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Water Wars: The Next Great Driver of Global Conflict?

September 15, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: OilGeopoliticsWater

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. 

Yet despite the seriousness of ODNI’s assessment, the U.S. government has neither a coherent strategy nor the appropriate tools to deal with the scope and scale of water-related challenges around the world. The federal government’s approach to water and water-related challenges is uncoordinated, outdated, and poorly resourced in general. In foreign policy terms, water receives some attention but, as on the domestic side, water receives too little attention and funding (in fiscal year 2013, the U.S. government spent $784 million worldwide on water, about half of which was spent on drinking water and sanitation). This inertia is understandable to an extent, as water is a cross-cutting resource that does not fit easily into preexisting policy boxes.

It is hardly an original argument to call for greater American leadership in international relations. Yet in the case of water, such an argument could not be truer. As the world’s greatest power, it is in America’s interests to place global water security at the top of its foreign policy agenda, and to forge a leadership role in this arena. Failing to craft a strategic approach to the world’s looming water crises will expose the United States to foreign and security policy failures abroad. Conversely, seizing the leadership mantle will benefit the United States immensely and add to its global reputation over the coming decades.

Despite the rise of China, India, and other actors, American leadership will remain central to the operation of the global system for many years to come, and America’s many formal and informal assets will give it unrivaled power and prestige across multiple domains. From a strategic standpoint, the U.S. would reap material, diplomatic, and reputational rewards if it were to be perceived as a good-faith actor working to solve the world’s water challenges.

The bottom line is that no one can take much comfort from a sober assessment of where we are headed. Expecting widespread and serious water challenges to be solved without conflict and disruption might be a comforting premise, but it should not and cannot be the end of the discussion. The Anthropocene awaits. To navigate it unscathed, we must be bold and imaginative.

Peter Engelke is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

Russell Sticklor is a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the Stimson Environmental Security Program in Washington, DC.