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Op-Ed: Water Scarcity Brings New Political Tensions

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Chennai residents wait for water, June 2019 (file image via social media)

By The Strategist 01-28-2020 08:31:00

[By Connor Dilleen]

The link between climate change and human security has been on the global security radar for decades. Researchers have long understood how and why the earth’s climate is changing and what these changes mean for human and environmental systems. But the tenor of analysis of the implications of climate change has intensified in recent years as the scale of change and the enormity of the challenges facing humanity become clear.

The most critical element of the human security dimension of climate change is water security. As noted in the World Bank’s 2016 report on global water:

"The impacts of climate change will be channeled primarily through the water cycle … Water-related climate risks cascade through food, energy, urban, and environmental systems. Growing populations, rising incomes, and expanding cities will converge upon a world where the demand for water rises exponentially, while supply becomes more erratic and uncertain."

This assessment is particularly troubling because the amount of available fresh water per capita has already declined by more than half since 1960, and demand for fresh water is expected to exceed supply by around 40 percent by 2030.

New research indicating that 80 percent of high-altitude snow and ice will be gone by 2100 if the world continues along its current path, affecting 1.9 billion people and half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, suggests that the global problem of water scarcity is rapidly becoming more acute. This research identified the transboundary Indus River basin—which serves densely populated and heavily irrigated regions of China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan—as one of the most vulnerable systems.

For India and Pakistan—nuclear-weapon states already at odds over a number of issues—the significance of this could be devastating. Since 1960, tensions between the two countries over water have been managed through the Indus Waters Treaty, which has been assessed as the most successful water-sharing mechanism of recent times.

The problem is that the Indus Waters Treaty—and other treaties like it—are under pressure from the forces of climate change and population growth and from regressive policy approaches to water security. The commitment of states party to these treaties is wavering as they increasingly act unilaterally to protect declining water resources.

For India, climate change means that the question of water security is becoming an existential one. The figures are staggering: 330 million people—a quarter of the country’s population—are already affected by severe drought conditions. Analysis from 2018 predicted that Delhi along with 20 other major cities would run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting access for 100 million people. By 2030 the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply. India’s population is predicted to surpass China’s by 2030 before hitting a peak of around 1.68 billion by the middle of the century, further straining available water supplies.

Pakistan also faces a dire future of overpopulation combined with severe water scarcity. The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources predicts that Pakistan could face absolute water scarcity by 2025. Pakistan’s population has increased more than six-fold since 1951, and will increase further from around 208 million in 2017 to over 400 million by 2050.

These pressures are now manifest in several ways. Both Delhi and Islamabad are focusing on either finding unilateral solutions to their impending water crises, deflecting blame for gross mismanagement of water resources, or seeking to weaponise water resources in their conflicts with their neighbours. India has already raised the stakes by threatening to cut off the flow of water in the Indus River basin to Pakistan in response to terrorist attacks conducted by Pakistan-based militants.

Worryingly, the case of Pakistan, India and the failing Indus Waters Treaty is just one example of how the intersection of worsening water scarcity—driven by climate change, overtaxed groundwater supplies and growing populations—and politics is pushing countries to the brink of conflict over water.

Globally, tension over shared water resources is increasingly featuring in communal and interstate relations: China, India and Bangladesh are locked in a dispute over the Brahmaputra; China is also at odds with its southern neighbours over the Mekong Delta; dam-building on the Nile by Ethiopia has created a risk of war with Egypt; and Turkey, Syria and Iraq are increasingly at odds over the Tigris–Euphrates.

A key problem is that, while about 60 percent of global fresh water is supplied by the transboundary river basins, only around 40 percent of these basins are governed by a framework for dispute resolution. Climate change, combined with asymmetrical population growth, is further undermining the likelihood that signatories to water treaties will continue to be bound by them.

As the World Bank report notes:

"If current water management policies persist, and climate models prove correct, water scarcity will proliferate to regions where it currently does not exist, and will greatly worsen in regions where water is already scarce.’ But the problems facing the world’s freshwater supplies are also being exacerbated by politicking and denial by countries that are either withdrawing from global climate accords or fudging their commitment to those agreements."

The increasingly fractured global polity, where the global rules-based order is being challenged by countries pursuing zero-sum goals, Hunger Games–style policymaking across a range of economic, environmental and strategic issues will likely limit progress on water security. It will limit the space for cooperative management of shared water resources at a time when water scarcity is becoming more prevalent; it will reduce the prospects for countries to take meaningful and concerted action to restrain the anthropogenic causes of global warming; and it will fuel tensions between states.

One only has to examine the situation in India and Pakistan, and in the Middle East and the Nile Delta, to predict how these tensions will play out in the many countries challenged by worsening water scarcity.

Connor Dilleen has worked for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of National Assessments. He currently works for Australia’s privacy regulator. This article represents the author’s personal views and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian government.

This article appears courtesty of ASPI's The Strategist blog, and it may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.