With global water scarcity trending upwards, conflicts over access to the world’s supply are springing up – a trend we can expect to worsen in the not so distant future.
Water wars: It may sound more like a working title for a sci-fi flick than a legitimate concern, but in today’s increasingly dry climate, they’re a stark reality.
With 780 million people (about 10 percent of the world’s population) without access to clean drinking water, experts and government agencies alike have forecasted that both now and in the future, battles (both economic and physical) will be waged over life’s most important resource.
A brief history
Climate change may be exacerbating the scarcity of water, but that doesn’t mean fighting over water is a new occurrence.
As a timeline from the environmental think tank the Pacific Institute shows, conflicts involving water date back over 5,000 years – from ancient Rome to Alexander the Great tearing down ancient Persian dams.
Even American literary icon, Mark Twain, had his say on the matter of water wars:
“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” – Mark Twain
Increasingly so, however, water wars today are transitioning from bouts spurred by imperialization and conquest, to a supply fueled tug-of-war over dwindling resources.
Water wars today
As climate change and an increasing population coupled with record breaking droughts spur water scarcity around the world, social and economic problems are expected to fester.
According to a report (pdf) by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2012, fresh water supply will not keep up with global demand between now and 2040 (the years assessed in the report).
The dwindling supply, the report states, will be the result of three major factors:
- Population increase
- Economic development
- Climate change
As fresh water supplies decrease, so does the ability to produce crops, generate energy, and provide sanitation.
These factors combined are expected to foster instability in countries around the world – especially those which lack the economic stability and technical ability to tackle the problem.
Already, the report is proving omniscient, as the forecasted effects of water shortages can be seen in skirmishes around the world.
The Islamic State, or ISIS, also used water as a weapon along the Euphrates river, where the group took control of numerous dams . Under their control, water was variably cut off to downstream opponents to render hydro power plants inoperable, or water was released to flood opponents out, depending upon ISIS’s goals.
According to various news reports, ISIS plotted to poison water in various European nations, although such claims have been difficult to prove.
What will happen in the future?
While fear over a water-fueled conflict may strike fear into one’s heart, the Intelligence Committee’s report posits that a state-on-state conflict (war between countries) is unlikely – at least within the next 25 years.
More often throughout the world, disputes over water scarcity result in water-sharing deals, which closely regulate and distribute water between nations rather than lead to actual fighting.
A bigger concern, surfaced in the report, is the threat of terrorism. The increased importance of fresh water sources may redirect attention of bad actors to important basins and lakes, making water sources a more likely target for terrorists plots.
Already, terrorist groups like ISIS have advanced on key dams located within Iraq with the hope of gaining control of a strained water supply in the region.
Though America is unlikely to see physical conflict in the near future, restrictions on water could create economic instability – especially between farmers vying for resources.
So far, even despite California’s enactment of a statewide 25 percent water usage reduction, restriction on farmers have yet to be introduced.
If calls for corporate giants like Nestle to cease bottling water in the area are any indication, a dwindling supply could upend this precedent given enough public backlash.
A myriad of factors are working together to put strain on water supplies around the world. Whether it be drought, booming population, or terrorism, if expert predictions are correct, fresh water will be in hot demand in the decades ahead.
Before you start stockpiling bottled water, however, it’s important to remember that our future isn’t quite written in stone – after all, we may never have to worry about having too little water, we might have to worry about having too much first.