The sharpening international geopolitical competition over natural resources has turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. Transnational water resources have become an especially active source of competition and conflict, triggering a dam-building race and prompting growing calls for the UN to recognize water as a key security concern.
Water is different from other natural resources. After all, there are substitutes for many resources, including oil, but none for water. Similarly, countries can import fossil fuels, mineral ores and resources from the biosphere like fish and timber; but they cannot import water, which is essentially local, on a large scale and on a prolonged — much less permanent — basis.
Water is heavier than oil, making it very expensive to ship or transport across long distances even by pipeline (which would require large, energy-intensive pumps).
The paradox of water is that it sustains life, but can also cause death when it becomes a carrier of deadly microbes or takes the form of a tsunami, flash flood, storm or hurricane. Many of the greatest natural disasters of our time — including, for example, the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe in 2011 — have been water-related.
Global warming is set to put potable-water supplies under increasing strain — even as oceans rise and the intensity and frequency of storms and other extreme weather events increase.
Rapid economic and demographic expansion has already turned adequate access to potable water into a major issue across large parts of the world. Lifestyle changes, for example, have spurred increasing per capita water consumption, with rising incomes promoting dietary change, for example, especially higher consumption of meat, production of which is 10 times more water-intensive, on average, than plant-based calories and proteins.
Today, the earth’s human population totals slightly more than 7 billion, but the livestock population at any given time numbers more than 150 billion. The direct ecological footprint of the livestock population is larger than that of the human population, with rapidly rising global meat consumption becoming a key driver of water stress by itself.
Political and economic water wars are already being waged in several regions, reflected in dam construction on international rivers and coercive diplomacy or other means to prevent such works. Consider, for example, the silent water war triggered by Ethiopia’s dam building on the Blue Nile, which has elicited Egyptian threats of covert or overt military reprisals.
A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned last year that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in the next decade in some regions.
The InterAction Council, comprising more than 30 former heads of state or government, has called for urgent action to prevent some countries battling severe water shortages from becoming failed states.
The US Department of State, for its part, has upgraded water to “a central US foreign policy concern.”
In many countries, inadequate local water availability is increasingly constraining decisions about where to set up new manufacturing facilities and energy plants.
The World Bank estimates that such constraints are costing China 2.3 percent of GDP. However, China is not yet in the category of water-stressed states. Those that are, stretching from South Korea and India to Egypt and Israel, are paying an even higher price for their water problems.