The shortage of water around the world increasingly presents a geopolitical and security issue as well as an environmental one.
Across the world, record heatwaves, dry seasons and unseasonable warmth are wreaking havoc on water supplies. Many areas of the world find themselves in drought conditions the likes of which they have not seen in decades, if not on record. Water scarcity is emerging as one of the most significant geopolitical issues of the 21st century. Dire UN predictions suggest that up to five billion people could face water shortages by 2050 as a result of climate change. Meanwhile, disputes over water supplies are fuelling regional tensions. Sometimes termed ‘hydropolitics’, tensions between governments over increasingly scarce water sources are becoming more pronounced.
Hydropolitics across the world
An example of this is disagreements about the allocation of water from the Nile river, a crucial source of water in the northeast of Africa. Several nations rely on the Nile as their primary source of water, namely Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. A large-scale dam project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), is at the centre of the current dispute. The dam is a statement of Ethiopia’s ambition as a nation, providing not only a source of water but also for a large amount of electricity, increasing the nation’s ability to export energy to nearby neighbours. Egyptians, 95% of whom live on the banks or around the Nile river, see the river as vital to the country’s survival. Apart from the Nile, Egypt is among the most water-poor countries in the world. Any changes in the flow of water downstream into Egypt would imperil the country’s population and economy.
The increasing scarcity of water also poses national security problems in some instances. Pakistan faces a potential crisis as water supplies dwindle, urbanisation increases rapidly and a corrupt bureaucracy mismanages the supplies that are still available. Even the water that remains is becoming increasingly contaminated. In Sindh, Pakistan’s second-most populous region, over 80% of the water is unfit for human consumption. As in many other cases, the causes of this problem are political as much as they are environmental. The chronic instability of Pakistani politics has exacerbated the issue greatly. In Sindh, contradictory messages have been sent out about the issue. The Chief Minister of the region made clear his intent to tackle water shortages as a priority issue. The Governor of Sindh, however, argued that securing the water supply was a ‘low priority’ issue, claiming that tackling terrorism was more pertinent.
If these problems are not confronted quickly, geopolitical crises the world over will exacerbate and multiply. This is particularly true in areas such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) which are traditionally hot and dry. As natural water sources dry up, people in these areas will inevitably migrate to areas with more plentiful water supplies, creating more mass movements of people which the world is ill-equipped to deal with.
What can be done about the problem?
Though the situation is severe, and likely to get worse, there are solutions, or at least ways to manage and alleviate these water shortages. One of these solutions is water desalination. Water desalination is the process of removing salt and minerals from seawater to make it safe for human consumption. Though expensive, desalination plants are growing in popularity. The increasing efficiency of the technology used for desalination has made what was once a niche water conservation tool more palatable for widespread use. Desalination has become a significant source of water in some countries already, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. This trend will likely continue as desalination technology becomes more necessary, as well as the cost of the technology becoming cheaper.
Another potential solution is through solar-based technology. Solar-powered water treatment plants, using similar technology to desalination plants, have been trialled in various countries including India with success. The difference between the solar-based plants and the larger desalination plants, aside from being powered by renewable energy, is the scalability of the plants themselves. The plants, designed by Manik Joly, CEO of Grassroots and Rural Innovative Development (GRID) have changed the fortunes of many North Indian villages, such as Ugalan. Ugalan and other villages previously had highly contaminated water, among the least safe in the entire country. As a result of the power plants, the village now has clean, safe water to use, as well as extra employment for villagers to operate the plant. Advances in water irrigation technology can also be utilised for more efficient irrigation and farming to conserve water. Precision irrigation, that is, giving crops the exact amount of water necessary for optimal growth is central among these solutions. Depending on the crop, deficit irrigation, that is, giving the crops slightly less water than necessary for ‘optimal’ growth can occur. Even with a moderate level of deficit irrigation, in many cases crops will grow to almost their optimal level.
Why aren’t these solutions being pursued?
These problems, as has been shown, do have solutions in many cases. What will prove to be more difficult, however, is finding the political willpower to implement these solutions. For one, the price tag for many of these solutions is quite high. This is a difficult enough challenge for wealthy nations to overcome, whose governments are reticent to spend big on projects such as water desalination. Despite there being a clear benefit to doing this, the benefits are not immediate – for most governments, who only think in terms of the current electoral cycle, if even that long, larger infrastructure projects requiring a commitment of years or even decades is unlikely. This is part of the reason for the widely-reported water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa over the last year. In Cape Town, planning between the national government of South Africa and the governing bodies in Cape Town broke down, exacerbating the crisis.
A related problem which many governments will have to tackle are subsidies for water usage, particularly the inefficient use of water for the growth of certain crops. By making water cheaper for farming and industrial use, in many cases there is a disincentive to use water efficiently and in an environmentally responsible manner. Wastage is high, as is the level of pollution in water supplies. The subsidised price of water also often disproportionately benefits landowners. The less well off in society, despite often being the target of such subsidies, do not receive any real benefit. Any proposals to reduce water subsidies, of course, are politically perilous. There would undoubtedly be significant resistance to reducing subsidies. Finding the balance between social, environmental, and business interests is a difficult but necessary task for governments.
“By making water cheaper for farming and industrial use, in many cases there is a disincentive to use water efficiently and in an environmentally responsible manner”
In other cases, the solutions required are nigh on completely unaffordable, even if the political will is there for such projects. In several Middle Eastern nations, such as Yemen and Syria, building the infrastructure necessary to ensure a plentiful supply of water is currently untenable. The instability in these countries makes the planning for such long-term and expensive projects unfeasible. Even if construction were to begin, such projects would be prime targets for terrorist attacks. Furthermore, large parts of Yemen’s population lives inland, including in the capital city of Sana’a. Building a pipeline inland would add to an already unaffordable infrastructure cost for a project like a desalination plant. The possibility has been raised previously by the Yemeni government of moving its population toward the coast for this reason – resulting in a great deal of displacement and movement of people.
What is clear is that the issue is one which requires urgent attention, much more than it is being given at present. Water is fundamental to human life and to civilisation. As the world’s population expands to a projected 9.8 billion people toward the end of the 21st century, combined with climate change, water scarcity will become an ever-present issue. Solutions exist to mitigate the problem, but they will require ingenuity, innovation and considerable political will. Governments will need to significantly rethink their approach toward the issue and embrace new technologies which conserve present water supplies and unlock access to previously unusable sources of water.