Climate change raises threat of water wars

by and

PRAGUE — The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released alarming data on the consequences of global warming in some of the world’s poorest regions. By 2100, 1 billion to 3 billion people worldwide are expected to suffer from water scarcity. Global warming will increase evaporation and severely reduce rainfalls — by up to 20 percent in the Middle East and North Africa — with the amount of water available per person possibly halved by midcentury in these regions.

This sudden scarcity of an element whose symbolic and spiritual importance matches its centrality to human life will cause stress and exacerbate conflicts worldwide. Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia will be the first to be exposed. The repercussions, however, will be global.

Yet this bleak picture is neither an excuse for apathy nor grounds for pessimism. Conflicts may be inevitable; wars are not. Our ability to prevent “water wars” will depend on our collective capacity to anticipate tensions, and to find the technical and institutional solutions to manage emerging conflicts. The good news is that such solutions exist, and are proving their efficacy everyday.

Dams — provided they are adequately sized and designed — can contribute to human development by fighting climate change and regulating water supply. Yet in a new context of scarcity, upstream infrastructure projects on international rivers may impact water quality or availability for neighboring states, thus causing tensions.

River basin organizations such as that established for the Nile, Niger or Senegal rivers help facilitate dialogue between states that share hydraulic resources. By developing a joint vision for the development of international waterways, these regional cooperation initiatives work toward common ownership of the resource, thereby reducing the risk that disputes over water use will escalate into violence.

Most international waterways have such frameworks for dialogue, albeit at different stages of development and levels of achievement. If we are to take climate-change predictions seriously, the international community should strengthen these initiatives. Where they do not exist, they should be created in partnership with all the countries concerned. Official development assistance can create incentives to cooperate by financing data collection, providing technical know-how or, indeed, by conditioning loans on constructive negotiations.

Yet international water conflicts are only one side of the coin. The most violent water wars take place today within rather than among states. A dearth of water fuels ethnic strife, as communities begin to fear for their survival and seek to capture the resource. In Darfur, recurrent drought has poisoned relations between farmers and nomadic herdsmen, and the war we are helplessly witnessing today follows years of escalating conflict. Chad risks falling prey to the same cycle of violence.

It is thus urgent to satisfy populations’ most basic human needs through local development initiatives. Rural hydraulic projects that ensure access to water for these populations over large stretches of land can prove to be efficient conflict prevention tools. Secured grazing corridors are being established with the help of modern satellite imagery to orient nomads and their herds to appropriate areas. Such initiatives provide rare opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between rival communities. The key is to anticipate the need for action before tensions escalate to the point of no return.

Water consumption also must be addressed. Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of water use in the world. Agronomic research and technical innovations are crucial to maximizing water efficiency in this sector, and they must be taken much further. But addressing scarcity will inevitably imply revising agricultural practices and policies worldwide to ensure their sustainability.

The development challenge no longer solely consists in bringing agricultural water to deprived areas. As the dramatic shrinkage of the Aral Sea, Lake Chad, and the Dead Sea illustrate, it now requires preserving scarce natural resources and ensuring their equitable distribution among conflicting needs. Responsible use will require adequate economic incentives. In West Africa or the Middle East, Central Asia or India, this, too, can contribute to abating clashes over water.

Given the unprecedented scale of the threat, business as usual is not an option. The Cold War came to a peaceful end thanks to realism, foresight and strength of will. These three qualities should be put to work if our planet is to be spared major water wars. This global challenge also demands innovation in global governance, which is why we support the creation of a U.N. Environment Agency, endowed with the legal and financial resources needed to tackle the issues at hand.

Humanity must begin to resolve this water dilemma. Waiting is not part of the solution.