Water Scarcity Through the Looking Glass

By Francisco Mateo

I’m convinced this past October and early November were the warmest in the Northeast that I could recall. It just seemed unusual to have temperatures in the 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit this late in the fall. Don’t get me wrong I did enjoy it and especially since I had more opportunities to run laps around the park. It even made a difference in my transition from the tropical weather of the Caribbean where I lived for the last 3 years to the changing seasons up here in the North.  It was during one of my early morning runs that I started to ponder the implications of the warmer planet. Enough has been discussed about climate change from a scientific point of view, but what are the security implications of a warmer planet on the long run. Looking over the horizon, one of the issues that we often hear experts talk about is water scarcity as a consequence of longer drought periods. If the history of other precious and scarce resources is an indication than we can deduce that water shortage would likely spark a rush to protect, commoditize and commercialize it.  Water being one of the basic elements supporting life on the planet, speculation over it would lead to impending conflicts both at the micro and macro level.

When I set out to analyze an area of global risk I try to focus on the pockets of dispersed activity that when weaved together would give me a bigger picture. In this sense places like Yemen are but the petri dish of the future scenarios that may play out over water. According to the Yemen Times “Violence over land and water kills more people in Yemen than the secessionist violence in the south, the armed rebellion in the north and Yemeni Al-Qaeda combined” this in return quoting a report by the Yemen Armed Violence Assessment (YAVA).  Yemeni government statistics show that water conflicts lead to 4,000 deaths each year, a staggering number taking in consideration other conflict zones around the world.  At the center of the bloodshed is the diminishing water supply, which lead into heighten competition for fresh water resources and eventually deteriorating into armed conflict.

The significance of water shortage-driven conflict in this volatile and strategically sensitive area goes beyond its national security interests. Any conflict in Yemen could have knock-on effect for the entire region and the rest of the world.  Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow strait that separates the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea is one of seven strategic world oil shipping chokepoints. Oil and other exports from the Persian Gulf must pass through Bab el-Mandab before entering the Suez Canal.  It’s estimated that 3.3 million barrels a day of oil flowed through this narrow waterway to Europe, the United States, and Asia. The majority of the oil, some 2.1 million barrels a day, goes north through the Bab el-Mandab strait to the Suez/Sumed complex into the Mediterranean. Widespread conflict in this region has the potential to shock global trade a disrupt oil supply. It is obvious that its water shortage problem would eventually be of significance to the rest of the world.

Elsewhere severe droughts cause millions of people to endure harsh living conditions. In Jordan the government can only supply tap water once a week. Its main river, the River Jordan, has lost 95% of its natural flow due to diversion. Syria, Israel and Jordan have built dams along the banks of the river. The struggle to control natural resources is one of the reasons for the volatility prevalent in this region. Sharing these vital resources has proven elusive and the effects of a warmer climate will only serve to stoke continuing tensions among their regional neighbors.  By closer inspection many experts have noted that Israel has built their settlements in the occupied Palestinian area in such a way to maximize their access to the water resources there. In the negotiations on water they’ve indicated the wish to hold on to the lion’s share of the natural water resources while the Palestinians would have to rely on desalinations projects. It’s the type of hoarding seen in many areas around the world where water scarcity is driving geopolitical agendas.

Another example is Iraq which has acute water shortages and is expected to worsen as its population grows beyond 30 million. Areas like Falluja in western Anbar province continue to suffer from years of drought which have threatened its fragile communities. Besides the war which has left its extensive irrigation system in disrepair, Iraq’s main rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, provide little relief to the parched plains as hydroelectric dams in neighboring Turkey, Iran and Syria have stemmed the water flow.

But the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East are hardly the only regions where water shortage is expected to become a significant issue that could eventually develop into full-fledge conflict. Severe drought in northern Africa have the potential to stoke violent conflict.  What happens when countries affected by transnational water extraction decide to stand up for their water rights? Take for example Libya’s 7.5 mm diameter pipeline, the “Great Man Made River” (GMMR) designed to bring fossil groundwater from underneath the desert area of Chad and Southern Libya over 4000 km to the North to facilitate irrigation for agricultural production along the Libyan coastline.

Furthermore, south Asia’s dispute over limited water resources continues to fuel India-Pakistan tensions. Despite recent efforts to mend peace between the two nations, nothing could align extremist and government officials like water resource distribution problems.  On-going allegations that India is stealing water from glacier-fed rivers that start in the disputed territory of Kashmir may not help matters. Kashmir is the source of six rivers that irrigate crops in Pakistan’s agricultural heartland of Punjab province and elsewhere. Under Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, Pakistan has the use of the three western rivers — the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. India has the three eastern ones, the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. Under this agreement India was granted limited use of Pakistan’s rivers for agricultural purposes, plus the right to build hydroelectric dams, as long as they don’t store or divert large amounts of water. But it is India’s damn construction which is stemming the flow of water so vital to Pakistan, one of the driest countries in the world, which has the potential to restore the long running stalemate in the region. Add to that the fact that agriculture uses almost 90 percent of India’s water. The end-game: in the absence of concerted action, most of India’s river basins could face a severe water deficit by 2030.

China’s water problems are well known. About 42 percent of China’s population lives in the arid north, which has approximately eight percent of the country’s water resources. Already the internal scramble for water due to growing city population and industrial prosperity “is pitting downstream communities against upstream ones, farmers against factories, and people concerned about the country’s environment against those worried that water shortages might be the mighty Chinese economy’s Achilles’ heel.”  Concurrent with monumental infrastructure projects that would bring water flow from the Yangtze banks to be fed into the Yellow River and on to the water-starved north, China plans for more dams on the Mekong and on other major rivers that tumble down from the Tibetan plateau. These water diversion plans already have its southern neighbors on edge. Moreover, there is clear evidence that global warming is already eroding the Himalayan glaciers covering the Tibetan plateau, which feed neighbors including India and Pakistan as well as China itself.  Because 60 percent of the run-off from China’s glaciers flows out of the country, this can spell only trouble. As scarcity continues to spread around the region transboundary water management issues related to the Himalayas are likely to be a flashpoint. “The risk of conflict over water rights is magnified because China and India are home to over a third of the world’s population yet have to make do with less than 10 percent of its water.”

While the water-starved emerging economies would be able to allocate their increasing new earned wealth to accelerate clean water technology, population growth, and industrial agriculture threatens to outpace the output, making fresh water import as a real possibility in the near future.  The 70% of our freshwater resources we allocate to agriculture globally will increase along with the growth in population and prosperity in emerging economies. It is under these scenarios that a wildcard, according to expert, climate change impacts would become pervasive, wide-ranging and affect the core systems of our society: transportation, ecosystems, agriculture, business, infrastructure, water, and energy, among others.

A New Global Market on the Rise

Looking over a dry horizon, it’s clear that water would be front and center as one of the key national security issues. Experts tacitly agree that the “20th century witnessed the rise and fall of nations over oil, the 21st century could be one in which the rise and fall of nations is determined by water.” It’d come as no surprise that a new market for bulk water transport are expanding today. But instead of tunnels and pipe infrastructure transportation would likely be done across much larger distances on super tankers usually reserved for oil transport. That also means that countries like Canada, New Zealand and Russia could become net exporters of water. As water from public hands to private ones, legal battles and regulation over new industry looms. The new speculative forces gathering around water trade would increasingly push water from human rights arena to a commodity available to those that can pay for it. War and peace could clearly depend on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: