Of all the natural resources the Earth offers, water is the most indispensable. And while globally water is not in short supply, local shortages of fresh, clean water are a major, and growing, problem.
Recently, the Economist published an article on the phenomenon of water wars. In previous decades, many feared that regional powers like India, Pakistan, China and Egypt would take military measures against their rivals in a bid for water supremacy. Fortunately, many of the anticipated conflicts over water haven’t occurred. Nonetheless, data from the Water Conflict Chronology database shows that the total number of water conflicts has increased significantly.
Looking at the numbers makes the sheer scale of the global water challenge clear. According to the 2018 SDG 6 Synthesis Report:
Most of these people live in regions where the population and cities are growing, or in regions where most people work in agriculture – the biggest water user. In Afghanistan, for example, this sector is responsible for 95 per cent of total water use. Climate change is compounding the challenges these regions already face. Prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall, flooding and extreme weather events are all making water governance far more difficult.
Managing challenges like urbanisation, intensive farming and climate change is hard enough in stable situations, let alone in fragile regions – where systems and societies are far less resilient to drastic change. There, it’s hard for people to change the way they live and the jobs they do. There, political and social systems are rigid, and environmental crises like water shortages can cause severe shocks.
The situation in Syria is a case in point. Water scarcity and excessive use of groundwater for irrigation played a central role in destabilising the country. While this was of course far from the only cause of the civil war, unsustainable water use and the policies that promoted it brought the country to the brink. A drought pushed them over the edge, leading many Syrians to migrate from rural areas to the cities in search of work. This exodus further destabilised the already tense situation. Growing food shortages and the ensuing price hikes sparked the fire that engulfed Syria in flames.
This is a truly global crisis. In the words of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, it’s ‘a problem without a passport.’ But it’s affecting states in different ways, and some are coping better than others. Lebanon and Jordan face the same levels of water stress as Syria, but have remained relatively stable.
What can we learn from this?
First of all, that water stress does not have to lead to destabilisation. Water scarcity is never the only cause of instability or conflict. But it is one of the strongest threat multipliers in fragile situations. It reduces resilience, and can push desperate people over the edge.
Secondly, escalation is preventable and manageable. This allows us to offer hope. Water scarcity doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a crisis that develops slowly. This means there’s time to respond before it’s too late. If we can predict where problems might occur, and can organise action, we can stop threats from becoming crises. This is difficult, because droughts – due to their drawn-out nature – don’t trigger the same political response as floods. But it’s possible.
Thirdly, in order to manage these challenges effectively, we need to invest in innovative, data-driven solutions. These will allow us to predict, prepare for and prevent crises. We can predict them by investing in new tools for early warning that analyse root causes of conflict like water stress and climate change. By training local actors to understand the nexus between water and security, we can effectively prepare, prevent and adapt.
For all of this to be effective, we need to mobilise resources for early action.
Prevention isn’t easy. It requires foresight and patience, especially when threats seem too remote to be credible. Prevention takes courage. It requires new partnerships between humanitarian and development organisations, and between diplomacy and defence.
The Economist article I cited earlier concludes on a cynical note. Water wars have continued to happen, it says, and repeated forecasts have done nothing to reduce their number. I dare to be more optimistic. Tools alone don’t prevent conflicts, but our decisions do. Now that our tools are improving, we, the international community, still face the same choice: are we ready and willing to take the necessary preventive action? By launching this tool, the Netherlands is taking a first step, putting our money where our mouth is. But more needs to be done.
I hope that together, we can meet this challenge.
By Sigrid Kaag,
Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation.