Editorial: Can global water wars be contained?

Editorial: Can global water wars be contained?

Thursday, January 5, 2017 - 4:01pm

 World-Herald editorial

Look at just about any region of the world, and you’ll find heated disputes between countries or regions when it comes to sharing water.

Sometimes disagreements get violent. Consider what happened in India in September.

More than 15,000 law enforcement and security officers had to be deployed to quell large-scale rioting to protest a water-distribution order from the country’s Supreme Court. The court ordered the Indian state of Karnataka to share river water with downstream residents in a neighboring state.

Farmers in the two states depend on the water for irrigation, and severe shortages have raised the allocation stakes to a desperate level.

There are no easy solutions in some situations, but Nebraska has provided an important positive example in how it has worked with Colorado and Kansas in recent years to find agreement on managing the Republican River.

After years of disagreement, experts from the three states began serious negotiations in 2014. They settled a series of issues and ultimately worked out a long-term, mutually acceptable management plan signed by the three governors.

That’s a big contrast to some river disputes elsewhere in the country, especially two being handled by special masters who were appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court: Texas and New Mexico legal jousting involving the Rio Grande, and courtroom warring by Florida and Georgia over management of the Apalachicola River.

The special master in the Florida-Georgia case will soon announce his recommendations. The two states remained recalcitrant after he urged them to settle, warning them: “I can guarantee at least one of you will be unhappy with my recommendation and perhaps both of you. You can’t both be winners. But you can both be losers.”

That kind of realization has spurred California, Arizona and Nevada to pursue fruitful negotiation for Colorado River management, one of our country’s most complicated water-stress situations.

Oklahoma had good news this year with approval of an agreement resolving longstanding tensions pitting the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes against Oklahoma City over municipal water diversions from a major lake in Indian country.

The international front provides some encouraging examples, too. A notable case is a multi-faceted U.S.-Canadian agreement involving the Great Lakes.

In many other situations, though, water disagreements spur ill will among countries when governments fail to resolve matters. That’s the situation involving the Nile River, with Egypt and Ethiopia at odds.

China provides a particular example. Its downstream neighbors, from India to the west and Vietnam to the east, are expressing concern as Beijing approves dams that reduce water flow southward.

The Japan Times newspaper reports that “re- engineering transboundary water flows is integral to China’s strategy to employ power, control and influence to fashion a strongly Sino-centric Asia. ... With as many as 18 downstream neighbors, China enjoys riparian dominance of a kind unmatched in the world.”

Water-distribution disputes around the globe come in many different forms. Tackling them can be complex and challenging.

Through cooperation with two of its neighbors on managing the Republican River, Nebraska sets a noteworthy example of the right way to achieve practical solutions.

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