About the Author

Benno Hansen
Patent Assistant (Copenhagen, Denmark)

MSc degree in horticulture from Copenhagen University, thesis on Hidden Markov Modelling of protein sequences. Fields of professional interests include: Writing popular science texts, ecology, multi-disciplinary work, bioinformatics and computational biology, sustainability, plant biology. Also did two semesters of computer business studies - before upgrading from business school indoctrination to Copenhagen University enlightenment.

Currently working in patent department of major multinational pharmaceutical corporation. Have also written for magazines at an advertising bureau, supported university students in their IT-tasks, helped maintain the university hardware, software and websites, vacuum cleaned bodies of escaped laboratory test frogs, been a mail man with the Danish Postal Service and counted the number of passengers for the Danish Railways.

My goal is to publish a best selling science fiction novel and/or get elected for parliament with an intellectual party. But I spend a lot more time betting on football matches (and winning), attending FC Copenhagen home games which I hold a season ticket for, reading lots of science fiction and popularized science, blogging, skating my Remz inlines and eating organic meals with my beautiful, eco-friendly biomedicine ethicist girlfriend.

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A brief history of water wars

Published 18th January 2011 - 6 comments - 5265 views -

As promised in my first article I'll blog a bit about "water wars". First, a very brief look at historical conflicts over water or just battles with water involved.

Prerequisite: Prise and promise

The explanations for the onset of organized conflict include the emergence of a need to coordinate, expand and protect agricultural activities. Not just acquisition of arable land but also the construction of irrigation and granaries. The significance of irrigation and granaries is compelling since it required investment, work and bureaucracy while it instilled loyalty since the steady flow of food they produced would not be something a farmer would just leave. Thus, the onset of agriculture provided the environment for stratified and defensive societies; some of which evolved into stratified and aggressive societies. Archaeological evidence does not suggest that the first stratified societies reached the limit of agricultural productivity. But droughts or a bad harvests could have inspired people in villages where the food had run out to simply attack neighboring villages that had food reserves.

From around 2500 BC a conflict know as the “Lagash-Umma Border Dispute” provides a very early example of water used tactically. Urlama, King of Lagash from 2450 to 2400 BC, diverted water to deprive Umma (present-day Iraq) of water. His son Il cut off the water supply to Girsu, a city in Umma. There are plenty of similar examples from the ancient history of the Fertile Crescent. Then there is the classic example: the moat. A water-filled ditch encircling fortified dwellings has been a stable of defensive tactics throughout most of history. This too was used in the ancient Fertile Crescent: From 605 to 562 BC king Nebuchadnezzar fortified Babylon by engineering defensive moats from the Euphrates and canals.

In USA 1748 a ferry house on Brooklyn shore of East River burned down. New Yorkers accused Brooklynites of having set the fire as revenge for unfair East River water rights. Small scale terrorism in the USA. The US and Canada provides many examples of civilians sabotaging dams and reservoirs to the list and at least one murder. Later, in the 1870s and 1880s violence between villagers, ranchers, and farmers erupted over water rights in New Mexico, USA. Meanwhile in Bavaria remarkably comprehensive crime statistics were kept and, it turned out, there was a good correlation between the amount of rain, the price of rye and the rate of property crime: they rose and fell together.Skeleton Coast

In the 1930s the US Great Plains were stricken by droughts and storms while the area's agricultural practices were far from geared towards the situation. Massive soil erosion and obvious declines in life quality resulted. The area was now called The Dust Bowl. Close to 2.5 million people out-migrated. Most went to neighboring states but about 300,000 traveled to California. They were received as “ignorant filthy people”, called “Okies”, some argued Bible in hand that they were “inferior” and it was even suggested to pay them to be sterilized. They were beaten, their shacks burned and they were accused of “communism”. In 1936 Los Angeles police stopped migrants at the state border. Welcome to California.

Abundance: Tactics and weaponry

One of the more obscure corners of the second world war was the Japanese invasion of China but it comes with a particularly large scale example of water used tactically when in 1938 the defending generals destroyed dikes to flood the advancing troops. Partly successful the maneuver also killed an unknown number of Chinese civilians estimated to be between tens of thousands and about one million. Later the occupying Japanese poisoned wells with typhoid and other pathogens. When Germany invaded The Netherlands a similar tactic was used: the “New Dutch Water Defence Line” constructed in 1885 succeeded in flooding large areas but not in stopping the Germans. Throughout the world war hydroelectric dams were routinely bombed as strategic targets. The Dnjeprostroj Dam on the Dnieper River was first destroyed by the retreating Soviet army, then reconstructed by the occupying Germans only to be demolished again as the German army retreated.

In 1943 the British air force bombed at least two German dams resulting in major property damage and at least about 1,300 mostly civilian deaths. As the battle was brought to Nazi Germany ground, the retreating German army repeatedly blew up dams to flood the advancing allied forces – this happened in Italy, France and Germany – and in one case they did the opposite: the Italian Rapido River was dammed to flood a valley occupied by US forces. One of the consequences of the Second World War was, of course, the formation of the United Nations and Israel. When the disgruntled Arab nations attacked the new Jewish state again water was used tactically: in 1948 Arab forces cut off West Jerusalem's water supply.

Scarcity: Survival of the decadent

Also, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh were in continual dispute over the Ganges and Indus rivers. Bangladesh presents one of the more typical cases of cross-boundary environmental situations leading to mass migration. A small less developed country with a huge and growing population strains it's natural resources to a breaking point. It's geography happens to make it particularly vulnerable to both accumulated environmental stresses (soil erosion etc.) and periodic natural disasters (namely floods). Then in 1975 the neighboring country builds a barrage, diverting water away from Bangladesh. Salt water intrudes the sinking fresh water resources and land productivity plummet. 35 million people were directly affected. Some 12 to 17 million Bangladeshis have migrated illegally to India and about half a million to other areas in Bangladesh. Migrants have since clashed with residents over social, ethnic, religious, national and other proximate issues. Countless people have been killed in clashes.


This article is copy/pasted from past and future posts about water at my Ecowar blog and is cross-posted at Newsvine.

Category: Education | Tags:


  • Diêgo Lôbo Goiabeira on 18th January 2011:

    Hey Benno, very nice thought: bring these facts about water’s history. If I may suggest you something, I’d say that it would have greater impact if you had also reported more of the man’s relation with the water through the history.

  • Kevin Rennie on 19th January 2011:

    My Th!nk4: Climate Change post looks at modern day water wars in the Land of Oz: Australia’s Not-So-Civil Water War

    Could be the new oil!

  • Benno Hansen on 19th January 2011:

    Hej Diêgo and Kevin,

    Thank you for your comments (after all comments are what I count on to improve my articles so some day I can sell them as a book and make 64 million).

    For you, Diêgo, I have thrown in a couple of kind of poetic headlines. What do you think? Did I understand you right?

  • Diêgo Lôbo Goiabeira on 19th January 2011:

    Benno, sorry for not being clear. I meant you did a narrative of the history, but it could be also interesting seeing the relation of people during the wars you have reported. Is it clear? But no problem, I liked the headlines, by the way.
    Thank you.

  • Benno Hansen on 20th May 2011:

    Hello Peter Gleick,

    Thank you for dropping by. You are right that worldwater.org is one of my sources and I’m sorry for not mentioning that since you feel like I should have. This article is a mashup of several other articles and notes at Ecowar.blogspot.com (linked to above and there you will notice worldwater.org is in fact a permanent link in the sidebar - since it is such a great source) as well as a chapter from a book-thingy I’m writing. Both other places are littered with sources. Other sources for this present article includes Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity and Reuveny’s Ecomigration and Violent Conflict.

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