Water Wars: The Next Great Driver of Global Conflict?

As much as oil shaped the global geopolitics of the 20th century, water has the power to reorder international relations in the current century. 

We live in an age of great anxiety about threats to global peace and stability. Among these are worries that intense water-related stresses, now showing up in regions around the world, may become all-too-common sources of conflict. Just as often, however, concerns about water wars are dismissed as much ado about nothing. An influential school of thought has long contended future international conflicts will not be fought over this resource. Water, it says, is of such elemental importance to human existence that even long-time adversaries will be forced to accommodate one another’s needs in a water-scarce future. As water is too expensive to transport over long distances, moreover, it is very difficult to steal or plunder. And history gives some comfort to this forecast: as few wars have been fought specifically over water, it is highly unlikely humanity will start engaging in water conflicts now. Or so the thinking goes.

In the case of water, this logic — of the past as predictor of the future — is compelling and comforting. But it also is dangerously myopic, for it fails to consider the possibility that the future may look nothing at all like the past. From nearly any standpoint, the world we live in is a fundamentally different place compared with the past. Over just the last century, for example, the global population has rocketed upward from roughly two billion to well past seven billion. While population growth is hardly the only driver of social, economic, and ecological change at global and regional scale, it has been among the most important. Nor is this process at an end. Current demographic projections forecast a global population of at least nine billion by 2050 — and possibly more.

Water in the Anthropocene:

Population growth provides a fitting illustration of the rapid pace of change in the modern world. No consequence is more important than what has been done to nature. Humans have so drastically altered the Earth that scientists now question whether we remain in the Holocene, the 12,000-year-old geological epoch during which all of recorded human history has occurred. Instead, increasingly they speak of the Earth as having entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene. The basic idea behind the Anthropocene is that human activity has so thoroughly disrupted the Earth’s core processes (for instance, its nitrogen cycle or sediment flows) that the planet no longer can be said to function according to the familiar rhythms of the Holocene. Human interference in the Earth’s carbon cycle, for example, has changed the planet’s climate and in the process altered rainfall patterns, accelerated glacial melting, increased air and sea temperatures, and much else. Gone is the Holocene’s stable climate; here is the Anthropocene’s unstable one.

While there is some debate amongst scientists and others about whether the Anthropocene will lead to a better or worse future, nearly everyone involved in the discussion agrees that the Earth of the future will not resemble its past. From here forward, we face an unfamiliar planet that will throw our assumptions about nearly everything out the window.

No resource stands to be more affected by the arrival of the Anthropocene than fresh water. Finite and increasingly scarce in many parts of the world, fresh water remains the most vital single input for everything from food production, energy generation, and manufacturing to human health, social development, and economic modernization. Unlike oil, water has no substitute, making access to it nothing less than a matter of existential importance to every living creature on Earth.

Yet despite its monumental role in local and international affairs, water ironically remains completely undervalued, pumped and consumed virtually free of charge across much of the world. We essentially pump water as we breathe oxygen; it is a learned reflex, central to our ability to survive and thrive as a species. Nicknames like “blue gold” and “oil of the 21st century” attest to the value of fresh water and its importance to everyday affairs throughout the world.

While every country’s water equation is different, at a global scale the basic problem is that demand for water is soaring while water supplies are being squeezed. On the demand side, the challenge results from an inexorable combination of global economic and population growth combined with water-use inefficiencies. On the supply side, the problem results not just from exhaustion of the world’s stock of fresh water capital, as is happening to groundwater reservoirs nearly everywhere. Fresh water supply is also becoming less predictable as climate change sets in—shifting rainfall and snowfall patterns and increasing evaporation rates are giving us more frequent droughts and floods.

The upshot is that the arrival of the Anthropocene foreshadows a world where received wisdom may no longer be a reliable guide to the future. Water insecurity from drought, excessive groundwater extraction, and changed seasonal precipitation patterns is affecting — or soon will affect — regions as diverse as the Middle East, South Asia, the Caribbean, northern China, sub-Saharan Africa, the western United States, and many more.