To War for Water?

Water. The unique element composed of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. A restless element, unstill, on the move, constantly shifting state between gas, liquid and solid. 

Water. Essential to every aspect of life on Earth. It flows across every continent, courses through every organism. Our own bodies are composed of up to 60% water. It seeps through us, hydrating our flesh; transporting our blood through capillaries, veins, arteries; sustaining the complex systems which occur beneath our everyday conscious. 

“Water is the fluid connection between humankind and every organism on Earth”

Veronia Strang (2015) WATER: NATURE AND CULTURE, p.173

Water provides us with metaphors to think with. Beyond its life-giving biological capacities, it also infuses our emotions and imaginations. It is inherently connected to religious beliefs: Sapta Sindhu are the seven rivers sacred to Hindus, personified as deities; within Christianity, water is vital, a symbol of purification used in rituals from baptisms to exorcisms; in Islam, the gift of life-sustaining water is considered a great charitable act

Every culture on Earth has its own stories, music, images, and beliefs associated with water. Water has always, and will continue to permeate our social, economic, and political practices: the human story is very much also a story of water. 

People love, worship, and fear water. We are both connected by it and have fought over it. Conflicts related to water have been waged throughout history, with the element implicated as a resource to fight for, a strategic advantage to hold onto, and/or an integral part of territorial disputes, with rivers and seas often acting as natural borders which may be contested. 

In other words, there is thought to be a fundamental connection between water and geopolitics. Yet, while it is indisputable that water holds a degree of agency over humanity, the mobility of water, its dynamism, its power are not beyond human inscription.

Thirst: Water wars in a warming world?

Earth’s finite freshwater resources are coming under increasing stress, particularly in the context of climate change. Increasing global temperatures, changes in the magnitude, frequency, and timing of precipitation, and the associated collapse of glaciers, the natural “water towers” of the world, are all expected to affect global water supply and demand patterns. 

Video explaining the distribution of water on Earth and the importance of applying a water lens.

Scarcity models of conflict predict that where water shortages in areas affected by climate change lead to a reduction in the essential resources for livelihood, internal political stability will be threatened and the interstate relationships of nations who collectively rely on transboundary water sources will deteriorate. 

Additionally, the lack of water may act as a driving force for mass migration away from particular regions, in turn creating new scarcities as these people move into territories which are similarly resource constrained, as well as potentially igniting existing tensions along ethnic and cultural lines.   

As a result, predictions of future “water wars” have become more frequent over the last few decades, with claims that water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century. In this way, water, or rather its absence, is thought to be of such significance that it will dictate future geopolitical conflict: armies will be mobilised, territory will be seized, and people will be killed all to sate the thirst driven by this element. 

In these scenarios, countries in arid and semi-arid regions, particularly the Middle East, which is already regarded as politically unstable, are identified as being the most likely to face water wars as fresh water supplies dwindle. 

Yemen is identified as one such example, with its government stating in 2015 that clashes over water were killing up to 4,000 people a year, with raids on wells and fights between armed groups over water access. Increasing water scarcity is also thought to have exacerbated tribal conflicts and amplified the rural-urban divide, contributing to the ongoing civil war in the country.  

Civilians gather around a charity water truck to fill up their jerrycans with water in Bajil, Hodeidah, Yemen, July 19 2017. Fuel shortages have affected local water corporations causing the cost of commercial water trucking, the main source of water for most Yemenis, to skyrocket, meaning they must rely on the humanitarian supplies of water imported into the Hodeidah Port, which is targeted by both sides. Source: Abduljabbar Zeyad, Reuters via Atlantic Council

However, while water scarcity has contributed to internal skirmishes, as in Yemen, no war has ever been fought between nations over water. Indeed, conflicts, including the Yemeni Civil War, are very rarely fought over one issue. Bold claims of “water wars” which establish water as the sole reason for violent armed conflict must therefore be problematised: such claims may be manipulated for political purposes to mask the wider factors which create unrest. 

Predictions of “water wars” are too often rooted in notions of environmental determinism, with geography and the elements, in this case (the lack of) water, presented as a matter beyond human control.

Yet, freshwater is not threatened by climate change induced droughts alone. Indeed, water scarcity has for the most part been driven by human factors: bad management of sources, leaks, poor or ageing infrastructures, inadequate technology, inefficient flood irrigation, rapid population growth and the associated increase in demand for food production. 

Moreover, geopolitical conflict does not just arise as a result of water scarcity, geopolitical conflict can directly influence water scarcity. Military strategies may deliberately target water storage facilities to induce water shortages or reduce the water quality of the enemy. Even where water supplies are not the direct target, they are likely to be adversely affected by war and conflict. For example, the Yemeni Civil War has seen the destruction of the country’s critical water and sanitation infrastructure, leading to a cholera health epidemic and the mass displacement of civilians, exacerbating the water crisis the country was already facing.

Ultimately, focus also needs to be placed upon the human actions and contemporary geopolitical practices which are driving water scarcity, including anthropogenic climate change, rather than simply examining and predicting the political dangers and conflicts produced by increasing water scarcity. This is critical if the root causes of water scarcity are to be addressed and therefore the frequency of future water shortages, and their associated geopolitical implications, reduced.

A man-made water crisis

For much of the Global North, freshwater reaches us through a simple turn of the tap. Water flows clean and clear into our sinks, baths, showers. While this act may appear straightforward, a myriad of processes and practices are occurring across a range of networks and scales to facilitate this flow. This assembly of connections largely remains in the background of our everyday lives. It is only when they fail that they suddenly become visible to us. 

This was the case in Flint, Michigan, where a change in drinking water supply and the resulting public health crisis led to a hyper awareness of the water which flowed through the city’s systems and which residents consumed.

The crisis, which remains ongoing, exemplified that water scarcity and water crises are not solely brought about by environmental factors such as climate change (though current climate change is of now understood to be driven by human action), but can also be man-made.

Moreover, water issues are not contained to the areas of the Global South which are understood as politically unstable: places in the Global North, such as Flint, can similarly become spaces of water scarcity, in this case as a result of pollution and mismanagement making the water unsafe.

Timeline of the Flint water crisis, detailing the key events which unfolded up to January 2016. Source: The Geopolitical Element.

The Flint crisis demonstrates how the very nature of water as a fluid able to carry and transport elements and organisms can create geopolitical ruptures. Although the crisis did not lead to violence in the form of a war, arguably a different kind of violence occurred: violence against the residents of Flint through negligence via the medium of water. 

For those living in the city, water became a danger, rather than sustaining life it poisoned it, with health consequences which will continue to be felt for years to come. Even now that measures have been taken to make the water quality safe, there is a deep distrust from residents whose concerns were ignored for months: many continue to drink bottled water rather than from their taps.

The Flint River which runs through Flint, Michigan, once known as Vehicle City due to being a leading manufacturer of cars, with General Motors founded in the city in 1908. The presence of the industry along the river led to it becoming highly polluted in the first half of the 20th century. While the 1972 US Clean Water Act vastly improved the water quality there remains elevated chloride levels in the river, largely thought to be a result of road salts. Source: Carlos Osorio, AP, via TIME

Yet, beyond the evident social implications of the Flint water crisis, what is arguably more important to consider are the political, economic, and environmental factors which created such conditions in the first place. 

The water crisis was not driven by the forces of nature but rather was brought about through human actions. The need to save money on water shaped by the economic decline of the city. The unexplained decision of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to not add anti-corrosion chemicals to the water. The refusal of the local government to recognise and address the issue sooner

In relation to this, it is important to note that the city of Flint is primarily made up by people of colour. A report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) suggests that the disparate response to the crisis found its roots in the deeply embedded institutional, systemic and historical racism that was built into the foundations and growth of Flint, its industry and the suburban area surrounding it. 

The Flint water crisis was not brought about by water in and of itself. Instead, the human agency exerted upon the water through various channels created the circumstances which led to severe consequences for the physical and psychological health of Flint’s residents.

Water futures

This entry has detailed that when considering water, particularly in the context of scarcity and security, it is crucial to examine the complex interplays between the element and geopolitics.

Secure water futures rely upon the geopolitical decisions being made in the present. Failure to enact suitable mitigation measures and prevention strategies against water scarcity will spark geopolitical consequences in the years to come. Yet these are unlikely to take the forms of the “water wars” prophesied in the 1990s, where states go to war over the precious resource as a warming world makes it ever scarcer.

Increasing water scarcity in the future will contribute to conflict, but it is unlikely to be the only, or even the main factor behind it.


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