A recipe for war: Soon, 40 percent of people will live in water-stressed regions

A recipe for war: Soon, 40 percent of people will live in water-stressed regions
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If the preciousness and precariousness of freshwater eludes many of us, the immediate future will likely afford far fewer that privilege of ignorance.

The annals of history, of course, are full of disputes and violent conflicts over access to freshwater. Both an impetus for violence and an instrument of war throughout the span of recorded time, water is however today behind more violence than ever, with water conflicts increasing fourfold in recent years. And in the coming years, global water crises will constitute an ever greater threat to this planet and demand the attention of nations worldwide. 


This shouldn’t come as such a surprise — freshwater is essential to all ecological and societal activities, indispensable to economic and political gains. It is also growing scarcer every year thanks to climate change and our mismanaged response. By mid-century, 40 percent of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions and competition for resources will intensify accordingly.


The growing water shortage is thus not just an urgent issue of human development and environmental sustainability, but also a threat to international security. And yet, global leaders have been woefully slow to grasp the link between water, peace, and stability.

At the recent Horasis Global Meeting, I and others took advantage of the opportunity to call for international collaboration in addressing the recent increase in water conflicts, the surge in attacks on water infrastructure, and the need for an explicit legal framework capable of holding accountable those who would use water as a weapon. 

On the issue of water, the world needs a wakeup call. But with increased awareness and decisive action there is a silver lining: as great as water’s potential is as a source and tool of conflict, it is equally capable of becoming an instrument of international peace and stability.

Water as a weapon

Before water cooperation can foster peace however, we have the moral obligation to act to protect those left vulnerable by global water crises. As humanity’s most precious resource, fresh water is easily exploited in waging war. Last year, global water think tank The Pacific Institute reported a significant uptick in attacks on water sources and infrastructure. 

According to a U.S. Homeland Security report, 25 attacks were carried out on dams worldwide from 2001 to 2011. Between 2013 and 2015, the Islamic State launched nearly 20 major attacks against Syrian and Iraqi water infrastructure, while Assad’s forces reportedly bombed water sources around Damascus to cut off water to 5.5 million people. In eastern Ukraine, water treatment workers and critical infrastructure have continually been targeted.

In the most water-stressed regions, increased tension due to growing water scarcity has led to accusations, threats and water shortages. The resulting disputes threaten to jeopardize the well-being of millions and to embroil the international community. 

An explicit legal framework for protection

The most effective means of protecting populations from attacks on water sources and infrastructure is to put in place a policy framework that will ensure perpetrators are legally answerable for such violence. Decades of international humanitarian law provide precedent, but do not go far enough.

As water-related violence becomes more and more frequent, what is required is explicit legislation from the highest levels of the UN — that is, a UN Security Council resolution that recognizes water as a vital asset of humankind and unequivocally defines attacks on water infrastructure as war crimes. The Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, in fact, advocated such a resolution in their 2017 report. The UN and nation members must heed their advice.  

Rethinking international water cooperation

With a firm and explicit security council resolution, global leaders can collectively help to mitigate the most immediate dangers posed by the global water shortage. In the long term, what is of even greater importance than protecting against water’s potential as a weapon is realizing its potential as a tool for peace. 

To the same extent states can exploit water’s scarcity to wage war, global leaders can leverage water’s preciousness to ensure stability between neighboring countries that are dependent upon shared water resources.  

It is a visionary idea, but one that’s been proven to work. The riparian nations located along the Senegal River Basin and the Gambia River Basin provide an excellent example: Instead of competing for control of limited water resources, these nations have negotiated co-ownership of water infrastructure. By surrendering sovereignty to systems of shared access and thus shared vulnerability, these neighboring states have enabled greater political stability for decades. 

And this is not an isolated success story. Through extensive analysis of 146 riparian countries, global issues think tank the Strategic Foresight Group has shown a strong correlation between water cooperation agreements and comprehensive peace. In fact, the group’s Water Cooperation Quotient demonstrates that two countries engaged in active water cooperation will not go to war, for any reason.

If transboundary sharing of water infrastructure can secure stability so effectively, what is needed is the creation of an international body capable of ensuring and facilitating water cooperation.

Administered by heads of government, this global body should work closely with riparian states, as well as existing organizations at the global and regional level. It should assist neighboring countries in developing frameworks for collectively harnessing water resources. It should help introduce cross-border water initiatives, hydroelectric power plants, navigation lines, and eco parks. To fund such projects, this global organization can aid in designing multilateral systems for public and private financing of cooperative water infrastructure.

Though water resources are unevenly distributed, and some regions are far more fortunate than others, the consequences of ever more acute freshwater shortages will be increasingly felt by all populations worldwide.

Competition for water access will continue to intensify, attacks targeting water systems will grow more frequent, and the threat to international security more grave. In the face of global water crises, we must fundamentally rethink international water cooperation and recognize water’s potential to provide a new angle for managing global politics.

Sundeep Waslekar is the co-founder and president of the Mumbai-based think tank Strategic Foresight Group, advocating for “Blue Peace,” using trans-boundary water as an instrument for international cooperation. Waslekar recently delivered a talk on "Blue Peace" at Horasis Global Meeting 2018 in Cascais, Portugal.