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Water stress is a growing problem worldwide. Overuse, population growth, and climate change are contributing to desperate conditions and violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are turning scarce water into a weapon. Nowhere is this trend more visible than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region of critical importance to U.S. national security interests. The MENA region has long been prone to both cyclical and discrete periods of droughts. There is mounting evidence suggesting that climate change, by driving significant winter precipitation decline, is increasing the frequency and severity of these events.
Climate change impacts that affected Syria could be a harbinger for other countries in the region. The connection between climate change and Syrian instability was first raised by our colleagues Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell in 2012, and confirmed by climate scientist and Center for Climate and Security Senior Fellow, Colin P. Kelley, and his colleagues, who linked the consequential 2007-2010 drought to a long-term warming trend in the eastern Mediterranean (finding that the drought was made 2-3 times more likely due to climate change).. Drought conditions as well as poorly-designed and discriminatory water policies implemented by the Assad regime and the Alawite elite were also factors that contributed to societal instability at the onset of the Syrian civil war. The regional climate model ALADIN corroborates previous studies projecting that the MENA region will continue to be a global hotspot for drought into the late twenty-first century.(more…)
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.(more…)
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.(more…)
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.