The Coming Water Wars?

Stephen DeAngelis

August 22, 2007

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about potential water problems in the Middle East (Turkey, Kurdistan & Water). Almost all books or articles about possible strategic futures mention potential water crises somewhere in their pages. Not all water problems are interstate. This year’s weather patterns have created very different water problems within the United States. The west and southeast are suffering in hot and dry weather while the middle of America has been awash in rainfall that has caused devastating flooding and ruining crops just as surely as the drought affecting other areas. Doug Struck, writing in the Washington Post, once again raises the specter of transnational water wars [“Warming Will Exacerbate Global Water Conflicts,” 20 August 2007]. Struck begins his article by relating the water woes that have engulfed California, especially its breadbasket Central Valley. For Struck, California reflects the water problems that are going to be seen increasingly on the global stage.

“As global warming heats the planet, there will be more desperate measures. The climate will be wetter in some places, drier in others. Changing weather patterns will leave millions of people without dependable supplies of water for drinking, irrigation and power, a growing stack of studies conclude.”

Scientist Stephen Schneider, editor of the journal Climatic Change and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, notes in the article that as the earth warms there will be more moisture in the atmosphere (from all those melting ice caps and glaciers). Unfortunately, as noted above, it won’t fall evenly across the globe.

“According to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], that means a drying out of areas such as southern Europe, the Mideast, North Africa, South Australia, Patagonia and the U.S. Southwest. These will not be small droughts. Richard Seager, a senior researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, looked at 19 computer models of the future under current global warming trends. He found remarkable consistency: Sometime before 2050, the models predicted, the Southwest will be gripped in a dry spell akin to the Great Dust Bowl drought that lasted through most of the 1930s.”

There are a number of big problems associated with such uneven distribution of water. The first challenge is dislocations of large numbers of people — so-called climate refugees. Those familiar with American history (or the novel The Grapes of Wrath) understand how devastating such dislocations can be. It is a challenge that many African countries have been dealing with for decades. Too much water can be as bad as too little water. The recent monsoons in South Asia and flooding in North Korea displaced tens of millions of people, most temporarily but some permanently. The second challenge is the inevitable conflicts that will arise when those downstream feel they are not getting their fair share.

“Global warming threatens water supplies in other ways. Much of the world’s fresh water is in glaciers atop mountains. They act as mammoth storehouses. In wet or cold seasons, the glaciers grow with snow. In dry and hot seasons, the edges slowly melt, gently feeding streams and rivers. Farms below are dependent on that meltwater; huge cities have grown up on the belief the mountains will always give them drinking water; hydroelectric dams rely on the flow to generate power. But the atmosphere’s temperature is rising fastest at high altitudes. The glaciers are melting, initially increasing the runoff, but gradually getting smaller and smaller. Soon, many will disappear. … ‘What do you think is going to happen when this stops?’ [Ohio State University Lonnie] Thompson mused of the water. ‘Do you think all the people below will just sit there? No. It’s crazy to think they won’t go anywhere. And what do you think will happen when they go to places where people already live?’ The potential for conflict is more than theoretical. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq bristle over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt trade threats over the Nile. The United Nations has said water scarcity is behind the bloody wars in Sudan’s Darfur region. In Somalia, drought has spawned warlords and armies. Already, the World Health Organization says, 1 billion people lack access to potable water. In northern China, retreating glaciers and shrinking wetlands that feed the Yangtze River prompted researchers to warn that water supplies for hundreds of millions of people may be at risk.”

The trick, as it has always been, is getting the right amount of water to the right place at the right time. Southern California gets water from northern California. England has considered getting water from Scotland. Coastal nations have tried to draw water from the ocean. Dams and reservoirs have been built to control, collect and distribute water. Struck reports that such attempts have not always been successful or welcomed:

“Humans have long attempted to reconcile nature’s inconstancies with giant plumbing: reservoirs and dams that hold back floodwaters for more gradual release; dikes and other barriers to protect developed areas; canals and pipelines to take water from wet areas to dry. But that kind of infrastructure is expensive, especially for Third World governments. Environmentalists decry the impact on wildlife. And building dams in earthquake zones tempts disaster.”

It seems to me that wildlife is affected either way. Floods and droughts affect plants and animals as much as they affect humans. Even so, Struck reports, that some researchers believe that humans should bend with nature rather than trying to bend it. Such a laissez-faire attitude, however, is unlikely to win the day considering current population distributions. Like other global problems, dealing with water control, collection and distribution is going to take global leadership, global vision, and global solutions. Failing to deal with such problems is likely to lead to the water wars suggested by Struck.