Water Wars

March 23, 2012

The US State Department has released an important report on how future water scarcity could threaten future global peace and security.  The report had been prepared by the US Defense Intelligence Agency, with input from the CIA.

It warned that problems with water could destabilize countries in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia over the next decade.

During the next 10 years, many countries … will almost certainly experience water problems– shortages, poor water quality, or floods–that will contribute to the risk of instability and state failure, and increase regional tensions. Additionally, states will focus on addressing internal water-related social disruptions

Future water shortages have a number of causes.  As populations increase, with the rate being fastest in developing countries, so will the demand for water for drinking, industry and agriculture.

Most of the existing sources of water have been captured.  In the case of groundwater, the rate of extraction often exceeds the naturally replenished rate, which means that yields could start going down quickly sometime over the next fifty years, making the situation worse. In addition, climate change will dry out some parts of the world, while others will become wetter.  The consequences of not tackling the water crisis are dire.

Water shortages and poor water quality—when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—could contribute to social disruptions. With many developing countries experiencing political instability already, a water crisis could tip them over the edge to become failed states.  There is also the threat from terrorists, who may now target water supplies and desalination plants.

The report suggests that water could become the weapon of the twenty-first century.  Powerful countries could use international forums to pressure investors, nongovernmental organizations, and donor countries to support or halt water infrastructure projects, whichever suits their interests. Capturing water at its source could be used as a way to exert influence on neighbors, as they threaten to cut off downstream flow.  Water will also be used within states to pressure populations and suppress separatist elements. Water brinkmanship, therefore, adds another source of instability, which has ever a chance of breaking out into armed conflict as water supplies become increasingly scarce.

Fortunately, there are solutions to the crisis. For example, more efficient use of existing resources, particularly in industrial and agricultural applications, will help ease the situation. In addition, there are still some untapped sustainable sources of water.  However, according to the World Bank, it will cost between $5-21 billion to increase available stocks of clean water.

Overcoming the looming crisis is a test for globalization. It is unlikely that disputes can be settled between neighboring countries. No government will give up water rights voluntarily, and it can hide behind its sovereignty, which protects it from outside interference. New global structures and rules are needed to protect the weak against the strong, which would take globalization into new territory, but it is a place the world needs to go if it is to avoid future wars over water.

2 Comments for this entry

  • QT says:

    If climate change will dry out some parts of the world, while (others will become wetter – wouldn’t that just balance everything out? Why do we need to worry?

  • PT says:

    So much water is wasted in industry, agriculture and just keeping our gardens looking pretty. If we used water more sensibly then we may not run out for a very long time.

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