivals also share valuable headwaters and tributaries of major river systems: China and Tibet (the Yangtze River originates in Tibet and flows into China); as well as North and South Korea (recent tensions ensued as a result of the North releasing waters from the Imjin River, killing South Koreans surprised by the unexpected surge). In addition, the fragile republics of the former Soviet Union share waters in the Caucasus region, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan share the Aral Sea, which is rapidly shrinking due to Russian irrigation projects on the two rivers that feed the Sea.
In North America, the Rio Grande River separating Mexico and the United States has been the subject of much hydrologic diplomacy. The Rio Grande originates in the mountains of Colorado and flows south, eventually forming the border between Texas and Mexico. It is an important water source to both countries, and has for many years been the focus of treaties and disputes regarding these treaties.
There is considerable evidence that managing scarce water resources may actually be a vehicle for broader international cooperation, especially in conflict zones.