Water Scarcity and Political Instability

March 28, 2012 --

Africa, Cody Knudsen, Egypt

An intelligence report released last week discussed a security threat that presents a frightening picture of the world, one in which clean, usable water is increasingly scarce.  Water scarcity is in large part a result of increasing demand due to world population growth.  U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in a speech given at the World Bank that “by 2025, we believe that it could be as much as two-thirds of the world’s population, including in more areas within developed countries where people will be living under water stress.”   She continued to explain that “water security for us is a matter of economic security, human security, and national security, because we see potential for increasing unrest, conflicts, and instability over water.”

The threats of water scarcity present domestic as well as international  political problems.  Should a state fail to adequately provide its citizens with the water that they need to live, the state may be faced with political instability as it becomes more and more desperate to satisfy its citizens’ demands for water.  If states cannot provide the amount of water demanded by its citizens, it may attempt to procure water from a foreign resource.  If the other state is experiencing difficulty providing the demanded water to its own populace, attempts to secure water sources may result in conflict.

Although the likelihood of water scarcity leading to conflict within the next decade is small, it has the potential to create and exacerbate tensions within and between states as well as to present a significant threat to national and global food markets.   States with water resources may use water as economic and political leverage over those that are water deprived.  As water becomes increasingly scarce, dams and desalination plants may become targets for terrorist attacks because people will be more dependent on the water they store and treat.

Although the report issued to the public did not name specific states that are most at risk, it did identify South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa as the areas in most urgent need.  Egypt is one of the likely states not mentioned in the report.  This state stands in a particularly dangerous position due to its reliance on the Nile.  A vast majority of the Egyptian population lives surrounding the Nile because it is the only reliable water source.  Egypt’s downriver position along the Nile has pushed it to establish agreements with the upriver states such as Sudan and Ethiopia about the amount of water they can take from the river.   Both Sudan and Egypt have constructed dams along the Nile, and the two states have previously resolved debates over the use of water from the Nile through treaties.  Sudan’s position along the Nile is preferential to that held by Egypt, thus placing Sudan in a position of power because it could use its dam to preserve its water interests.  Doing so would reduce the amount of water traveling along the Nile toward Egypt.  While this would place pressure on Egypt, Egypt  possesses the larger, more powerful, and U.S. aided military.   With its water access threatened, it could use its relatively strong military to force others in the region to surrender their water resources.  Water scarcity in such a case could lead to regional instability.  This potential for regional instability is increased because both states have experienced recent periods of political instability: Egypt in its overthrow of the Mubarak regime and Sudan with the secession of South Sudan in 2011.  The present weakness of the states may force a move to consolidate control over their water resources, pushing the two closer to conflict.

Water scarcity is not limited to this region only.  China, India, Bangladesh, and even more developed countries such as Chile, South Africa, and Australia are at risk from the effects of water security due to either their massive populations or their limited access to clean, usable water.

With water scarcity likely to affect significant areas of the world, the U.S. needs to increase its efforts to help these states provide water to their people as well as to make sure that its own water supply is secure.  Domestically, the U.S. has invested in creating technology “to detect and monitor contaminants and prevent security breaches.”  Additionally, the U.S. is pursuing efforts to improve water management, such as the use of drip irrigation systems.  Improving management of water resources can only go so far, and this only pushes back the timeline of instability.  There is no present answer to this growing threat, but finding a plausible solution should be treated as a top priority.


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