MS Risk Blog

Water Scarcity and War

Posted on in Africa, Syria, Yemen title_rule

11 March – New research conducted at Columbia University suggests that climate change was a critical factor in the 2011 Syrian uprising. The research also warns that global warming is likely to unleash more wars in the coming decades.

Three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, however only 2.5% of that water is potable freshwater, and nearly 70% of that is trapped in glaciers. Every living thing that requires freshwater for survival relies on 0.37% of the total global water supply. In many places, water consumption has begun to exceed local water recharge. The World Bank estimates that 2.8 billion people live in areas afflicted by high water stress, and they expect this figure to rise through 2050, when the human population crosses 9 billion. The UN estimates that at current rates, as many as 700 million people may become “water refugees”, forced to migrate due to water scarcity by 2025.

The Syria conflict, which has killed over 200,000 and displaced millions, is the first war that scientists have explicitly linked to climate change.  The 2011 conflict was preceded by a record drought that ravaged Syria between 2006 and 2010. The drought caused an exodus of farmers and herders into cities that were already strained form poverty and a growing number of refugees from Iraq. The research, found in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the timing of the uprising is unlikely to be a coincidence. The study combined climate, social and economic data relating to the “Fertile Crescent”, a crucial agricultural and herding area which spans parts of Turkey and much of Syria and Iraq. The region has warmed by between 1 and 1.2C since 1900, and rainfall in the wet season has diminished by an average of 10%.

In Syria, the ruling al-Assad regime encouraged the development of water-intensive export crops such as cotton. Water scarcity was then worsened by the illegal drilling of irrigation wells that dramatically depleted groundwater which would have otherwise provided valuable reserves, the report said. The drought’s effects were immediate. Agriculture production, a quarter of Syria’s economy, plummeted by a third. Livestock decreased significantly and the price of cereal doubled. As many as 1.5 million people fled from the country to the city.Further, these impacts were coupled with rapid population growth, from 4 million in the 1950s to 22 million today amongst the rising population, nutrition-related diseases among children increased dramatically. Lead author of the report, Colin Kelley, says, “Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability.”

Demand for basic commodities such as wheat and copper is expected to rise over the next two decades. Chatham House think-tank has warned that relatively small shocks to supply risk can cause sudden price rises and trigger “overreactions or even militarised responses.”

The report also sites that Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq are among those most at risk from drought because of the intensity of the drying and the history of conflict in the region. Beyond the Middle East, drought can be found in other regions where conflict have emerged, including Afghanistan and East African countries such as Somalia and Sudan, and parts of Central America – especially Mexico, which is afflicted by crime, is politically unstable, short of water and reliant on agriculture.

Yemen: the first country to run out of water?

On the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, which has been beset with conflict and instability for years, is likely to become the first country in the world to run out of water. Experts believe that Sana’a, the nation’s internationally recognised capital (although the president has recently moved his operations to Aden), will run dry by 2025, causing extreme water scarcity for its 2 million residents and leading to a potential exodus. The majority of Yemen’s water resources are used to grow khat. Khat is a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant, but accounts for 40% of the nation’s water supply. Within the nation, between 70-80% of rural conflict stems from water-related disputes.

Water as a weapon

Water has become both a weapon and a military objective during. During Libya’s civil war in 2011, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces shut-off two-thirds of Tripoli’s water supplies, leaving almost half the country short of water. In Syria, rebels have targeted the water system in their fight against the Assad regime. In 2012, terrorist insurgents in Afghanistan poisoned a well near a girls’ school in Afghanistan in order to punish those receiving an education. Similarly during the conflict in Darfur, number of wells were poisoned as part of a campaign to intimidate local residents.

A report on Global Water Security, published in 2012 by the United Sates Director of National Intelligence, states that that the demand for water would lead to an increased risk of conflict in the future. The Pacific Institute, which tracks water-related conflicts, has reported an increase in the number of violent confrontations that have recently occurred over water.

Nearly 1.2 billion people in the Middle East and Africa live in regions where water is a physical scarcity. However the some argue that hostilities may not just emerge over water itself, but water shortages will become a catalyst for other critical issues. The lack of water is likely to worsen problems by driving up the prices of food, impacting economies and costs of living, and forcing migration. This could lead to armed conflict to secure valuable water resources. In this regard, experts believe that conflict over water scarcity may take the form of local intra-state battles rather than nation-on-nation battles. The key take-away: battles of these types are becoming increasingly likely. Poor governments may lack the funding or infrastructure to support growing water needs, and wealthy countries have sometimes been lax with protecting their water supply, leading to contamination. The global market is so interwoven that water shortages can affect exports of commodities around the world. For example, the United Kingdom imports as much as 40% of its food. It is therefore incumbent upon international governments to address water scarcity before water related conflict becomes the norm.

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