08/06/2013 12:56 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Damned If You Do....

Dams never get the attention they deserve. With all the political turmoil in the world today who gives a damn about dams? With civil war in Syria, political unrest in Egypt, and warnings of an another potential Al Qaida attack this month, I think we can all be forgiven for not giving much thought to a little water retention. But in an increasingly water-constrained world, dams are damned serious business, and particularly so in countries, like Egypt and Pakistan, that are heavily dependent upon river water for their survival.

Two years ago Ethiopia announced that it would be building a hydroelectric dam on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile, the major source of Egypt's water. When plans for the Hidase (Renaissance) Dam were unveiled it was initially believed that the dam would create a lake storing 15 billion cubic meters of water, but in recent months the estimated storage capacity has risen to 74 billion cubic meters, and some experts warn that the final figure could be substantially higher than that. Creating a reservoir anywhere near that size could substantially reduce the flow of the Nile, creating a prolonged water emergency down steam in Egypt.

Prior to the ousting of President Morsi, Egyptian military leaders openly voiced their concerns about the project and rumors were rampant that Egypt was prepared, if necessary, to take military action against the construction of the dam. Now that Morsi has been deposed, the odds of some kind of military action are growing, particularly if the military believes that another democratically-elected government would not get tough with Ethiopia.

In the case of Pakistan, extremist elements are trying to stoke popular opposition to India's plans to build a large hydroelectric dam on the Chenab River. While some significant portion of the electricity that is generated could be sold to energy-starved Pakistan, some Pakistani observers are concerned about the implications for the environment and the possibility that the dam could be used, in the event of hostilities, to restrict Pakistan's water rights.

While Pakistan's new government appears determined to improve relations with India, debate over the proposed Chenab dam and other water issues could prove to be a political stumbling block. The Asian Development Bank just released a report that gave a dire update on the current water situation in Pakistan:

Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, not far from being classified as "water scarce," with less than 1,000 cubic meters per person per year. Water demand exceeds supply, which has caused maximum withdrawal from reservoirs. At present, Pakistan's storage capacity is limited to a 30-day supply, well below the recommended 1,000 days for countries with a similar climate. Climate change is affecting snowmelt and reducing flows into the Indus River, the main supply source. Increases in storage capacity to manage periods of low snowmelt and low rainfall are required, as well as the rehabilitation of the distribution system to reduce losses.

Experts have long warned that in the 21st century more wars may be fought over water than oil. Population projections indicate that there will be another billion people on the planet by 2025. By then, two-thirds of the world's population could be living under "severe water stress conditions," and yet some of the world's most water-stressed countries have some of the fastest growing population growth rates. Egypt's population, currently estimated at 82 million could reach 122 million by mid-century, while Pakistan's population, presently 184 million, is projected to reach 271 million by 2050.

Even in the best and calmest of times dam construction can be highly controversial because of the severe impact that dams can have on the environment and the local populace. And these are neither the best nor the calmest of times. Some of the most volatile regions in the world are severely water-stressed. Other countries that are potentially threatened by the construction of dams, include such political hotspots as Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Cambodia. Proposed dams can also create severe internal divisions, as they have recently in China. In an energy-hungry, water-scarce world with a growing population, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't when it comes to dams.