It's been called the 'next oil'. In the coming decades, the supply of water has the potential to influence geopolitics, diplomacy and even conflict.
- By Bryan Lufkin 16 June 2017
The 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace pits 007 against an evil criminal syndicate bent on global domination. Sounds par for the course… but this particular network of baddies isn’t using lasers or missiles to cause havoc.
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No, the Quantum organisation has a uniquely dastardly plan: seizing control of Bolivia’s water supply.
While the evil syndicate’s role in the film might not be entirely realistic, this piece of fiction does raise a scenario that is worth considering seriously: what would happen if a country’s water supply was cut off? What would be the global fallout?
Think about it: sure, we need water to survive. But it also fuels a country’s commerce, trade, innovation and economic success. This has been the case for time immemorial, from the Nile in Ancient Egypt to the Amazon in the Brazilian rainforest.
While bodies of water typically help form natural borders of countries, several nations tend to share access to rivers or lakes – the Nile runs through nearly a dozen countries alone, for example. Given how conflict-prone humankind is, it’s surprising there haven't been more dust-ups of a “hydro-political” nature.
Bodies of water have always formed natural boundaries between countries, forcing people to figure out ways to share water peaceably. (Credit: Getty Images)
Experts agree: if there was no access to water, there would be no world peace. That’s why one of the grand challenges of the next few decades could be maintaining this ultra-sensitive stasis of water management. In the 21st Century, freshwater supplies are drying up, climate change is raising sea levels and altering borders, explosive population growth is straining world resources, and global hyper-nationalism is testing diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, water demand is expected to go up 55% between 2000 and 2050. In the coming century, in terms of its value as a global resource, it’s been described as “the next oil."
So what can we do to guarantee global access to water – and thus global peace?
World peace hinges on hydro-politics
Water’s role in shaping politics goes back centuries. “In the ancient world, large bodies of water formed natural boundaries for people and nations,” says Zenia Tata, executive director of global development and international expansion at XPrize, an organisation that’s holding a worldwide competition for innovative water management solutions. “But today’s geopolitical landscape looks very different,” and access to water remains paramount.
Experts agree: if there was no access to water, there would be no world peace
In many areas of the world, bodies of water run through several countries or brush up against many countries’ borders. That’s where something called "riparian water rights" come into play.
In the case of a river, upstream countries – where the river originates – enjoy inherent power and leverage over the downstream countries. These kinds of riparian hotspots abound. And they’re often in places that are already fraught.
In the Middle East, the Jordan River basin is the primary water source for many regions, including Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, regions of long-standing political tensions. In Syria, meanwhile, the worst drought in close to a millennium has been partly blamed for the country’s generation-defining civil war and radicalisation that led to the formation of so-called Islamic State.
Egypt and Ethiopia have sparred over development of water from the River Nile for centuries: the iconic river originates in Ethiopia but ends in Egypt, which sets up an inherently combative relationship. In 2015, Egypt and Ethiopia put enough differences aside to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the river, which is Africa’s largest dam and is due to open in July. The countries also signed a deal that strives to ensure fair river access.
Tata points to many developed or emerging markets that have had similar challenges: “Take the example of Malaysia’s 99-year deal with Singapore, giving them paid access to fresh water from the Johor River,” Tata says. “Singapore is arguably one of the most progressive nations on our planet, but without sufficient fresh water resources within its boundaries, all industry, trade, commerce and culture would all stand still."
The answer might lie in how countries with more food and water export those supplies to other countries
According to the Pacific Institute, a California-based water resource information nonprofit, there have been dozens of water-related conflicts worldwide from 2000BC to present day.
So how do we make sure everyone gets enough water – and thus keep relative world peace in the 21st Century? The real answer won’t lie in countries controlling others’ water supply in what’s been dubbed so-called "water wars" – rather, the answer might lie in how countries with more food and water export those supplies to other countries.
Droughts and climate change will make water-fuelled diplomacy a crucial exercise in the 21st Century. (Credit: Getty Images)
Divvying up water supplies
While there have been many “water-related” conflicts over the millennia, there have actually been very few in terms of sending water over national boundaries.
There are three main issues when it comes to water in the 21st Century, says Aaron Wolf. He’s a professor of geography at Oregon State University who specialises in water resource management and environmental policy.
The first issue is the most obvious: water scarcity. A lack of safe, reliable water kills as many people worldwide as malaria and HIV/Aids, he says.
The second issue is the political implications of that scarcity. For example, in Syria, that history-making drought drove more people to cities, saw rising food prices, and exacerbated tensions in the country that already existed. They ended up with “climate refugees”, who travel to other countries to seek places that have better water availability, which may in turn stoke the flames of political tension.
The third main issue – and perhaps the most underreported, experts say – is that trans-boundary flow of water. In other words: water moving between countries. And that’s where those riparian rights come into play.
But here’s the twist – that third part of the puzzle, the hydro-politics, is actually the part to be most optimistic about, says Wolf, since there have been so few violent skirmishes over transboundary water flows.
Countries with a water surplus export "virtual water" around the world – water embedded in products like wheat and meat. (Credit: Getty Images)
The grand challenge: building hydro-diplomacy
Despite alarmist headlines about “water wars”, the 21st Century is still offering up no shortage of new and unique threats that complicate hydro-diplomacy more than ever before.
Population explosions, especially in Asia and Africa, strain resources. Increasing global temperatures have led to some bodies of water drying up. And rising nationalism worldwide may stymie diplomatic efforts across the board.
While water presents obvious potential conflict, it could also accelerate global cooperation
So that’s why at Oregon State University, Wolf helps organise the Program in Water Conflict Management – where they try to identify where hydro-diplomatic tensions are going to rise in the next three to five years. For example, Afghanistan is an upstream country to many nations in the region, and is trying to use that advantage to develop its economy. For a country that’s been subjected to decade upon decade of war and upheaval, the political power of water sources like the Kabul River could be a boon.
That’s why there’s growing academic desire for an increased awareness of not just hydro-politics, but hydro-diplomacy – that while water presents obvious potential conflict, it could also accelerate global cooperation.
“We’re building the next generation of hydro-diplomats,” says Wolf.
A solution? Pay farmers more
But amid all these changes in the aqua political landscape, experts urge us to remember that not all water exists in rivers and lakes and even oceans.
There’s water in the soil – the soil that farmers use to grow vegetables, crops and feed for livestock. And the water from that soil is transferred into these products – whether it is wheat or beef – before they get shipped from water-surplus nations to deficient ones. This is known as “virtual water”, a phrase coined by John Anthony Allan at King’s College London, whose specialities include water issues, policy and agriculture. "Virtual water" is going to play a huge role in the 21st Century.
Governments stay in power by subsidising farmers' livelihoods, and water-deficient countries gladly import the under-priced food. (Credit: Getty Images)
If you include virtual water in the picture, farmers are managing much of the water in the supply chain. And in countries that are water deficient, that imported embedded water is integral. In Europe alone, 40% of this "virtual water" comes from outside the continent.
Here’s the problem: farmers are underpaid for the critical role in that transaction. And by the time the food reaches the destination country, its politicians use subsidies to keep food prices low. The reason? Politicians want to maintain peace among their people – they want their citizens to live under the assumption that they’ll be able go to the store and expect food on the shelves.
160 countries depend on imported food – and the water needed to make it
“Governments go to great lengths to make sure there is enough affordable food on the market,” Allan says. “There are forces in places that will bring the prices down – there’s pressure to keep food cheap."
For water-surplus countries like the United States or Canada, they sell these products to more water-deficient countries at a low price. Over 60% of the around 220 countries in the world are major food importers. In other words, 160 countries depend on imported food – and the water needed to make it.
“The world is at peace because we have virtual water trade,” says Allan. “It’s solved silently. Revealing virtual water trade as a solution is something that politicians don’t want to do because they want to appear as they’re managing their country well.”
But in reality, the water that goes into the country's food is being brought in from elsewhere. That’s why hydro-diplomacy is one of the great unsung heroes in maintaining global stability that you never hear about.
It’s also why water’s next big challenge isn’t just making sure it’s judiciously and peaceably managed between nations to accommodate the world’s ever-burgeoning population. It’s about helping farmers who live in nations that have lots of water do their jobs successfully, and manage that water and how it’s distributed to drier places.
Of course countries need low-priced food, especially in places with lower income citizens. But the public needs to know that imports, exports, and hydro-diplomacy are what really keep countries with imbalanced water sources in balance. In our globalised, 21st Century world, it's not just about where countries fall along the flow of a river. It's about working together to share Earth's most vital resource.
So while a James Bond-scale water hostage situation isn’t exactly realistic – there’s nothing unrealistic about needing to maintain worldwide access to water. Even as we use it to slake our thirst and grow our crops, the political power of water shouldn’t be forgotten. It's been around for millennia, and it's not going anywhere.
Bryan Lufkin is the editor of Future Now. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
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