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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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Lack of Discussion of Climate Change Effects on Federal Water Infrastructure

State of the InfrastructureBy Dr. Marc Kodack  

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) released a joint report at the end of 2019 on their water-related infrastructure that went largely unnoticed. Notably, however, the report omits discussion of climate change implications for this aging infrastructure. The report includes infrastructure that the two entities collaboratively operate, as well as respective programs for “power generation, water supply, navigation, flood risk reduction, [and] recreation.” While the benefits and challenges to different types of infrastructure are summarized in the first section of the report – e.g., dams, hydropower facilities, navigation (ports, locks, and dredging), canals and pipelines, bridges and roads, levees –  climate change is inexplicably not mentioned as being a challenge to infrastructure. Thus, there is no consideration of the consequences of climate change effects on any of this infrastructure (see here for effects to interstate highway bridges). (more…)

New Water and Drought Tools Help Forecast Climate and Security Risks

USGS Mapping Tool_2020By Marc Kodack

Ready, easy access to timely water-related information is a benefit to any community because the information can provide current conditions and/or short-term forecast estimates. The information may provide forewarning to impending conditions that may adversely affect people and/or property. Baseline conditions may also be established from which changes over time can be determined.

The U.S. Geological Survey has released a new mapping tool that shows daily natural water storage for 110,000 sub-regions in the lower 48 states relative to historical conditions for the same time of year. “Natural water storage…includes water present on the landscape such as standing water and water on trees, snowpack, soil water, and shallow groundwater. It does not include water in rivers or deep groundwater.” (more…)

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