Dangers of Climate Change: Lack of Water Can Lead to War

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As anthropogenic climate change gets more serious and more harmful, something happens to the earth’s fresh-water: there’s quite a lot less of it available for human consumption.

Climate change leads to higher temperatures. Higher temperatures lead to melting glaciers, so snow-melt-based water supplies decrease. Climate change also leads to more irregular rainfalls. Under most climate models, rainfall is predicted to occur more frequently in brief, furious bursts rather than the more sustained and regularized patterns that make it easy to store and irrigate crops.

A recently-released World Bank study notes that there is now strong reason to believe that rainfall variability will increase substantially in Sub-Saharan Africa, reducing GDP and heightening poverty. Previous evidence from Ethiopia, for example, showed that just one season of sharply reduced rainfall “depressed consumption” up to five years later.

And in the Middle East and North Africa, the world’s most water-stressed region, per capita water supplies were expected to halve by 2050 even in the absence of global climate change, the effects of a swelling population. The effects on agriculture will be unpredictable but unpleasant—agriculture amounts to 85 percent of the region’s water use.

Water is basic. When there’s not enough of it, people die. When there’s not enough to keep crops properly irrigated, there’s famine. So it’s not a big shock that when water decreases, conflict over it increases. Or to put it more simply, a lack of water leads to war.

This is the basic conclusion of an increasingly well-founded academic sub-discipline devoted to the study of the inter-relation between armed conflicts, both inter-national and intranational, and the availability of potable water.

A team of World Bank researchers found that the AR4 climate change model predicted a reduction of between 10 and 30 percent in river systems’ average runoff and the availability of water in dry regions in mid-latitudes and wide swathes of the tropics by 2050. This will lead to excess consumption and, probably, aquifer depletion.

The choices will be grim. As the researchers add — and remember, these are World Bank researchers:

Societies unable to adjust to the new challenges are left with two main options: fight or flee. The former strategy implies securing an increasing share of the diminishing resources — by force if necessary.

Forty percent of the world’s people live in river or lake basins that cross over one — or more — international borders. Susan George observes that many riverine systems are shared between one or more countries. Sometimes many more — of the world’s 200 biggest water systems, 150 of them are used by two nations, and the other 50 are shared by between three and ten countries.

“Eight upstream countries can take water from the Nile before it reaches Egypt, yet Egypt depends on the Nile for almost its entire water supply,” she notes. It’s not surprising that Egypt has literally threatened to go to war to secure its access to water from the Nile: as Anwar Sadat put it in the late `70s, “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”

Egypt is not the only potential ignition point for conflict in the arid Middle East, where over 90 percent of fresh-water crosses international borders. Turkish plans to dam the Euphrates River nearly brought it into armed conflict with Syria. And Turkey is not merely blustering. In January, 1990, it temporarily stopped the flow of the river to fill the lake in front of the Ataturk Dam.

Other studies have found significant correlations between markedly sub-average or intensely variable rainfall and the likelihood of internal civil conflict in the subsequent years, as in the cases of Sudan and Somalia, the former, the site of intrastate conflict that has flashed across newspaper headlines for years, and the latter, a barely-functioning state fraught with warlords and violence.

Yet other research has found that the chance of Central Asia hosting a “water war” has rocketed upwards, noting that “water does make the states of the region insecure.” Insecure states fight.

Thus far, water has played little role in inter-state warfare. As Shlomi Dinar notes in journal International Negotiations,

"That cooperation and negotiation is the suggested norm in hydro-politics most likely accounts for the vast number of recorded agreements in contrast to the small number of wars or military skirmishes over water."

Obviously, countries would prefer to talk in order to equitably share water access than to fight over such access. It’s when talking fails that fighting begins. Kevin Watkins, director of the Human Development Report Office at the UN Development Program, and Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, provide some basic ground-rules for ensuring that friction doesn’t turn into fighting:

    (1) Put in place policies that account for the fact that although water is renewable, it is not infinite. Policies can make existing water supplies sufficient, or they can destroy them.

    (2) Countries must shy away from unilateralism

    (3) Aid donors can do a great deal to help resolve water conflicts.

    (4) Political leaders must be involved. Water-conflicts are solvable technically, but technical resolutions can only be put into place by political compacts.

Such suggestions can prevent water conflicts from becoming water wars, as supply inevitably decreases and demand goes up and up.


See also:

Conflicts Break Out in the Andes as Glaciers, and Their Water, Disappear

Water Scarcity Becomes a Growing Business Risk

Alberta’s Oil Sands Sucking Up Volumes of Water


(Photo: Yuliya Libkina / CC BY 2.0)