Due to the changing climate, countries and regions around the world are now facing water shortages, and these shortages increases the risks of conflict in the future.
Before COVID-19 tore through India, the country and its political leaders were dealing with agricultural reform that erupted in protests against the ruling government. India is home to about a quarter of the world’s population, with 1.36 Billion people, yet only has 4% of the world’s water supply. In order to meet their water needs, India extracts water from the ground, with 90 percent of it used for agriculture.
In the state of Punjab, the government encouraged farmers to grow wheat and rice in the 1960s, and has been buying the crops at fixed prices in order to build up national stockpiles. Along with the free electricity to run well pumps, these policies led to farmers increasing their rice production. But climate change has led to less water flowing into nearby rivers due to unpredictable rains. It has also made the region hotter, so more water is lost due to evaporation. Growing rice is extremely water intensive as 500 gallons of water is needed to yield one pound of rice.
The only way farmers area able to receive water for their crops is to dig deeper into the ground to find deeper groundwater reserves. But in order to extract deeper pumps, farmers needed to install bigger pumps, which cost up to $6,000 per pump. Along with purchasing expensive fertilizers, the raising costs have no pushed many farmers into debt, which led to the protests.
In addition to it’s internal struggles with water, India is also facing water conflicts with neighboring China and Pakistan. In late 2020, after border skirmishes between troops, China raised the tensions by stating that it may build a “super dam” in a river that runs through India. By damming the river, China would have enormous leverage over India, and could cause catastrophic damage if they suddenly released the water.
On the other side of the country, India has previously threatened Pakistan of cutting the water that runs through it in retaliation of terrorist attacks in India. As the New York Times reported at the time, “A full-blown water war could be catastrophic o the hundreds of millions of people in India and Pakistan who depend on river water.”
Underlying all of these issues in South Asia and the lack of water is the impact of climate change on the glaciers in the Himalayas. According to a study in 2019, the rate of glacier retreat in the Himalayas has doubled in the 21st century. Around 800 million people depend on the runoff from the Himalayas glaciers each year for irrigation, hydropower, and drinking water. As climate change impacts the glaciers, there is simply less water for the entire region.
The water shortage isn’t just limited to the South Asia region. Taiwan is currently dealing with its worst drought in 56 years, with water reservoirs at less than 20% capacity. With Taiwan being the global manufacturer of computer chips, the industry has been forced to shut down due to water, leading to a global chip shortage. The BBC reported that one of the primary water sources for the semiconductor industry was only 7% full, the lowest level it has ever been.
Europe and the United States
Meanwhile in Europe, the continent saw a devastating drought in 2018 and 2019, which were “unprecedented in the last 250 years, with substantial implications for vegetation health.” Droughts in the 21st century have caused estimated losses of 100 billion euros and could be up to 7 times worse in the second half of the century. In France, the environment ministry estimates that precipitation in the country will decline between 16 to 23 percent in the next 50 years, with river flows falling between 10 to 40 percent.
In the United States, Puerto Rico had to ration water in 2020 due to severe drought on the island, with some residents only having access to water every other day. About 2.2 million people across the United States don’t have running water, such as some households in West Virginia that rely on local creeks that may run dry due to climate change.
The Western United States is facing a severe drought, leading to high risks of wildfires this summer. Some farmers in Idaho are considering selling off livestock due to the lack of water in rivers and reservoirs that supply their farms. The same is happening in Sacramento, California, as former reduce the acreage on food crops due to lack of water.
The Los Angeles Times came out with a strong editorial basically saying that these drought conditions are now the norm in California and that the state must prepare for these new conditions.
Future conflicts will be based on water, not oil
As water resources become strained around the world, conflict between nations, tribes, and neighbors could potentially increase, as Vice President Kamala Harris mentioned.
The trend toward conflict is already rising. According to the Water Conflict Chronology, there were 466 reported incidents regarding water conflict between 2010 – 2019, up from the 220 reported incidents in the previous decade.
An example of how water scarcity leads to conflict was highlighted in the New York Times in October 2020. Farmers in Mexico armed themselves with homemade weapons and seized control of a local dam that was sending water to the United States.
The Mexican government was sending water — their water — to Texas, leaving them next to nothing for their thirsty crops, the farmers said. So they took over the dam and have refused to allow any of the water to flow to the United States for more than a month.
“This is a war,” said Victor Velderrain, a grower who helped lead the takeover, “to survive, to continue working, to feed my family.”
The standoff is the culmination of longstanding tensions over water between the United States and Mexico that have recently exploded into violence, pitting Mexican farmers against their own president and the global superpower next door.
There is also some research that connected drought in Syria to the ongoing conflict. As the Smithsonian reported, “a devastating drought beginning in 2006 forced many farmers to abandon their fields and migrate to urban centers. There’s some evidence that the migration fueled the civil war there, in which 80,000 people have died.”
Over two billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, and with the impact of a changing climate, those numbers will be going up. The stress and strains to a community from a lack of water can quickly overwhelm governments and create new members for insurgent or extremist groups.
It’s important for individuals and organizations to be aware of these new conditions surrounding the climate. Past climate patters and rainfall totals can no longer be considered accurate, and everyone’s risk calculations must take these changes into consideration. Decisions regarding your business and your family can no longer rely upon past climate conditions. You must be prepared to adjust and adapt to the new environment.
As the LA Times editorial stated, “We have to build, and grow, and legislate, and consume for the world as it is, not as we may remember it.”