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Water scarcity has the potential to both ignite conflict and foster cooperation

  • Written by  Jacob Dykes
  • Published in Water
Water scarcity has the potential to both ignite conflict and foster cooperation
14 Apr
 Water scarcity is predicted to rise – two experts share their predictions for the future 

Global demand for water is set to increase with economic and population growth. Yet, under predicted climate scenarios, freshwater availability will become increasingly unpredictable, even diminishing in some regions. To resolve water scarcities, states that share supplies could foster greater co-operation, but they could also resort to conflict.

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Predicting how issues of water scarcity might pan out is the job of security analysts. One such, Michael Klare, professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and author of Cold Blooded Oil, thinks that climate change could act as a ‘threat multiplier’ of interstate conflict. ‘Climate change is going to severely reduce resource availability – especially that of water and arable land,’ he says. ‘Unless you have fair and equitable governance, it will excite long-simmering hostilities.’ 

In a recent review for the Journal of International Security, Klare pinpoints the transboundary river systems originating in the Himalaya as a primary concern. The Indus and Brahmaputra rivers flow through India, China and Pakistan. Heavy rains provide water for these rivers during the monsoon season from June to September; but as the dry season begins in November, some 1.35 billion people come to depend on glacial meltwater. Problematically, the Himalayan glaciers are retreating as the climate warms. ‘We know that these glaciers are likely to disappear by the end of the century,’ Klare says. ‘In the short term, there are going to be increased landslides and flooding from glacial lakes. But in the longer term, the contribution of glacial meltwater to the river systems is going to be varied and diminished. If upstream states try to divert river flow and monopolise the water supply, the consequences for those downstream will be catastrophic.’ 

Most of Pakistan’s water comes from just one source: the Indus River. Klare believes that if India were to exploit its upstream position on three of the river’s tributaries – the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej – the negative effects of climate change on Pakistani agriculture would be multiplied. 

Squabbles have already arisen. Indian leaders have threatened to dam the three rivers in response to Pakistani attacks on Indian bases in the disputed territory of Kashmir. ‘When [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi seized control of Kashmir [in 2019], there was speculation that it was motivated by future water security,’ says Klare.

Attention has also refocused on Sino-Indian relations, particularly following skirmishes in 2020 along the so-called Line of Actual Control between India and China. The Brahmaputra River flows through Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed by both countries. Klare is concerned that if China were to divert the Brahmaputra’s flow in response to climate-induced water scarcity, India would have less water available, threatening agricultural output. He isn’t alone. A report prepared by security analyst Mark Christopher for the US-based Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups concludes that ‘as the upper riparian state, China is able to make decisions that directly affect the volume of water available to its downstream neighbours’. 

In December, after hearing reports of Chinese plans to build a hydropower project on the Brahmaputra, India announced its own plans to construct a multipurpose reservoir in Arunachal Pradesh, which the Times of India reported ‘will offset the impact of the dam on the Chinese side’.

More optimistically, riparian states could co-operate to resolve the water stresses of climate change. One recent study shows that in the 310 international river basins globally, co-operation to resolve water scarcity issues has been more common than conflict, but the authors point to missing data. ‘Key knowledge gaps remain, particularly with respect to transboundary water conflict and co-operation in the past 10–15 years,’ they write.

Lucas Beck, an expert on the geopolitics of hydrology at ETH Zürich, thinks that concerns over water scarcity are justified, but that the multifaceted nature of conflicts shouldn’t be forgotten. ‘In my view, climate change adds more tensions to difficult scenarios, but conflict is really a combination of important issues such as ethnic and social discord, and opposing political ideologies, for example,’ he says. ‘Water stress could actually be a catalyst to resolve divisions and problems.’ Beck cites his work in Lebanon, which helped to bring 15 ethnic groups together to manage the water supply from a number of rivers. 

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) – a co-operative agreement designed to allocate the River Nile’s water among ten member states, is another successful example of the early establishment of a political framework to respond to water stress. ‘The NBI has already been quite successful in bringing countries together,’ says Klare. 

Despite his concerns about future conflict, Klare hopes that co-operation will prevail. Currently, however, both he and Beck find it difficult to be optimistic about future scenarios involving India, China and Pakistan – countries with a history of ethnic violence and multiple disputed territories.

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