Water is the single most important resource on the planet but human consumption is already beginning to outpace growth of the global water supply. As a result, tensions over shared water resources could give rise to conflict.
Of the world’s water, 2,5% is freshwater, and only about 0.4% of that is easily accessible for human needs. Moreover, the levels of renewable freshwater are being reduced by a combination of human activity and climate change. This means that by 2025 an estimated 1.8 billion people will be living in areas of absolute water scarcity.
According to a report by the 2030 Water Resources Group, agricultural usage of water (mainly in the global South) will increase to 4,500 billion m3 by 2030. In China alone, industrial water demand could be as high as 265 billion m3. Without expansive improvements to water efficiency in the next 16 years, demand will outpace the reliable supply of water by 40%.
Efficiency improvements have been meagre, hovering at around 1-2% per year. If progress does not accelerate by 2030, improvements in water efficiency will address only 20% of the supply demand gap. As such, human development, agriculture and industry will face tremendous challenges.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned in 2007, water scarcity will also act as a catalyst for wars and conflict. Most freshwater bodies are shared by multiple states, and as we have witnessed with oil, a zero-sum game over natural resources can easily become a source of instability between neighboring states.
These tensions are found all over the world, sometimes involving states with large militaries or otherwise volatile relations. Here are four prominent examples of hydropolitical risk:
1. Tibetan Plateau
Surrounded by some of the biggest economies and populations in the world, the meltwater basins and rivers of the Tibetan Plateau are in high demand. China, India, Pakistan and Nepal are scrimmaging to build over 400 hydroelectric plants, and the impacts on huge rivers such as the Ganges, Irrawaddy, Mekong and Yangtze are unclear. Climate change, population increase and industrialization are quickly depleting the water resources, adding to the already tense border relations in the region.
2. Southeast Asia
China is also involved in water disputes in Southeast Asia, and its huge dams on the Mekong River have greatly affected food security for both Cambodia and Vietnam. To add to the tense hydropolitics of the region, Laos now also plans to erect a dam on the Mekong, sparking protests from Cambodia. While the smaller Southeast Asian countries are unlikely to initiate conflict with China over water, clashes amongst them is another matter.
3. Central Asia
Similarly, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan plan to build massive hydroelectric dams upstream of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers. This would reduce water supply to both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, something that is particularly worrisome for the Uzbek cotton sector. The threat posed by upstream projects to downstream livelihood is very real, and Uzbekistan’s president even warned that constructing the dams could lead to war.
4. Blue Nile
The Nile has long been a source of instability for Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. When Ethiopia announced plans for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2011 (to be constructed by the Chinese), the Egyptian government protested vehemently. Not only does the dam ignore legal treaties giving Egypt veto power over such constructions, but it will likely make water flows even more unpredictable than they already are. If the dam ends up having a real effect on the regional water supply, clashes will light up very quickly.
These hotspots pose immediate concerns, but as water scarcity becomes more severe, more zones of instability are likely to emerge. Still, conflict over water does not need to occur across borders – it can just as easily happen within a country, as currently witnessed in Iraq.
Considering the above, it is worrisome that international hydropolitics is suffering from a lack of effective decision-making. Negotiations over how to address shared water resources, or how to enforce sustainable water consumption, are dawdling and weak. A strong emphasis on water scarcity in the UN’s upcoming Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 should be considered a minimum effort.
Bilateral efforts also need to be propped up. Canada and the United States have a working system whereby they manage mutual water resources through the International Joint Commission. An appropriate legal framework can help provide solutions even before the problems become too serious. Without them, the security risks over a vital natural resource such as water are unnecessarily high.