Home The Washington Diplomat September 2018 Water Shortages, Intensified by Climate Change, Threaten World’s Hotspots

Water Shortages, Intensified by Climate Change, Threaten World’s Hotspots

Water Shortages, Intensified by Climate Change, Threaten World’s Hotspots

In 2015, the Obama administration identified climate change as a national security threat in its National Security Strategy (NSS). While the Trump administration removed that threat from its own NSS, a shortage of resources — especially clean drinking water — is a persistent problem in many of the world’s hotspots.

That problem, exacerbated by climate change, has and will continue to cause internal and international conflicts, according to experts.

For example, violence in Nigeria between settled farmers and cattle herders who travel seasonally for grazing land has claimed six times more lives than the terrorist group Boko Haram in the first half of 2018, according to a July 26 report by Alexis Akwagyiram for Reuters.

The violence is “driven by competition over dwindling arable land” and a rapidly booming population, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,300 people between January and June this year, the article said. The land battles have taken on dangerous ethnic and religious overtones, with the semi-nomadic herders largely made up of Muslims, while Christians of various ethnicities account for the majority of farmers.

a3.water.darfur.woman.storyThe data comes from the International Crisis Group, which wrote in its report that the conflict’s roots lie partly “in climate-induced degradation of pasture.”

“As drought and desertification have dried up springs and streams across Nigeria’s far northern Sahelian belt, large numbers of herders have had to search for alternative pastures and sources of water for their cattle,” the report says.

The violence threatens to destabilize what is already an explosive security environment ahead of the country’s 2019 general elections.

Globally, 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services and 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services, according to the World Bank, which noted that if current trends continue, the world will face a 40 percent shortfall of available water supplies by 2030.

The effects will be felt from California — which is grappling with the worst wildfire in state history, fueled in part by parched conditions — to drought-plagued Cape Town, which earlier this year narrowly avoided “Day Zero,” the day when all water taps run dry.

But wealth is a major factor in how people cope with these dwindling resources.

The major drivers of the growing lack of access to water — exacerbated by reduced rainfall due to climate change — are population growth and poverty, according to Aaron Wolf, a professor at Oregon State University’s Water Resources Graduate Program.

“People who aren’t in poverty can adapt to climate variability,” Wolf told The Diplomat.

But in an interconnected world, the repercussions of extreme weather patterns will be felt by everyone, as potentially hundreds of millions of climate refugees flee to richer nations and the competition for scarce resources sparks conflicts that transcend borders.

Some have even pointed to water shortages as a factor in Syria’s civil war and the rise of the Islamic State.

“In Syria, a devastating drought beginning in 2006 forced many farmers to abandon their fields and migrate to urban centers,” Joshua Hammer reported for Smithsonian Magazine in June 2013. “You had a lot of angry, unemployed men helping to trigger a revolution,” Wolf told the magazine.

Indeed, poor farming conditions in the region fostered the Islamic State’s early recruitment efforts, as Peter Schwartzstein reported for National Geographic last November.

A few weeks after the winter rainfall came up short in 2009 in the Iraqi farming village of Shirqat, jihadist recruiters approached “the most shabbily dressed farmers” and promised them quick, easy money, according to Schwartzstein’s reporting.

“With every flood or bout of extreme heat or cold, the jihadists would reappear, often supplementing their sales pitches with gifts. When a particularly vicious drought struck in 2010, the fifth in seven years, they doled out food baskets,” he wrote.

As the cases of Iraq and Syria illustrate, environmental stresses often go hand in hand with sectarian tensions. In fact, the battle for precious water resources is largely taking place in regions that are already prone to sectarian and political fighting, namely the Middle East and Africa, adding another layer of instability to already volatile situations.

That’s not to say competing interests can’t find common ground. The threat of water scarcity-induced conflict is not necessarily a matter of the shortage itself, but a lack of agreement over how to share the water, Wolf told The Diplomat in a phone interview.

Importance of Water Treaties

Researchers at Oregon State University compiled a database of every water-related interaction between two or more countries from 1948 to 2008, whether a conflict or cooperative effort. According to Wolf, the study found that regions with water-scarce environments were much more likely to cooperate if they have “formal treaties, informal working groups or generally warm relations.”

In fact, the historical trend is toward more cooperation, not less. More countries have been signing treaties or informal agreements to share water in recent years than they have in the past.

Those treaties have proven surprisingly resilient.


As Wolf wrote in a 2009 report for World Politics Review (WPR), the Mekong Committee — which works with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage their shared water resources, including the Mekong River — continued to meet and share data during the Vietnam War. Backchannel talks between Israel and Jordan over use of the Jordan River and its tributaries have continued from 1953 to the present day, despite the fact that the two countries did not sign an official peace treaty until 1994.

“The Indus River Commission survived two wars between India and Pakistan. And all 10 of the countries that share the banks of the Nile are currently involved in negotiations over cooperative development of the basin,” Wolf wrote.

“The most important thing that can be done is to promote the treaties, the water-sharing agreements, so that when problems arise, they can be managed,” Wolf told us.

For example, Wolf said, no one expects a conflict between the U.S. and Canada, which share the Columbia River basin — providing water to seven U.S. states and the Canadian province of British Columbia — because of generally good relations between Washington and Ottawa, and the 1964 Columbia River Treaty that ensures its equitable use.

It is “unilateral actions to construct a dam or river diversion in the absence of a treaty [that are] highly destabilizing to a region,” Wolf wrote in his 2009 WPR article.

That observation is borne out in long-simmering international water disputes that have recently reached a boiling point because of controversial decisions to build dams that could divert resources from one country to another.

Opening the Floodgates

Ten states share the Nile River basin, but Ethiopia’s ambitious Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which is halfway completed, has caused an uproar in Egypt, where the Nile supplies nearly 85 percent of the country’s water for drinking, industry and farming.

The dam is expected to more than double Ethiopia’s current electricity production — critical in a country where three-fourths of the population lacks access to electricity. But officials in Cairo worry the dam will severely reduce the river’s flow northward to Egypt.

While former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted during the Arab Spring in 2011, said last year that he would have taken military action to destroy any dam Ethiopia built on the Nile, diplomatic negotiations between the two countries, along with Sudan, have made headway, especially under Ethiopia’s progressive new prime minister.

But the $4 billion megaproject is still fraught with controversy. In July, the dam’s project manager, Semegnew Bekele, was found dead in his car in Addis Ababa, the victim of a gunshot wound to the head. Officials have not speculated about the cause while an investigation is underway.

A similar dispute is brewing between India and Pakistan.

Muhammad Daim Fazil, a faculty member at the University of Gujrat Sialkot Campus in Pakistan, argues in a March 2017 article that a “water war is in the making” after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision in 2016 to suspend meetings of the Indus Commission, which was established by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty.

Indian officials have openly floated the idea of exiting the treaty altogether even though experts say it is essential to preventing water wars from erupting between the two archrivals.

New Delhi’s suspension of talks was in retaliation for a terrorist attack on an Indian military base, which New Delhi says is proof that Islamabad needs to do more to rein in extremists on the border.

But the attack and others like it may be factors themselves in the complex, cyclical strife over water-sharing in the first place. India has constructed dozens of hydroelectric and irrigation projects, as well as larger dams, to support its rapidly growing population.

Pakistani politicians have long blamed India for Pakistan’s water shortages, and in recent years, militant groups have taken matters into their own hands. “Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Pakistani militant group allegedly responsible for the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, even accused India of ‘water terrorism,’” according to a 2011 report by William Wheeler for National Geographic News.

At the time of the controversial move to suspend water talks, Modi said, “Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan.” The rhetoric has been particularly alarming for Islamabad because New Delhi controls the upstream waters of the Indus River — which is Pakistan’s primary source of freshwater and sustains its agricultural industry — and could shut off flow to Pakistan with dams and hydroelectric projects.

Even if India and Pakistan don’t directly clash over the Indus River dispute, violence could break out within Pakistan as dwindling water supplies are diverted to certain communities over others, potentially triggering sectarian fighting in the already-volatile, nuclear-armed nation.

There are 54 such states around the world whose territory is entirely or mostly within international water basins, making them essentially dependent on their neighbors for sharing water, according to Wolf.


Even the water shortages in Syria and Iraq are linked to Turkey’s dam and hydropower construction.

Since 1975, Turkey’s decades-long dam projects at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have cut water flow to Iraq by 80 percent and to Syria by 40 percent, according to Hammer’s reporting.

But even where water treaties do exist, they are dependent on the time period in which they were written.

Adapting to Change

“The agreements don’t reflect changing conditions,” said Sherri Goodman, who served as America’s first deputy undersecretary of defense specializing in environmental security from 1993 to 2001 and is currently a senior fellow at the Wilson Center.

“Often, there’s been a history of mismanagement” of water resources, Goodman said. “And then recently, climate change has created more complications” like increased drought.

Population growth is also a factor putting increased stress on water supplies.

According to the World Economic Forum, the world’s fastest-growing populations are in the Middle East and Africa, where water shortages are already acute.

“Population growth, waves of refugees and drought have turned Jordan [into] one of the water-poorest countries on earth. Therefore, while water scarcity is very real, whether the situation turns into crisis and conflict often depends on other factors,” said Gidon Bromberg, who co-founded and co-directs EcoPeace Middle East.

EcoPeace Middle East, a nongovernmental organization, works with Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians to achieve sustainable development and peace in the region, promoting solutions to water scarcity.

It is also an illustration in itself of how conditions on the ground can change.

When the organization was initially established in 1994, the year that Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty, “our focus was on the environment out of concern that peace would lead to overdevelopment,” Bromberg told The Diplomat.

“Since the Second Intifada, our focus has been to use the common concerns related to our shared environment as a means to help solve the conflict and build trust,” he said.

Water treaties can be one solution to managing water shortages, but in Goodman’s view, they must be adaptable to changing realities on the ground.

Solutions to Water Scarcity

Another solution is desalination, a process of straining the salt out of saltwater to make it suitable for drinking or irrigation purposes. The development of desalination was pioneered by Israel over the last decade as it sought relief from one of the region’s worst droughts on record.

Israel now gets 55 percent of its domestic water from desalination — and even has a surplus, according to Rowan Jacobsen in a July 2016 report for Scientific American.

This has helped transform a country once threatened by drought into a regional “water superpower,” in the words of Haim Gvirtzman, a hydro-geologist at the Hebrew University.

The surplus allowed Israel to sell the excess to its neighbor. In a 2013 water-swap agreement, Israel agreed to sell Jordan a large quantity of water from the Sea of Galilee at what in Israel is considered a discounted rate, according to a report by Bromberg and Giulia Giordano of EcoPeace Middle East.

Selling water at a discounted rate can create a cooperative relationship, “associated with a political stability dividend,” the report suggests.

But Israel did not achieve a surplus from desalination alone. The state ran national campaigns encouraging citizens to conserve and reuse water, and invested in wastewater management and recycling.

Israeli entrepreneurs also invented drip irrigation, which uses a network of pipes to drip only the necessary amounts of water onto crops’ roots rather than the traditional farming method of flooding the fields with large amounts of water, much of which is wasted, as reported by Ruth Schuster for Haaretz.

Experts speaking at a June 1 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) panel on the link between water scarcity and security agreed that a holistic approach is necessary — one that involves both new innovations and simple solutions, such as using less water.

Panelists mentioned various new technologies such as waterless toilets being pioneered by the Gates Foundation and advanced software for municipal governments to monitor and cut down on water leakage.

“When I was in Senegal, I saw something called an omni processor which essentially … burns sewage to create fresh water and then ash, which is used as a fertilizer,” said Luke Wilson, deputy director and co-founder of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation.

“But a lot of it is local. You have to look at the local level, and I think that’s where you see these ideas of how do we implement these technologies,” added Wilson, who noted that desalinization alone is often a “quick fix.”

Indeed, desalination requires high energy use, which in turn requires water. And if the process relies on fossil fuels, it releases more greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately contributing to climate change.

“While desalination is a necessity, it is only part of the solution to water scarcity,” Bromberg told The Diplomat. “Desalination should be the last choice and should build on investments in best water practices including high-efficiency, reuse and appropriate water pricing.” 

Bromberg cautioned that desalination should be powered by renewable energy sources, such as solar power, to counterbalance the heavy cost of energy it requires.

In finding and implementing solutions to water scarcity, the U.S. can be a key partner.

“The U.S. has long played the important role of setting the conditions for parties at the subnational and national level to develop cooperative practices,” Goodman told us.

One area where the U.S. can contribute is by sharing its science and technology capabilities, and its large amount of data resources, she said.


The U.S. has also historically played an important role in working with the different countries along the Nile River basin to encourage water-management cooperation, Goodman noted.

“In my view, the U.S. should continue to show that leadership to bring these parties together and address the issues associated with building [the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam],” Goodman said.

International cooperation and sound domestic policies are essential to averting water-related crises, although oftentimes it takes a disaster to serve as a wakeup call.

This year, Cape Town, South Africa, became the first major city in the world to face the possibility of “Day Zero,” when a government is forced to shut off taps to homes and businesses because water reservoirs have been depleted.

“For months, citizens have been urged to consume less, but more than half of residents ignored those volunteer restrictions,” wrote Craig Welch in a March 5, 2018, article for National Geographic.

Cape Town illustrates the difficulties of enforcing water usage, as well as the disparities between the environmental have and have-nots. At the CFR discussion, Joshua Busby of the University of Texas at Austin noted that city officials had to make “difficult tradeoffs” — for example, diverting shrinking water supplies from poorer neighborhoods to wine-producing areas outside the city to keep the lucrative wine industry, which brings in much-needed foreign revenues, alive.

Fellow panelist Luke Wilson also pointed out that Cape Town’s wealthier citizens were able to drill wells and tap the city’s aquifer. “But the informal settlements, the poor in the city, were still left behind” — despite laws mandating that water be equally distributed.

Wilson said enforcing those laws and getting ahead of water crises are key to preventing them in the first place. “We keep getting these wakeup calls and we’re not taking advantage of them,” he warned.

By announcing that Day Zero was a real possibility, Cape Town officials were finally able to spur citizens to conserve water.

“Capetonians started showering standing over buckets to catch and re-use that water, recycling washing machine water, and limiting loo flushes to once a day,” Krista Mahr reported May 8 for The Guardian.

Ultimately, though, above-average rainfall helped the city avert, or rather postpone, disaster, with Cape Town’s “Day Zero” pushed back to mid-2019.

Now, environmentalists wonder if officials have learned their lesson. The city’s shortage of water was driven in part by climate change, which officials did not take into account. Instead, they assumed rainfall patterns would remain relatively stable, or at least not change too quickly, according to Welch. But then came three straight years of drought.

If drought conditions persist into next year, Cape Town could find itself right where it started. And if the doomsday scenario of zero water becomes a reality, there’s no telling what will happen in a city of 4 million people that remains deeply divided by the legacy of apartheid and economic inequality.

Climate Change as ‘Threat Multiplier’

Goodman is best known for coining the phrase “threat multiplier” in 2006 to help military planners understand how climate change affects relations between states, alters the “threat landscape” and, thus, plays a part in military readiness.

“[Climate change] adds an additional level of instability in any given situation,” Goodman told The Diplomat.

That thinking has largely been adopted by the Pentagon. In 2010, the U.S. military’s Quadrennial Defense Review called climate change “an accelerant of instability or conflict,” the first time it identified climate change as a national security threat.

Examples of the effects of climate change on the U.S. military abound.

As drought hit Afghanistan in 2006, where U.S. troops were fighting the Taliban, “one soldier was killed for every 24 convoys to resupply fuel or water,” according to a November 2015 article by Dan Vergano for BuzzFeed.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston, Texas, “the National Guard had to be mobilized to aid in the humanitarian efforts, diverting resources from other national security priorities,” as previously reported in The Diplomat.

In both cases, U.S. forces were left vulnerable due to extreme weather conditions. Even if clashes break out in other nations where American troops aren’t present, the U.S. could find itself sucked into a war if the clashes spiral out of control.

In South Asia, for example, the headwaters of the Indus River originate in the disputed region of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim as part of their territory. But the waters are fed by glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains.

Those glaciers regulate the Indus River’s flow, “acting as a natural water storage tank that freezes precipitation in winter and releases it as meltwater in the summer,” according to Wheeler’s report for National Geographic.

Faster melting of the glaciers due to climate change means more severe flooding in the short term and less water in the long term, because the glaciers cannot produce more water than what they store naturally.

A reduced flow of the Indus River to Pakistan will only exacerbate the political animosity that already exists over Kashmir and play into Pakistani politicians’ claims that India is responsible for blocking water flow to Pakistan.

The region is “of great concern,” Goodman said, because “Pakistan is a nuclear-armed, unstable country already, now plagued by increasing floods, melting Himalayan glaciers, changing precipitation patterns and historically has also suffered from mismanagement in water practices, particularly in the agriculture sector.”

India and Pakistan have already fought three wars over Kashmir. The shrinking of the glaciers that feed their shared water source could be the cause of a fourth. And any conflict between two nuclear-armed enemies could easily spill far beyond their own borders.

That’s why Wilson says water scarcity, no matter where it happens, is everyone’s concern.

“Every aspect of human life is connected in one way or another to water. Economics, every product that is made, relies on water. Every watt of energy relies on water…. Every health installation relies on water. Every piece of food relies on water,” he said. “So every aspect of our lives is dependent on water.”

About the Author

Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.