Water Wars: the new military imperative


Water is our most precious resource. We need it to live, eat, fuel our modern lifestyles, and to maintain our health. While nearly 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, only 2.5% of that is drinkable and only 1% is easily accessible to the general population. For millennia it has been an essential part of every civilisation – defining where settlements are built and allowing empires to succeeded and prosper. However now things are changing. Thanks to the spectres of climate change and over population, the world’s sources are running dry and tensions are rising.

Currently humans already consume 50% of the earths available water.  Water scarcity already affects every continent we inhabit and almost 1 in 5 people live in areas of physical water scarcity (with 500 million set to soon join them) while an additional 1 in 4 face economic water shortage (where nations lack the necessary infrastructure to collect water). It is a complex issue, an intimate combination of over-demand, poor management and a rapidly changing climate and if we don’t take action in each of these areas soon, we will be facing an unprecedented water crisis globally.

water stress around the world
Water Stress in Major Basins around the World. Credit: UNEP

Where has all the water gone?

There are various causes for water scarcity but there are two major drains – agriculture and a rapidly growing population. The combination of these two factors alone is cause for alarm, however they are exacerbated by one major inhibitor – pollution. Even as our agriculture and populace consume more and more of the earth’s available water, our industry and own waste are reducing the supplies available to us.

Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater, but of this number, an estimated 60% is wasted. The waste is largely fixable; repairing leaking irrigation systems, educating farmers on crop choices that suit their climate and implementing more efficient water application methods would all drastically improve the issue. However, even if this was to be achieved, demand worldwide for food is growing and by 2050 global demand for food will have increased by 75%. We will be needing more water to grow more food. So even if we reduce water wastage in agriculture, with an increasing population we will be taking one step forward for every two steps back.

Population growth is arguably the biggest threat to water scarcity (and the future of humanity as a whole), particularly as neither population growth nor water availability are evenly spread. In the last 50 years, the human population has more than doubled and today, 41% of the world’s population live in river basins that are already under water stress . It is expected that by 2050, 2 in 3 people will have trouble accessing enough water.

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water pollution in India.
Water pollution in India. Image Source: WikiGrewal

In spite of the fact that we are running out of water to use, we are currently polluting a large portion of what we do have left. Pesticides and fertilisers are washing off farms into waterways; rivers, lakes and oceans are being polluted by toxic industrial waste; and untreated human waste is running freely into freshwater sources (80% of India’s untreated human waste water is flowing freely into its rivers).

A Changing Climate

While measures can be taken to address the current causes of water scarcity, the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into our atmosphere is causing changes in weather patterns and climates around the world regardless. Droughts will become increasingly common in some areas (by the end of the century South America and Central and Western Europe can expect a 20% increase in drought occurrence), whilst floods ravage others on an increasingly regular basis.Glaciers and snow packs, relied on by millions for their freshwater runoffs throughout the year, will disappear across the globe and sea levels will increase as our fresh water supply decreases.

Crocodile skeleton lies on a dried out riverbed in Ethiopia. Image Credit: Rex Features/SIPA/Jonathan Fontane
Crocodile skeleton lies on a dried out riverbed in Ethiopia. Image Credit: Rex Features/SIPA/Jonathan Fontane

The dramatic adjustments already being seen in weather patterns are impacting water supplies around the world and as climate change worsens, so too will the unpredictable weather patterns that accompany it.

Tension’s Already Building

From India to Iraq conflicts (both physical and political) over water, or the lack thereof, are on the rise.

In the Middle East, ISIS has waged a water war, rushing to control dams in Syria and Iraq. In China and Laos more and more dams are being erected in order to divert water to drier regions – leaving downstream Cambodia and Vietnam running dry. In northern Africa the Nile is under siege as Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan stake their claims on the river’s waters to feed their populations.

A report from the US Director of National Intelligence has stated that the risk of conflict over water will grow as demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40% by 2030. The US Senate has issued reports with such titles as “Avoiding Water Wars”.

Water is not necessarily the preliminary cause of conflict either, it can also act as a secondary cause such as in India and Pakistan where disputes over water is not the sole cause of tensions but they are certainly exacerbated by the fact that they both rely heavily on waterways such as the Indus River for food and power.

Water conflicts are also likely to manifest themselves increasingly as regional conflicts. The Mekong River is shared by some of the most populous nations in the world including China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And if China goes ahead with it’s plans to dam and divert the upstream supplies the impacts will be profound.

Also likely is the fact that water scarcity will lead to an increase in sub-national conflicts and localised tensions as citizens battle over the last of the water supply. In Kuva, Uzbekistan fights often breakout between farmers of the once highly fertile region. As the global temperature has warmed, the mountains surrounding the area have melted away, removing the primary water source for the region. Central Asia is just one of the regions that could be pushed to the brink of collapse as it’s water supply runs dry.

Aral Sea Water Loss
Landsat satellite imagery mosaics showing visible changes of the Aral Sea from 1977-2013. Source: USGS/NASA; visualisation by UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls.

Water scarcity largely impacts areas which are already suffering from regional instability and tensions. The conflict-prone Middle East is one of the regions most likely to experience water scarcity, and if the Aral Sea is anything to go by water management in the area is poor to say the least. And as nations develop, demand for water is only going to increase:

“Water is likely to cause the most conflict in areas where new demands for energy and food production will compete with the water required for basic domestic needs of a rapidly growing population,” Paul Reig, World Resources Institute

So we are stuck with the conundrum of promoting development of struggling nations whilst facing the reality that eventually there will not be enough to go around.

Even in developed nations water supplies are dwindling, in the US water levels have dropped in 64% of groundwater wells over the past two decades and thanks to a four year drought California’s economy and crop supply (which is an important supply of food for the US) has been crippled by a US$2.7 billion hit to the economy and 21,000 jobs lost in the agriculture industry.

Agriculture industry suffers as drought continues in California. Image Credit: Eco Watch
Agriculture industry suffers as drought continues in California. Image Credit: Eco Watch

Holding on until the last drop

A recent NASA study has shown that more than half of the planet’s largest aquifers are being depleted beyond their ability to replenish, officials in India are warning that water wars are likely within the next decade, the effects of global warming are beginning to be felt worldwide and the population continues to expand and industrialise.

There can be little doubt that without action, humanity’s future is an unsustainable one. Water is the source of life and without it our society will crumble.

Steps can be taken to reduce water wastage and pollution that will have far reaching impacts; regional and global bodies can mediate between states over the sustainable use of shared water sources; and more efficient forms of energy production can be created to avoid excess water usage.

However, if the global population growth rate is not curbed and global warming is not mitigated then we will be facing water conflicts regardless. We must strike a delicate balance, where the developed world assists the developing in industrialising and educating their societies in order to curb rapid population growth in a way that does not continue to have excessive toll on the environment. Water scarcity is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons, and the solution to ensure that there is enough to go around is cooperation – the only other alternative is the beginning of what will come to be known as the Water Wars.

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