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Why Water Conflict is Rising, Especially on the Local Level

By Peter Schwartzstein

That future wars will be fought over water, rather than oil, has become something of a truism, particularly with regard to the Middle East. It’s also one that most water experts have refuted time and time and time again. But while this preference for cooperation over conflict may (and emphasis on may) remain true of interstate disputes, this blanket aversion to the ‘water wars’ narrative fails to account for the rash of other water-related hostilities that are erupting across many of the world’s drylands. As neither full-on warfare nor issues that necessarily resonate beyond specific, sometimes isolated areas, these ‘grey zone’ clashes don’t seem to be fully registering in the broader discussion of water conflicts. In failing to adequately account for the volume of localized violence, the world is probably chronically underestimating the extent to which water insecurity is already contributing to conflict.

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U.S. National Intelligence Council: Global Water Insecurity to Increase Over the Next 30 Years

By Dr. Marc Kodack

Responding to a Congressional request, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) recently released an unclassified memo from July (here) examining global water security over the next 30 years. The NIC examined multiple variables including economic, agricultural, and environmental. Countries that are unable to provide sufficient water for their populations will experience lowered public health, reduced gross domestic production, decreases in economic well-being, and break-downs in political relationships. Transboundary water issues may become more common potentially leading to increased tensions between countries. All these consequences will be further amplified by the effects of climate change pressing against water security. As the memo notes: “multiple climate change models indicate increasing variability, intensity, and occurrence of droughts and floods.” These models forecast reductions in rainfall and increased temperatures leading to greater evaporation rates. Extreme weather will become more common leading greater chances of damage and destruction.

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Why the Nile Constitutes a New Kind of Water Dispute – and Why That’s Dangerous

Nile_River_Delta_at_NightBy Peter Schwartzstein

Ever since workers first broke ground on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, international commenters have fixated on the Nile as a possible harbinger of future ‘water wars’ to come. And almost since then, water experts have pushed back against that narrative. There’s no reason for such giddy pessimism, they say. Nor does precedent support the likelihood of conflict. As Addis Ababa and downstream Cairo have slowly hashed out most of the technical details, they’ve so far been proven right.

But though this dispute’s potential to spark inter-state violence may have been overstated thus far, at least for the near-term, the Nile and its GERD lightning rod nevertheless offer an alarming insight into just how dangerous future transboundary water disputes are liable to become, particularly in the context of a changing climate. This might be the new normal. Because while most previous cross-border water wrangles played out among neighbors with histories of water woes or sudden supply shocks, many current disputes are ensnaring a much broader, significantly less experienced, and worryingly ill-prepared cast of riparian states.

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The New Water Development Report and Implications for Security

WWDR 2020 CoverBy Dr. Marc Kodack

Climate change has and will continue to have both direct and indirect effects around the world. Changes in water will be one of the most visible direct effects, whether it is too little water, such as during prolonged droughts; too much, such as flooding caused by sea-level rise or tropical storms; or misaligned timing, such as when seasonal rains are early or late. Across numerous societies, the climate change-water interaction will be disruptive, but through mitigation and adaptation actions, this interaction can at least be ameliorated. However, these disruptions will also have significant security implications locally, regionally, and globally depending on their intensity, spatial extent, and longevity, and due to their disproportionate effects on different segments of societies. This deteriorating security environment is very likely to increase the vulnerability of affected populations, enhance inequities, and interfere with mitigation and adaptation actions, which will prolong instability. Thus, any security analysis must integrate the effects of climate change on water, and its attendant effects on the vulnerability of populations, to capture a true picture of the security environment. Resources like the newly-released World Water Development Report (WWDR), titled “Water and Climate Change,” should therefore be taken very seriously by the security community.

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