New age of water wars portends 'bleak future'

Nafeez Ahmed's picture

The world is already in the throes of an epidemic of local and regional water shortages, and unless this trend is reversed, it will lead to more forced migrations, civil unrest and outbreaks of conflict

Behind the escalating violence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as the epidemic of civil unrest across the wider region, is a growing shortage of water.

New peer-reviewed research published by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) shows that water scarcity linked to climate change is now a global problem playing a direct role in aggravating major conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

Numerous cities in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are facing “short and declining water supplies per capita,” which is impacting “worldwide” on food production, urban shortages, and even power generation. 

In this month’s issue of the Journal of the AWWA, US water management expert Roger Patrick assesses the state of the scientific literature on water scarcity in all the world’s main regions, finding that local water shortages are now having “more globalised impacts”.

He highlights the examples of “political instability in the Middle East and the potential for the same in other countries” as illustrating the increasing “global interconnectedness” of water scarcity at local and regional levels.

In 2012, a US intelligence report based on a classified National Intelligence Estimate on water security, commissioned by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, concluded that after 2022, droughts, floods and freshwater depletion would increase the likelihood of water being used as a weapon or war, or a tool of terrorism.

The new study in the Journal of the AWWA, however, shows that the US intelligence community is still playing catch-up with facts on the ground. Countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where US counter-terrorism operations are in full swing, are right now facing accelerating instability from terrorism due to the destabilising impacts of unprecedented water shortages.

Thirsty people, failing states

The UN defines a region as water stressed if the amount of renewable fresh water available per person per year is below 1,700 cubic metres. Below 1,000, the region is defined as experiencing water scarcity, and below 500 amounts to “absolute water scarcity”.

According to the AWWA study, countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States.

Many, though not all, of these countries are experiencing protracted conflicts or civil unrest.

The AWWA is an international scientific association founded to improve water quality and supply, whose 50,000 strong membership includes water utilities, scientists, regulators, public health experts, among others. AWWA operates a partnership with the US government’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) for safe water, and has played a key role in developing industry standards.

Study author Robert Patrick, formerly of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, is a government consultant and water management specialist who has worked on water scarcity issues in Jordan, Lebanon, New Mexico, California and Australia.

His Journal of AWWA paper explains that the grain price spikes that contributed to Egypt’s 2011 uprising, were primarily caused by “droughts in major grain-exporting countries” like Australia, triggered by climate change.

Patrick points out that such civil unrest could signal an Egyptian future of continuing unrest and conflict. He highlights the risk of war between Egypt and Ethiopia due to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, threatening to restrict Egypt’s access to the Nile River, which supplies 98% of Egypt’s water supply.

As Egypt’s population is forecast to double to 150 million by 2050, this could lead to “tremendous tension” between Ethiopia and Egypt over access to the Nile, especially since Ethiopia’s dam would reduce the capacity of Egypt’s hydroelectric plant at Aswan by 40%.

Water wars and the ‘war on terror’

The nexus of countries in the Middle East and North Africa where the United States is currently leading a multi-year military engagement against the “Islamic State” (IS) all happen to be drought-stricken.

Before Syria erupted into ongoing civil war, Patrick reports, 60% of the country went through a devastating drought that led over a million mostly Sunni farmers to migrate to coastal cities dominated by the ruling Alawite sect, fuelling sectarian tensions that culminated in unrest and a cycle of violence.

A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has provided the most compelling research to date on how climate change amplified Syria’s drought conditions, which in turn had a “catalytic effect” on civil unrest.

But Patrick’s concern is that the Syria crisis could be a taste of things to come. Citing the findings of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) sponsored by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, he notes that between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris-Euphrates basin comprising Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Iran “lost groundwater faster than any other place in the world except northern India”.

A total of 117 million acre-feet of stored freshwater was lost due to reduced rainfall and bad water management. If this trend continues, “trouble may be brewing” for the region.

Yemen is also consuming water far faster than it is being replenished, Patrick observes, an issue that has been identified by numerous experts as playing a key background role in driving local inter-tribal and sectarian conflicts.

Syria, Iraq and Yemen are currently subjected to ongoing US military operations under the rubric of fighting Islamist terrorists, yet the new AWWA study suggests that the rise of Muslim extremist movements has been indirectly fuelled by regional water crises.

The ravaging impact of climate change in these countries has devastated local agriculture, heightened community tensions, and stoked already entrenched political grievances. With huge quantities of money pouring into the region to Islamist militant networks from the Gulf states, this is an ideal recipe for violent radicalisation.

As US meteorologist Eric Holthaus points out, the rapid rise of the “Islamic State” (IS) last year coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq, recognised as being the warmest on record to date, from March to May 2014. Recurrent droughts and heavy rainstorms have also played havoc with Iraq’s agriculture. With water supplies dwindling, and agriculture waning, the Iraq’s US-backed Shiite-dominated government has largely failed to address these burgeoning challenges, even as IS has moved quickly to exploit these failures, for instance by using dams as a weapon of war.

Escalating trend

But water scarcity does not make conflict inevitable. While water has played a role in Israel’s conflicts with its neighbours in the past, Patrick argues that through a combination of efficient water management methods and desalination technologies, Israel has been able to successfully cooperate with Jordan on their shared water resources for many years.

This is, of course, a one-sided picture. While Israel does not want for water, the UN has warned that Gaza could become “unlivable” due to its worsening water crisis. Ongoing water shortages throughout the Occupied Territories are rooted in discriminatory policies of resource theft by the occupying power, including Israel’s effective forced privatisation of the Palestinian water supply.

These disparate cases show that while, theoretically, efficient water management and distribution methods can offset crises and continue to meet local needs, government mismanagement combined with regional power inequalities and repressive policies can be a precursor to social breakdown and violent conflict.

The AWWA study’s findings have been backed up by other recent studies. One from this January in Global Affairs, the journal of the European International Studies Association, argues that all four of the world’s most significant hotspot regions for major conflicts – the Sahel, the Middle East, Central Asia, the coastal zones of East, South and Southeast Asia - are increasingly unstable due to constellations of “water scarcity; loss of land; and food insecurity”. The paper, which calls for greater European support to these regions to mitigate trends of environmental degradation, is authored by Hartmut Behrend, a climatologist with the German military’s Agency for Geo-information.

The symbiotic link between modern agriculture and water consumption poses the biggest global risk, according to Roger Patrick. Water scarcity is driven predominantly by the increasing use of groundwater in agriculture. Yet across most of the world’s major food basket regions, including the Central Valley in Cali­fornia, northern China and the Upper Ganges in India and Paki­stan, “demand exceeds their aqui­fers’ sustainable yields,” by some estimates 3 and a half times as much.

By 2035, global water consumption is predicted to increase by 85%. Much of this growth will be driven not just by agricultural expansion, but also by greater demand for energy. Biofuels are particularly water intensive, but hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for unconventional oil and gas also uses large amounts of water.

That need for water is “already constraining such energy production in locations such as Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, France, and the United States”. In especially water scarce parts of China, India and the US, as well as Canada and Iraq, this threatens to seriously undermine power generation in the long-term. It also raises the question of whether the developed world has sufficient resilience to avoid the sort of instability that is now plaguing large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa.

Another scientific study just out this month in Environmental Science: Water Research and Technology, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, similarly concludes that due to our dependence on water-intensive fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources, the global water footprint will only continue to increase in tandem with population growth and demand. Ironically, the expansion of such traditional energy sources, by escalating the demand for water, will only worsen the prospects for stable power generation. The most effective way to address this challenge, the study finds, is a shift to “greater shares of wind, [solar photovoltaic] PV, and geothermal energy”.

First world problems

Although less developed regions are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate-induced water scarcity, richer Western countries and emerging industrial economies are increasingly feeling the heat.

California’s record 15-year drought, the AWWA study shows, has been accompanied by the depletion of 41 acre-feet of groundwater and 12 million acre-feet of surface water. When the groundwater runs dry, and if the drought persists, US farming will collapse. The potential onset of an El Nino might lead to a return of rain that could alleviate this problem, at least temporarily, but even so, the long-term trend looks grim.

But it is not just the US, India, and Pakistan’s collective water footprint from pumping water in the Upper Ganges basin is 54 times the area of the aquifer itself. In India, a major regional power and emerging economy, at current rates of consumption, 60% of the country’s aquifers will be in “critical condition” in just two decades. Given that consumption is pitched to increase driven by economic and demographic growth, this could happen much earlier. This could be a risk not just to the internal social cohesion of both India and Pakistan, both of which already face significant tensions along ethno-religious lines, but to their considerably strained diplomatic relations.

China also faces a serious water crisis, according to the AWWA study. Although half its population and two-thirds of its farmland are in the north, 80% of the country’s water is in the south. The 70% of groundwater in the north is too unfit for human contact, let alone use in agriculture or industry. Yet half the country’s wheat for domestic consumption is produced in the north. In just five years, an estimated 30 million people in China will be displaced due to water stress.

Defence analysts believe that regional water scarcity could increase the risk of conflict between India and China. In the US, the drought-ridden Colorado River basin is shared by seven US states and Mexico - rivalry over control of water is largely political for now, but this could change.

In 2008, a report by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute suggested that the US military must prepare for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States” due to a “loss of functioning political and legal order” - triggered potentially by environmental, energy or economic shocks.

This “bleak future” is not inherently inevitable - but it is on our current path.

- Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A man carries a container of water on his head as he walks on scorched earth (AFP)