Almost 5billion people, nearly 80% of the world’s population, face significant threats to their ability to access clean water.
This condition is getting worse as an effect of climate change, population growth and human activities.
In many parts of the world, and especially in the dry mid-latitudes – like Central Asia and some parts of South America – water continues to be consumed at higher rates than can be renewed, leading to rapid water depletion.
When water becomes too scarce, it challenges social-economic systems, potentially leading to higher poverty and inequality, threatening food production and energy supplies, and importantly, increasing odds of conflict.
Throughout history we have seen instances of water wars, from military attacks on water sources, to regional frictions caused by inequalities in water use.
As drinkable water is expected to become increasingly scarce there is a chance that competition over this vital resource will increase.
The so-called ‘Neo-Malthusian’ argument, well-known among scholars of peace and conflict, argues that natural resource scarcity increases the likelihood of conflicts for various reasons.
According to this theory, living conditions will worsen when resources get scarce, poor individuals have more incentives to join military groups, the state will have a looser grip on control and pre-existing inequalities will deepen.
So while this suggests that the link is indirect, there is a possibility that water scarcity will act as a catalyst for a rise in conflict.
Abrupt natural hazards, such as droughts or floods, and slower-onset climate changes like the rise in sea level are likely to add further destabilising elements to this already complex picture.
Natural disasters can cause climate refugees to leave affected areas. In moving to places with more water security, pressure is put on the resources in this new area, which along with the changes in socio-economic, ethnic and demographic conditions determined by the arrival of immigrants, can cause frictions within the receiving community.
As epitomised by the Arab Spring and Syrian conflict, drought-induced water scarcity may result in crop failures, impacting local livelihoods, increasing food prices and pushing poor communities to rebel.
This does not mean, however, that competition over water will necessarily escalate into international wars or be more intense than water conflicts of the past.
While we can’t exclude the possibility that new and unpredictable types of violence will arise, the latest trends in conflict suggest that intra-state and lower-intensity forms of violence, like riots and protests, will remain more common than international wars.
Religious, political and ethnic differences between groups continue to represent a motive behind wars and we don’t have reason to believe this will change.
Water and food scarcity though can add further elements of stress to vulnerable communities and hence increase the chance of conflict.
Scholars have explained the outbreak of wars related to natural resources are based on two main motivations: greed – or the individual’s willingness to seize natural resources, sell them and gain profits – and grievances, or the frustration felt by communities when faced with stressful conditions, like poverty, hunger and inequality.
It is also common for wars to contaminate groundwater and soil by spreading toxic metals, like lead.
Polluted water, in turn, can cause diseases and threats to health and deteriorate the local wellbeing of communities.
As water scarcity will also negatively impact crop production and deteriorate food security, community-wide bread riots are also expected to become more and more frequent.
These will be inflamed by the rise in food prices and the resulting sense of relative deprivation felt by marginalised communities.
We have seen this recently in Sudan, when riots against the government began in the capital Khartoum after the price of bread almost quadruplicated.
While not a direct cause of riots, it shows that external shocks, like the increase in food prices determined by a drought can lead to a ‘tipping point’, or an unstable state where almost anything can ignite a conflict.
This grim scenario is further complicated by lifestyle trends.
Not only will a growing population demand more water for current resources to be sustained, but the changes that will likely accompany the development of poorer countries will also increase water use.
Coupled with the reduction in freshwater caused by climate change, we are heading to unsustainable water depletion.
What is worse, experts expect more locations to expect water scarcity in the coming decades. As Dr Famiglietti declared in his keynote in 2017, over half of the world’s major aquifiers (an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock) are being depleted, in some cases very rapidly.
The threat of conflict over water is expected to be greater in developing countries, especially in Africa and Asia.
This is not only because the impact of climate change is predicted to be worse at drier latitudes, but mostly because poorer countries may lack sufficient resources to adapt to environmental hardships.
In the decades that come, we might expect to see the increased migration from areas of water scarcity, the deepening of pre-existing societal grievances and the recruitment of rebels among deprived farmers.
These wars are not inevitable, as humans can work to reduce the tensions that may arise over the state of water. With warning, perhaps these wars can be avoided.
Water management practices and policies, like international water treaties, have been shown to hold significant influence in preventing conflict caused by water scarcity.
It is for this reason that we can suppose most water issues will likely be solved through negotiations, discussions and non-violent resolutions.
In a way, conflicts will be fought by diplomats, more than national armies.
These wars will likely be caused by ineffectual responses by governments, rather than the lack of water itself.
The impact that water scarcity will have on state stability must not be underestimated and governments must be held to account when trying to prevent water wars.
But alarmist narratives that envisage a future doomed to water wars can be as dangerous.
They can undermine governments’ abilities to counter the issue and also puts the onus on water, when in fact the causes will be tied in with politics and socio-economic factors.
In fact, climate change and socio-economic trends will negatively affect both water quantity and quality.
Yet the impact of this will likely unfold at a relatively slow place, giving governments sufficient time to implement strategies and ensure that communities are resilient enough to cope with environmental shocks.
Water scarcity and climate change are serious issues and the political and media conversations around water wars and the tendency of over-simplifying the reasons for violence must not become an excuse for inaction.
Governments and states have the power and the moral duty to have discussions and design adequate preventative policies to deal with the greatest challenges of our time.
How they choose to deal with this challenge will have a significant impact on human livelihoods, from food security to migration flows.
Metaphorically, governments’ choices can be the match or the water in a dry forest; if properly prepared, they can extinguish the flames, otherwise, they can set the trees on fire.
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