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The challenges of global water supply and demand

Watershed in China
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An aerial view of the Qinling watershed in China; watershed rights can often lead to conflict.

The nexus of the environment and conflict — that is, environmental security — has become an important paradigm in national security planning. Indeed, Kaplan suggests that water and other environmental factors represent the core foreign policy challenge in this century. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) reinforced this notion when it identified environmental factors and resource scarcity as important features of the national security landscape. The DoD suggests that national security affairs may no longer just be about armies and weapons; but instead, climate, resources and demographics may now be viewed as being equally important as traditional elements of national power (Butts 2011).

Environmental security refers to a broad range of security issues exacerbated by environmental factors and suggests that environmental stress has the potential to destabilize states and trigger violent conflict (Galgano and Krakowka 2011). Water is a particularly challenging factor in the environmental security milieu because it is an essential resource, and the fresh water supply problem only promises to intensify in a greenhouse world. Increases in global population and the attendant economic demands this growth engenders means that the pressure placed on freshwater resources will grow inexorably. About 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and this number is likely to grow to nearly 3 billion by 2050 (Gleick 2012). In places that are conflict-prone and vulnerable to water shortages, such as the Middle East, climate change could seriously affect regional stability (Femina and Werrell 2014).

To further complicate this problem, 60 percent of the world’s population lives in crowded water basins shared by multiple states — many of whom are failing, congenital enemies, or both (Postel and Wolf 2001). This is a compelling problem from a national security perspective because most of the world’s largest river systems are shared by multiple states. Thus, the possibility of water wars resonates throughout the contemporary national security literature (Diehl and Gleditsch 2001; Gray 2009; Femina and Werrell 2012; DoD 2014).

The U.S. National Intelligence Council warns that the likelihood of water-related conflict will increase during the coming decades (Conca 2006). Nevertheless, many water scholars dismiss this suggestion as exaggerated, and history appears to support their position. An examination of some 1,000 international water-related crises during the past 50 years suggests that two–thirds were resolved by cooperative means. This implies that water disputes are not likely to lead to warfare; rather, states tend to resolve these disputes through economic agreements, technological solutions, and diplomacy (Fagan 2011). However, this study argues that the security landscape has changed profoundly, and the history of cooperative water–conflict resolution is no longer a reliable guide to the future. The acceptance of the relationship between water and conflict is gaining momentum, and a number of experts now acknowledge that water wars are certainly plausible; especially if we persist in denying the seriousness of the water crisis in key regions (Soffer 1999; Pearce 2006; Trondalen 2009; IPCC 2014).

This chapter suggests that continued peaceful resolution of interstate water conflicts is inconsistent with the realities of the emerging national security landscape. First, climate change is already affecting the distribution of water in many critical water basins. Second, the proliferation of failing states has singularly reduced the potential for diplomatic resolution in many regions, and that we can no longer continue to rely on quasi-peaceful means using established diplomatic and international protocols to resolve conflicts.

Finally, water is an essential resource; however, since 1950, the renewable supply of water per capita has fallen by 58 percent (Fagan 2011; IPCC 2012). Water shortages will likely provide a tipping point between war and peace for regions already on the brink of conflict, such as the Middle East. States in this region border highly contested water basins and they are facing chronic water shortages combined with the world’s fastest growing population. These factors combine to intensify latent ethnic/religious conflicts and decades of distrust and territorial disputes that persist throughout the region. Here, population growth and climate change are fueling a dangerous nexus of water shortages, political instability, and economic stagnation, which are eroding an already unstable situation. This chapter examines linkages between water resources, the problems of transboundary watersheds and potential conflict.

Water and the security landscape

The implications of water supply and demand in the Middle East could be severe and represent a departure from the traditional view of security. The Cold War strategic partition of the world dominated the security landscape following the Second World War. In the Cold War scenario, conflicts were state-centric and essentially resulted from politics and ideology. Today, however, the potential for violent conflict triggered by environmental stress looms over society, which is much different from the traditional Cold War concept of security (Myers 1989). Thus, a major shift has occurred: during the Cold War, divisions were created and alliances formed along ideological lines; but now security officials have begun to pay greater attention to problems arising from intensified competition over essential resources (Butts 1997).

Barnett (2004) developed a national security paradigm that attempted to incorporate emerging post–Cold War dynamic  — that is, economic competition, environmental stress and failing states. In Barnett’s view, these factors are destabilizing large segments of the world because globalization, and the expansion of the global economy that followed, did not lead to an era of integration and world peace. Rather, the unbalanced nature of economic prosperity generated pervasive instability in much of the developing world. This suggests a major shift in the security landscape because Barnett’s view of geopolitics presents a world that is segregated into one that it integrating itself into a so-called Functioning Core, and one that is trapped in a Non-Integrating Gap (Barnett 2004). The Non-Integrating Gap is essentially disconnected from the rest of the world; but more importantly, it is inherently unstable and susceptible to environmentally triggered violence (Galgano and Krakowka 2011). Indeed, U.S. policymakers have long acknowledged the destabilizing imbalance of natural resource supply and demand, and its profound consequences for its security interests (Butts 1997). The Arab oil embargoes of the early 1970s quadrupled gasoline prices and clearly pointed out that the global economy depends on highly concentrated deposits of increasingly scarce resources. Although we understand oil as an instigator of conflict, water poses a different and potentially more difficult dilemma because it is a problem that cannot be easily managed (Klare 2001).

Thus, water is fast becoming one of the seminal environmental security factors of the emergent national security landscape because it is an essential resource for which there is no substitute (Butts 1997). Renewable freshwater is fundamental to human society; however, contemporary water demands are approaching the limits of a finite supply (Hensel and Brochmann 2007). Only 0.036 percent of the world’s supply is renewable freshwater; and by 2025, some 3 billion people (about 40 percent of the global population) will live in regions that are unable to provide sufficient freshwater to meet basic human needs. Hence, inequities in freshwater supplies will continue to be a source of friction. In fact, 25 percent of all water-related disputes during the past 50 years have resulted in some form of hostilities — 37 have resulted in military action (Gleick 1998; Postel and Wolf 2001; Kreamer 2012).

One of the principal problems affecting water supply and demand, in a universal sense, is that globalization has reduced the friction of distance and created expectations of economic growth in the developing world, and this has escalated the relative disparity between developed and developing states (Butts 2011). In the context of environmental stress and resource competition, the crux of the matter is that global economic output quadrupled after 1950 and during that period, population grew by 3 billion. However, the problem that looms is that we expect global population to approach 9 billion by 2050, and to keep pace, economic output will have to quintuple, which will place greater demands on global freshwater resources (HomerDixon 1999). Consequently, water may become an environmental tipping point that triggers violent conflict as greater economic aspirations and human population accelerates demands on the freshwater supply, while at the same time climate change makes supply more uncertain (Gleick 1993).

Contemporary statistics suggest that global water demand for irrigation, domestic and industrial use will increase faster than the rate of population growth (Fagan 2011). Furthermore, freshwater supplies are, geographically, highly variable and are not equitably distributed in a spatial sense; nor does its spatial distribution match population distribution. The water scarcity problem is further complicated because water does not lend itself to international trade and it is not practical to transport from surplus areas to places of acute scarcity. Water supply is often diminished by water quality issues because increasing populations require more irrigation and dams, both of which can adversely affect water quality. Thus, water passed to downstream users, even in water-rich regions, is typically contaminated (Butts 1997; Pearce 2006).