Water Crisis and its Impact on International Security: Water Scarcity as the Next Great Driver of Conflicts

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 “Of all the social and natural crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth.” (Koïchiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General)

Water is rapidly becoming an issue of global dimensions, sharply deteriorated due to the political inaction, unawareness among the general population and climate change. The need for water has grown enormously, while the water resources are declining, leaving hundreds of millions of people without an access to safe and clean water. We can no longer afford to ignore what is perhaps the most important crisis of our time.

In response to this ever growing issue, United Nations have recognized access to clean water and sanitation as a human right in 2010. Water is also included in millennium development goals, with an objective of reaching universal access to water by 2030. Given the current developments, this goal is unlikely to be achieved. Earth, also known as the Blue planet for its abundance of water, might leave us thirsty after all. Only 0.3 percent of Earth’s water is usable by humans and much of it is unattainable. Nevertheless, we have poorly managed it and used it inefficiently, all of which worsened with rapid population growth and climate change. This crisis is essentially one of bad managing – water is wasted almost everywhere, be it in agriculture, industry or domestic use. In addition to obvious health issues, water scarcity has serious implications on (international) security.

Unrest, instability and conflict can all be triggered or worsened by water scarcity. Besides being inefficiently managed, water is also distributed unevenly across the globe, making some regions significantly more stressed than others. Middle East will be one of the regions most affected by water shortages in following years. According to analysis by World Resources Institute, 33 countries will face extremely high water stress in 2040, of which shocking 14 will be in the Middle East, with 9 states having a maximum score of 5. In addition to Middle East, US National Intelligence Council recognized South Asia and North Africa as regions that will face substantial water problems, increasing risk of instability and state failure.

In these regions, water and politics are closely intertwined. Shared waters often cause disputes, as they are connected with states’ vital interests. Some countries expressed willingness to go to war over their rivers. Such is the case of Egypt, whose president said already in 1979: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” And for a good reason: the Nile is of crucial importance for Egypt’s agriculture. Without the Nile there would be no Egypt. It comes as no surprise then that the Ethiopian decision to build a dam over the river enraged the Egyptians, being that the enormous Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could potentially cut the flow of the Nile to Egypt and thus cause great damage to its economy. War seems unlikely at the moment, with Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan having signed an agreement at the end of 2015, but there is no doubt that the Nile will continue to stir the relations between the countries through which it flows.

Moving to the Middle East, among the many wars in this area not one was waged solely over water, but water scarcity has aggravated other factors leading to conflict. Many have reclassified civil war in Syria as a climate-change war, linking the outburst of conflict to prolonged drought that hit the country between 2006 and 2011. Israeli-Palestinian conflict can also be linked to water. Israel has control over most resources of fresh water and is using this as a tool of domination over Palestinians, denying thousands in the occupied West Bank access to water and preventing them from developing their water infrastructure, leaving them water-dependent. In addition to disputed territories, water will be the main obstacle to reaching a peaceful solution.

Similarly, water has intermingled between two ‘mortal’ enemies, India and Pakistan. The new apple of discord is the control over the shared waters of the Indus River. Pakistan is relies heavily on the  Indus River and its streams for water and food supply as well as electricity production. In 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty was signed. Nowadays this otherwise successful water treaty is challenged due to the rapid growth of population and increased use of water in agriculture and industry. Two states, armed with nuclear weapons and in the state of perpetual conflict since their creation, are exchanging uneasy threats, all the while the danger of using nuclear weaponry is looming in the air.

There is no greater moving force in the world than power, and the most powerful actors are those who control (scarce) resources. The latter have been an important motivation for conflicts throughout history of humankind and they remain so today, even though the ways and methods of obtaining control over them might have become more sophisticated. Still, conflicts on the international level, openly or covertly, often occur in connection with control over strategically important resources. Their scarcity will be the biggest challenge of this century and when not managed properly, we might witness a century of resource wars, with powerful nations waging war for control over strategic resources, while the weak and poor will be left to scrape up what is left. That means more failed states, more poverty, and more migrations – something that will catch up with the developed world as well.

The issue of water shortage will without a doubt significantly shape the future inter- and intra-state relations. On the international level, water was never the sole reason for going to war; it was connected with control over other resources and territories. Nevertheless, water remains an important issue between states, especially in the regions that are shorter with fresh water supply and countries that rely heavily on water for agriculture or industry. Most of the conflicts can be expected on a subnational level, between rural areas (farmers) and cities (industry). If not properly managed, these disputes could lead to greater civil unrests, in the worst case scenario even to bigger (armed) conflicts and civil wars. And those always spread beyond countries’ borders, as best demonstrated in recent years by the migrant crisis.

Water scarcity is not a problem of a single country or a region. The world is interconnected and interdependent system – the consequences of inertia and ignorance will have serious implications for the entire population. There are two ways of solving this issue: war or collaboration. The latter has been the most common and effective way so far. However, where there are states’ crucial interests at stake and huge profits to be gained, common good is (too) quickly forgotten.  And without cooperation and a global strategy we are all destined to sink.

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