The challenges of global water supply and demand


The nexus of the environment and conflict — that is, environmental security — has become an important paradigm in national security planning. Indeed, Kaplan suggests that water and other environmental factors represent the core foreign policy challenge in this century. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) reinforced this notion when it identified environmental factors and resource scarcity as important features of the national security landscape. The DoD suggests that national security affairs may no longer just be about armies and weapons; but instead, climate, resources and demographics may now be viewed as being equally important as traditional elements of national power (Butts 2011).

Environmental security refers to a broad range of security issues exacerbated by environmental factors and suggests that environmental stress has the potential to destabilize states and trigger violent conflict (Galgano and Krakowka 2011). Water is a particularly challenging factor in the environmental security milieu because it is an essential resource, and the fresh water supply problem only promises to intensify in a greenhouse world. Increases in global population and the attendant economic demands this growth engenders means that the pressure placed on freshwater resources will grow inexorably. About 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and this number is likely to grow to nearly 3 billion by 2050 (Gleick 2012). In places that are conflict-prone and vulnerable to water shortages, such as the Middle East, climate change could seriously affect regional stability (Femina and Werrell 2014).

To further complicate this problem, 60 percent of the world’s population lives in crowded water basins shared by multiple states — many of whom are failing, congenital enemies, or both (Postel and Wolf 2001). This is a compelling problem from a national security perspective because most of the world’s largest river systems are shared by multiple states. Thus, the possibility of water wars resonates throughout the contemporary national security literature (Diehl and Gleditsch 2001; Gray 2009; Femina and Werrell 2012; DoD 2014).

The U.S. National Intelligence Council warns that the likelihood of water-related conflict will increase during the coming decades (Conca 2006). Nevertheless, many water scholars dismiss this suggestion as exaggerated, and history appears to support their position. An examination of some 1,000 international water-related crises during the past 50 years suggests that two–thirds were resolved by cooperative means. This implies that water disputes are not likely to lead to warfare; rather, states tend to resolve these disputes through economic agreements, technological solutions, and diplomacy (Fagan 2011). However, this study argues that the security landscape has changed profoundly, and the history of cooperative water–conflict resolution is no longer a reliable guide to the future. The acceptance of the relationship between water and conflict is gaining momentum, and a number of experts now acknowledge that water wars are certainly plausible; especially if we persist in denying the seriousness of the water crisis in key regions (Soffer 1999; Pearce 2006; Trondalen 2009; IPCC 2014).


Frank Galgano

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