Climate change, often regarded as byproduct of modern industrial society, has gradually transformed into a challenge with global ramification. The most concerning factor regarding climate change is the unpredictable nature of consequences it can cause. One of the grave impacts of climate change is the depleting fresh water resources available to humanity. The Earth’s surface is predominantly covered with water, accounting for approximately 70 percent of its total area. Within this vast water coverage, a staggering 97 percent is composed of saltwater found in the Earth’s oceans while only 3 percent is fresh water. This 3 percent is distributed among various sources, with the majority, approximately 69 percent, residing in glaciers and about 30 percent is situated underground. The remaining fraction, less than 1 percent, can be found in lakes, rivers, and swamps. This suggests that mere 0.33 percent of planet’s fresh water is directly available to humanity and other animal life forms. To put into perspective, if the world’s water supply was 100 liters, then usable fresh water supply would be mere 0.003 litre (one-half teaspoon approximately).
According to the United Nations, by 2025, two-thirds of the global population could be living under water-stressed conditions and around 1.8 billion people will be living in areas with absolute water stress. The depletion of fresh water sources is generating friction between nations and thus increasing the risks of water wars in vulnerable regions.
Conflict over water is not a new phenomenon and over 1298 conflicts over water have been recorded in human history. In modern times, factors like climate change, expansion of population, and shrinkage of water sources have further increased the likelihood of water-conflicts. There are growing concerns that the competition over water sources will yield conflicts between nations in near future. There are four regions in particularly, including South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, and North-East Africa, which are highly vulnerable to water induced conflicts. Besides suffering from water scarcity, these regions are under-developed and have history of political instability and mutual hostilities.
Perhaps the biggest flash point of water wars is South Asia, or more specifically India and Pakistan. Both nations, being the second and fifth most populated countries in world, are overwhelming dependent on rivers emerging from Himalayan Glaciers. These glaciers, located in territorially disputed Kashmir region, have the most snow covered land area after Antarctica and Arctic. Melting of ice due to global warming on one side has increased the intensity of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF), while on other side it has significantly reduced the volume of frozen water deposits in Himalayan region.
The Indus Water Treaty (1960), which delineates the sharing of the Indus River’s waters between the two nations, has historically maintained a fragile equilibrium. However, with growing shortage of fresh water and subsequent construction of new dams by India at Indus upstream, occasional tensions and lack of co-operation regarding treaty have been observed between New Delhi and Islamabad. With disputed Kashmir region still awaiting resolution, any water-crisis can further exacerbate already strained relations between both nuclear armed neighbors. Under current circumstances, it’s highly probable that South Asian region will be at the verge of water-war in near future if both nations failed to undertake credible Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) regarding water resources.
In Central Asia, the climate change, coupled with growing populations, has also intensified competition over shared water resources. The construction of upstream dams by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, under the rubric of hydroelectric development, has raised concerns about downstream water availability for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The drying-up of Aral Sea and gradual reduction of water in Caspian Sea is exacerbating the water-crisis further. Similarly, the fertile land of densely populated Ferghana Valley, known for its near perfect faming conditions, is now heading towards desertification primarily due to global warming. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan converge in this valley which is gradually becoming a flash-point for water-based conflict. In April 2021, a border clash erupted between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan over dispute of irrigation water distribution. The conflict killed 40 people and displaced more than 30,000 residents. The confrontation stopped after Russia led diplomatic settlement but the core issue still persists.
With 61 percent population living in high water stress areas, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the most water scare region in the world. Approximately 60 percent of fresh water resources in MENA region flows across international border, and thus is source of political tensions between states already suffering from water scarcity and political instability. Against this backdrop, Euphrates and Tigris Rivers which are critical source of water for Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, have strained relations since 1960. Factors like erratic weather patterns, global warming, increasing population, and uncoordinated water management projects, are diminishing fresh water availability in Euphrates-Tigris basin. Instead of crafting a equitable and sustainable trans-border agreement for countering water deficiency, the four riparian stated have securitized water relations with neighboring countries. As a result, the risk of regional water-induced conflicts has increased substantially.
Moreover, militancy in region has also significantly contributed in intensification of water related crisis. For example, in 2014, attempts by ISIS to use Mosel Dam at Tigris River in Iraq for Hydro-Terrorism was also timely thwarted by security forces and a major water-disaster was successfully averted. Similarly, few months ago a border conflict ignited between security forces of Iran and Afghanistan in Zabu district of Sistan. The major cause of military clash was distribution of Helmand River water which flows from Afghanistan into Iran. Being among the most effected region of climate changes, both nations are vulnerable to frequent and intense droughts. Persistence of political instability and lack of co-operation has undermined the prospects of resolution of water issue in these regions.
In North-East Africa, the Nile water crisis has the potential to ignite a multifaceted conflict involving Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan due to their overwhelming dependence on the Nile River’s waters. Ethiopia’s construction of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has raised concerns in Egypt and Sudan as both are concerned over potential reductions in downstream water flow. In particular, Egypt, historically reliant on the Nile’s waters, views the GERD as a direct threat to its water security. In recent past, Egypt has even threatened military action against GERD if Ethiopia fails to address Cairo’s concerns. Despite several negotiation efforts, these African nations have failed to agree on a mutually acknowledged framework regarding distribution of Nile water.
Israel is often regarded as benchmark for overcoming the shortage of fresh water. Once a country suffering from acute fresh water shortage, Israel now has ample fresh water availability to meet the domestic, agricultural and industrial requirements. Israel achieved this fate by building robust water Desalination infrastructure. However, Israel’s example cannot be used as a template for highly populated regions with varying geopolitical and demographic dynamics.
Technological advancements have provided new solutions for conservation of new water resources. Beside desalination, many similar water conservation technologies like, drip irrigation, fog & rain water harvesting, nano-filtration, and aquifer recharge etc. have been developed to extract, purify, and store fresh water. However, adaptation of these technologies on national scale is very expensive and, therefore, beyond the economic capacity of majority of developing nations.
Abruptly changing weather patterns are disturbing water cycle and rapidly declining availability of fresh water. The intensifying water scarcity can potentially act as conflict flashpoint with far reaching consequences. Therefore, it’s crucial that international society should realize the magnitude of problem and adapt to the changing realities of a warming planet. Collaborative efforts are essential to; undertaking scientific research for finding affordable and innovative technological solutions, water diplomacy for establishing effective water-sharing agreements, and adopting water-saving practices for sustainability of fresh water resources. If humanity fails to timely resolve this issue, it will not only undermine the global strategic stability, but will also threaten our existence as modern civilization.