The Next Big Wars Will Be Fought Over Water | | 2.19.13

Recently here at the Thomas Jefferson Street blog, I looked at surprises that the next four years could spring on the nation. I focused on separatist movements around the world, in Asia and Africa, of course, but also in Europe. The gist was that the world map could change quickly, dramatically, and soon if even a few of these movements succeed.

But what other Jacks are poised to pop out of the global box?

I have taped two world maps to my office wall. Dated 2011 and 2012, they highlight the areas of armed conflict at the beginning of those years. Published annually by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, each marks in bright red regions where frequent and organized fighting is in process. Various lighter shades indicate lesser levels of clashing. If you look carefully on the 2011 edition, here and there you will also see drawings of water drops. These indicate areas where clashes have or could soon occur over access to water.

Around the world, the Institute has fingered more than twenty conflicts and potential conflicts concerning division of river flows between upstream and downstream users. These range from tensions within China over the Yangtze to discord between Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Guinea over the Niger and between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey over the Tigris and Euphrates. Even the United States is on the list: The United States and Mexico have long squabbled over the Rio Grande, Rio Bravo, Rio Conchos, and Colorado systems, all of which rise in the United States but are crucial to northern Mexico.

As with separatist movements, water disputes also reach into what before the financial crisis Americans were inclined to regard as placid Europe. In 1997 the International Court of Justice was asked to resolve a controversy between the Slovak Republic and Hungary. At issue were a 1947 treaty and Slovakia’s (and before it Czechoslovakia’s) recent diversion of the Danube. The five-year-long disagreement occasioned escalating verbal battles, massive public protests and at one point military maneuvers along the border.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in April a case involving interstate compacts that allocate river flows. Compacts are the U.S. equivalent of treaties among states and must be ratified by Congress before going into effect. In most of the western United States, distribution of multistate water rights is governed by these carefully negotiated pacts. Now, one state, Oklahoma, wishes to walk away from its compact obligations, jeopardizing the authority of all such agreements. The Court’s decision will have a profound impact on the future of some of the most dynamic regions of the nation.

Globally, similar face-offs are bound to grow in number and ferocity. By 2050, the world’s populations will be a third to a half again as large as today, with the biggest factor driving water consumption not being the home, school, or workplace tap or even industrial processes. Seventy percent of the world’s usable water is consumed in agriculture—growing and raising our food.

Population expansion is only part of the story. Among the most hopeful international developments of the last 40 years has been the incredible drop in extreme poverty, by half. And despite the worldwide economic downturn, vastly more people are middle income or approaching middle-income status than was conceivable in, say, 1980. India’s “middle class” exceeds in size the entire population of the United States. China’s story is even more stunning. And in the past year there has been talk of an African economic take-off, something beyond many imaginations just a decade ago.

But more prosperous populations are also better fed. For example, it takes about 40 liters of water to produce a slice of bread, a staple of low-income diets. It takes 2,400 liters to produce a hamburger, common in many middle-income diets. Put rising population and rising incomes together and, experts tell us, by 2050 global food needs will double, with water requirements going up accordingly.

Historian Samuel Huntington wrote famously about the clash of civilizations. But as I write I am overlaying a map of the globe’s water-stressed regions with the one I mentioned of regional conflicts. The matches make me wonder if civilizational conflicts are not the least of our worries. Traditional statesmanship will take us only so far in heading off water wars.

What can be done? Stanford University researchers have found that to produce as much food as we do today with the technologies of the early 1960s would require putting to the plow land as big as nearly three Amazon rainforests. Technology’s impact on water use is at least as stunning. A single recent advance involving wheat seeds decreases a crop’s water uptake by more than a third.

Off and on for two decades, my colleagues and I have worked on issues involving water, including some discussed here. This experience has led me to conclude that statesmanship must go beyond diplomacy, in particular to championing new agricultural technologies. Without growing more food with less water (land, too) the water-war surprises will come, perhaps not in one year, perhaps not in four, but soon, and long into the future.

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