Will the world's next wars be fought over water?

California’s ongoing drought is one sign that we have entered some uncharted and uncomfortable territory. Of the fears that have risen alongside a warming planet, perhaps none have attracted more attention than the "water wars" hypothesis.

This hypothesis says that increased water shortages around the world will lead to war between states. It goes something like this: as water is central to all human activities, including food production, no state can allow its water resources to be compromised. Therefore, in a world of squeezed water supply, states should be willing to go to war to protect their access to water. At its core, the "water wars" hypothesis expresses our deepest anxieties about a drought-laden future, wherein desperately thirsty societies take up arms against one another.

As evocative as this hypothesis is, the track record also shows that water wars are overblown – thankfully. Exhaustive research by Aaron Wolf, a geographer at Oregon State University, has documented the surprising fact that there have been no interstate wars fought directly over water for thousands of years. In fact, his team’s research indicates that states have cooperated over shared water resources far more often than they have fought over them.

But the absence of a historical record of interstate warfare over water does not mean that we have no reason for concern. On the contrary. There are two very good reasons why we should intensify our efforts to understand how water intersects with conflict and to build the structures necessary to ensure that water leads to peace and prosperity rather than war.

One reason is that the future is not going to look exactly like the past. This is a truism: No future ever looks exactly like any past. But in terms of how the Earth’s various systems operate, we likely are looking at a future that is very different from the past.

For years now, Earth scientists have been debating whether we should rename the geological epoch in which we live, whether we should drop the term Holocene (the period since the last ice age) and substitute for it the term Anthropocene. As the root of the word Anthropocene suggests, the scientists’ basic idea is that human interference in Earth systems has become so pervasive that we have, in effect, a new planet on our hands. Indicators such as climate change, ozone depletion, massive sedimentation, and ocean acidification are proof that human interference in Earth systems already has altered how the planet works.

So too with fresh water: Water cycling will become less predictable in the future. For example, a changing climate will create more droughts and floods more frequently in more places. As water systems become less reliable – say, transboundary river flows no longer follow historic, seasonal patterns – states will come under greater pressure to deal with the consequences. States might begin to take matters into their own hands and lay claim to water resources that others believe belong to them. No one can say whether such a causal chain will result in future water wars.

But the second reason we should remain concerned about the potential for water-based conflict is the overly narrow frame we use to understand the relationship in the first place. Interstate warfare represents only a small part, indeed the far less significant part, of a much larger equation involving conflict and water. We would be smart to focus on that larger equation rather than on the narrower if spectacular "water wars" hypothesis.

The smart frame is to think about how water can either contribute to peace and stability or, conversely, help destabilize vulnerable countries and regions around the world. Water is essential for all human activities, indeed for all life. When present in sufficient quantity and quality, water is an enabler of other good things, whether we are talking about human health or food production or energy production or a thousand other things. However, when water is not present in sufficient quantity and quality, the reverse becomes true: human health suffers, food cannot be grown, electricity cannot be produced, and so on. Under extreme conditions, society can begin to break down, and conflict becomes inevitable.  

The current Syrian tragedy provides an important case study of what happens to a society under severe water stress. Between 2007 and 2010, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts in recorded history, the effect of which was to decimate rural communities and drive hundreds of thousands off the land and into Syria’s cities, where they were marginalized. When the "Arab Spring" began in 2011, Syria therefore was an especially vulnerable society. The effects of the drought combined with long-standing grievances against the Assad regime to create the conditions for violence. Once conflict began, rebel groups found willing recruits from those regions most affected by drought. Since the onset of civil war, moreover, combatants have "weaponized" water, meaning they have turned water into an instrument of war. The Islamic State has been the most egregious offender, alternatively flooding areas or deliberately withholding water in order to punish civilians or prosecute their conflict against other combatants.

The Syrian case provides one reason why the water-security nexus has been receiving attention from the foreign and security policy communities in Washington and elsewhere around the world. An important moment occurred in 2012, when the U.S. government’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, conducted an assessment of global water security. A first of its kind by the American intelligence community, that assessment argued that global water challenges “will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests.” It listed water-driven destabilization leading to state failure, negative impacts of water scarcity on food production, and the risk that terrorists might weaponize water as items of concern for American policymakers. It also considered the risk of a water war between states to be low, at least through 2022.

ODNI’s assessment spurred activity within the rest of the U.S. government. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pushed ODNI to conduct its assessment, was the most visible figure to use these findings and call for greater action on global water challenges. Among other things, the State Department created the U.S. Water Partnership, a nonprofit organization designed to galvanize America’s public- and private-sector actors around water.

Yet to this day America’s approach to water remains a hodgepodge of largely uncoordinated activity. Despite outstanding work by American organizations of every type – public, private, nonprofit, and academic – the fact is that the United States has no coherent global water strategy. Part of the challenge to building such a strategy is conceptual (water shapes societal outcomes in countless ways), part of it is political (who has both the will and the means to act?), and part of it is simply a gigantic cat-herding problem (there is a huge and diverse set of American organizations that work on water here and abroad). As a world leader, the United States has much to gain from crafting and implementing a global water strategy, including a boost to its reputation and influence abroad. But more importantly, doing so would help ensure that water does what it is supposed to do, which is contribute to the resiliency, stability and peacefulness of societies in far-flung corners of the world.

Peter Engelke is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative in Washington. His diverse portfolio of work includes topics such as innovation, climate security, natural resources and urbanization.

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