The shape of water: Precious resource under pressure

March 26, 2018

As the global population grows and climate change accelerates, resources will become scarce. We consider whether armed conflict over water is inevitable.

While conventional wars loom large in the public consciousness, from conflict on the Korean Peninsula to the ongoing strife in Syria, there are other potential sources of global friction. One of these revolves around a resource that none of us can do without: water.

For years, the possibility of water shortages around the world has fuelled talk of “water wars” between countries and within them. Some experts are convinced such conflict is inevitable, while others are more sceptical. So, what are the sources of those fears and just how likely is a war over water?

A report released by the World Health Organization and UNICEF in 2017 reveals that three in 10 people (2.1 billion) worldwide lack ready access to safe water at home. Added to this, a 2015 report from the United Nations reveals that the world will only have 60 per cent of the water it needs by 2030 unless significant global policy changes are made.

Aggravating the situation, the UN says global water demand is projected to rise by 55 per cent by 2050, largely because of growing demands from manufacturing, thermal electricity generation and domestic use.

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Consider the causes

How did we get here? The global lead economist in the World Bank’s water practice, Richard Damania, says we’re witnessing the collision of two powerful trends: bigger human populations and climate change. Damania says current water management policies are outdated and struggle to address these challenges.

“With population growth, the demand for water is growing exponentially, while climate change is making rainfall more erratic and less predictable,” he says.

“If the policy status quo persists, water scarcity will proliferate across new regions of the world and intensify in areas where water is already scarce.”

Dr Peter H Gleick, president-emeritus at the Pacific Institute, a leading global think tank addressing freshwater challenges, believes the planet has as much water as ever, but our water problems are the result of local mismanagement and abuse.

“Among the problems are the over-pumping of groundwater and over-drafting of our rivers and lakes to supply agriculture and the urban demands for water, which have grown with our population and economies,” Gleick says.

“Many regions are now reaching ‘peak water’ – the limit of their locally available supplies. We also contaminate much of our water, making it unusable without costly treatment. And, of course, human-caused climate change is worsening extreme floods and droughts and contributing to our existing water problems.”

Local conflict

The UN report warns that the competition for water − between water “uses” and water “users” − increases the risk of localised conflicts. These, of course, have happened throughout history.

In the United States, for example, hundreds of people were injured or arrested last year during the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, 1900-kilometres of underground oil pipe, which Native Americans consider a threat to the region’s water resources and to ancient burial grounds. And, at least 70 people were killed in clashes between farmers and herders over access to water resources and land in the southern part of Darfur, Sudan, in 2017.

Damania notes that episodes of drought and flood are often followed by spikes in violence, civil war and regime change in developing countries. “The strongest evidence is from Sub-Saharan Africa where violence – cattle theft, land conflict and civil wars – tends to erupt following periods of low rainfall.”

Damania explains that droughts and floods typically exacerbate poverty, especially in countries where agriculture is a vital source of employment. Poverty, in turn, means people have less to lose and more to gain when conflict arises.

But rainfall shocks (or sudden declines in rainfall) can ignite conflicts in other ways too. According to Damania, evidence from Africa suggests that by straining the budgets and capacity of governments, water shocks reduce the popularity of leaders and make regime change more likely.

International anxieties

Water tensions are also being felt at an international level. Gleick says the Middle East has long been a politically tense region and a hotspot for water conflicts. For instance, there are rising tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, as Ethiopia nears completion of a huge new dam on the Nile River.

Egypt says Ethiopia built the dam without, or with insufficient, consultation. With 85 per cent of the Nile emerging from the Ethiopian highlands, Egypt worries that Ethiopia will be able to control the flow of the river. Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation, Mohamed Abdel Aty, describes the situation as “an international security issue”. If the water flow to Egypt is reduced by just 2 per cent, he says, 1 million Egyptians will lose their jobs.

Another shared international watershed Gleik  considers worrisome is the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, shared by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. So too is the Mekong, where upstream developments by China are raising tensions with downstream nations such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

“We are also seeing growing pressures in many urban areas, like in Cape Town , Mexico City, Jakarta, and Tehran,” Gleick says. “Australia, of course, has always had challenges with extreme events such as droughts and floods. Plus, the Murray-Darling is so important for such a large area of Australia that it remains a hotspot of contention.”

Flowing ahead

While he doesn’t like the term “water wars”, Gleick does believe there is a growing risk of conflicts associated with water across the globe, including conflicts over access to water, attacks on water systems in conflicts that start for other reasons, and the use of water or water systems as weapons.

According to Damania, countries rarely, if ever, fight over water alone these days. “Wars are costly endeavours with uncertain consequences which render dialogue and cooperation a more attractive way to resolve disputes,” he says.

“This is not to deny that water scarcity could act as a conflict risk multiplier in some cases. But, more typically, if disputes arise, they are mediated in ways that facilitate peaceful resolution.”

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