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Water Wars: A Thirsty Planet

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People who once settled where the water was abundant are now inclined to migrate to areas that are less well endowed, guided by other economic forces. Even as NASA scours the universe for signs of extraterrestrial life, their motto is: “Follow the water”!

For a few decades, a growing literature has wondered whether water resources can be a source of interstate conflicts or serve as a jus ad bellum. Many scholars believe that the fiercer competition over water resources due to a growing population, increasing water demand, and climate change might lead to a Malthusian backlash.

If water is a proxy for life itself, it should not be surprising that worries about the health and availability of supplies on Earth can take on apocalyptic overtones. As an example, just think of all the fights over toilet paper during the pandemic. It seemed ridiculous, but we got a blurry picture of how the future can look like if water makes it to the Top 10 Most Expensive Substances list.

Water demand globally is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050. According to the 2018 United Nations World Water Development Report, more than 5 billion people could fall victim to water shortages by 2050, with the projected population to be between 9.4 and 10.2 billion people.

Billions of people around the globe are already struggling during dry seasons. Drought and deluge are a costly threat to many nations. The current crisis can easily become a catastrophe if we continue mismanaging our water resources. By the middle of the century, more than half of the world will be living in areas of “water stress”, where supplies will not sustainably meet demand.

Given that 71% of the Earth’s surface is water, and that volume remains constant, how is a water shortage even possible?

About 97.5% of the water on Earth is salty. A further 1.75% is frozen, at the poles, in glaciers or permafrost. The world has to rely on just 0.75% of the planet’s available water, almost all of which is stored in underground wells known as aquifers, though it is from the 0.3% on the surface that it draws 59% of its needs.

If you are wondering, water wars are nothing new for humans. As Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky reports, this eye-opening water conflict database lists 551 such historical flare-ups. How likely are the water wars to arise? The researchers put such chances at 75 to 95% in the next 50 to 100 years.

H2O is increasingly a trigger, weapon, and casualty of conflict with significant humanitarian consequences. It has not traditionally been considered a primary driver of global conflict; instead, it has been viewed as a compounding variable that exacerbates existing social, economic and political tensions. Countries and regions typically settle water management disputes peacefully. Alas, old understandings and norms of cooperation around water issues are being tested by climate change and political growth. Swings in seasonal water supplies threaten regional, local and global stability.

One of the major issues is that people regard access to water as a fundamental human right and hence as something that should be available based on need, rather than the ability or willingness to pay. That makes it hard to charge a proper price for it, which in turn encourages profligate use. We consume it mostly not through drinking or washing, but through the water that has gone into the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky.

Still, if countries manage to increase water efficiency and ease climate variability with increased storage, their actions will probably have negative consequences. Any action on water may spark political friction. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report has listed water crises among the top-five risks in terms of impact for eight consecutive years. These risks are increasingly interconnected. Failure to properly mitigate climate change may lead to more severe weather events, ecosystem collapse and a higher probability of man-made environmental disasters.

While it may not be the defining factor in generating conflicts, water scarcity can serve as a catalyst to ignite already sensitive situations. With water shortages more likely to occur in the future, the likelihood of more conflict erupting due to the effects of water scarcity will also increase. Today, several solutions can be thought of such as recycling or reusing waste water, desalination or rainwater harvesting. Stronger policies have to be drawn to regulate water use to encourage thriftiness otherwise freshwater suffers from the tragedy of commons.


Times International Guest PosterThe author of this article was Szebasztián Simic, an undergraduate student at the University of Szeged studying for an International Relations and a Political Sciences degree.

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