Water conflict is a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or groups over an access to water resources. The United Nations recognizes that water disputes result from opposing interests of water users, public or private. A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, though rarely are traditional wars waged over water alone. Instead, water has historically been a source of tension and a factor in conflicts that start for other reasons. However, water conflicts arise for several reasons, including territorial disputes, a fight for resources, and strategic advantage. These conflicts occur over both freshwater and saltwater, and between international boundaries. However, conflicts occur mostly over freshwater; because freshwater resources are necessary, yet limited, they are the center of water disputes arising out of need for potable water. As freshwater is a vital, yet unevenly distributed natural resource, its availability often impacts the living and economic conditions of a country or region. The lack of cost-effective water desalination techniques in areas like the Middle East, among other elements of water crises can put severe pressures on all water users, whether corporate, government, or individual, leading to tension, and possibly aggression. Recent humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Rwandan Genocide or the war in Sudanese Darfur, have been linked back to water conflicts.z
The purposes of the United Nations, as set forth in the UN Charter, are to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to cooperate in solving international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these ends. These purposes were reinforced in the United Nations Millennium Declaration of 2000 and further clarified. Three key areas now define United Nations activities: Peace and Security; Development; and Human Rights and Democracy. As we enter the 21st century, new challenges to these areas are emerging. We are confronted with both old and new threats to international peace and security; poverty has been recognized by world leaders as the most daunting of all the problems facing the world in the new century; and fundamental values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility now form common values through which achievements in the former two categories can be realized. In each of these key areas environment and resources play a central role. Threats to common security now include so-called ‘soft threats': environmental degradation, resource depletion, contagious diseases and corruption, to name just a few. It is now recognized that environmental degradation and both scarcity and abundance of natural resources are potential sources of conflict – and cooperation – and need to be more systematically addressed in this context. Access to fresh water and sanitation services are a precondition to achieving the other internationally accepted goals in the Millennium Declaration. Nowhere is this issue more important than in the Middle East, where water is considered a ‘strategic’ resource and tensions between countries in the region over it are high. There it has become a major political issue, and the various peace agreements that have been proposed or signed in recent years all include water. This has led to claims from various sources – attributed (but unsubstantiated) to such individuals as Boutros Boutros Ghali and former King Hussein of Jordan – that ‘the next war in the Middle East will be over water’. This rhetoric has captured the public imagination and caused much consternation in the intelligence communities of various countries, who worry whether water – or other scarce resources – may be a future flashpoint for international conflict.
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