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Instability Factors

The huge global imbalances in water availability, aggravated by climate change and population growth, increase the clashes between states.

by Moises Naim
10 min read
by Moises Naim
10 min read

This article is taken from World Energy (WE) number 46 – Water stories

Last January, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Washington, D.C. for urgent discussions about a water project, the Renaissance Dam. While the dam would clearly benefit Ethiopia, it would also add to the growing water stresses that affect millions of Egyptians. The risks of a major violent confrontation over this issue seemed imminent until the negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement. While tensions have temporarily abated, the situation is unstable, as current trends point to continuous and increasingly acute water crises in the region. These crises will inevitably result in deeper tensions and more frequent confrontations. 

Farmers along the 4000-mile course of the Nile River already experience recurrent and significant water shortages, which in turn create a highly conflictive environment in the region. 

The conflicts over water in the Nile Basin are not an isolated case. In fact, they have become a common occurrence in many parts of the world propelling water scarcity and the conflicts it feeds to the top of international concerns. For example, the 2019 World Economic Forum Global Risks report identifies water conflicts as one of the three main global risks. The report warns water crises could lead to profound social instability and even to violent interstate confrontations. 

Conflicts over water are nothing new. In the last 3000 years, no fewer than 900 major confrontations over access to water broke out. Today, the probabilities of an all-out, water-led conflict are growing due to the dramatic imbalances in water availability. Studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and United Nations estimate that by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population will suffer significant water shortages and by 2050, one-half will suffer extreme scarcity. More than a third of major cities, such as Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Mexico City, New Delhi and Los Angeles are already experiencing extreme water stress. In 2008, the city of Cape Town barely escaped the so-called Day Zero, the day when all its dams would dry up. A 2019 study published by Earth’s Future indicates that U.S. states like New Mexico, California, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska will have to act urgently if they want to prevent severe water-shortage problems. Wang Schucheng, China’s former minister of water resources has stated: “To fight for every drop of water or die: that is the challenge facing China.” When access to water becomes a matter of life and death for a country with a fifth of the world’s population, the probabilities of violent water-wars become significant. 

The drivers of the global surge in water demand

Climate change, population growth and technological change are three important drivers of the global surge in the demand for water. More people consume more water and some new, and rapidly spreading, technologies also boost water consumption. Perhaps the best example of these water-intensive technologies is hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. The explosive growth of fracking for shale oil and shale gas production in the U.S., China and other countries has generated massive new demand for water and also sparked intense competition for freshwater resources with agricultural and urban use. The water used in fracking is mixed with chemicals of several degrees of toxicity and cannot be easily recycled for human consumption. 

Meanwhile, rapid climate change is exacerbating existing water stresses and challenging the ways water is produced and allocated. For example, there is mounting evidence that as global average temperature increases, the cloud cover migrates away from the tropical regions to the poles, causing drastic changes in the tropical ecosystems and increasing drought in these regions, while increasing precipitation in the northern latitudes. A report by the World Resources Institute, WRI, forecasts that, by 2030, mid-latitude regions of the planet will experience extreme water shortages.

The unequal distribution of and access to water

Another important factor is the distribution of water resources in the planet and its difficulty of access. Almost 70 percent of the fresh water on Earth is found in icecaps and glaciers, non-available to humans, while 30 percent of more accessible water exists in in subsurface aquifers. Extracting water at a rate that exceeds the speed at which it is replenished naturally creates substantial availability restrictions in many areas of the world. In Yemen, an extreme example, extraction has been estimated to exceed recharge by some 400 percent. Similar situations exist in China, Mexico, India and Pakistan, among other countries. In general, depletion of ground water is becoming especially acute in urban areas due to population growth and industrial usage. 

Another factor that adds to water problems is the poor management of water infrastructure and watershed protection. A 2019 report by the U.S. National Association of Corrosion Engineers of the United States warns that water distribution lines and treatment facilities in that country are in urgent need of upgrading due to the heightened risk of corrosion-related failure. Every year, the report claims, more than two trillion gallons of water are wasted due to this situation. A recent letter to President Trump from the Mayor of Newark notes that “the decaying infrastructure of our water systems has created a crisis in Newark, the State of New Jersey and across America.” Besides Newark, informs the mayor, “more than 20 other New Jersey cities and towns have elevated levels of lead in their tap water, and so do thousands of municipalities in our nation.” A 2016 OECD report on water security indicates that global financing needs for improved water infrastructure would increase from $6.7 trillion by 2030 to $22.6 trillion by 2050, not including expenditures in irrigation or in the energy sector. A Global Forest Watch report on the world’s 216 watersheds estimates that they have lost an average of 6 percent of their cover. In the past 14 years, fires, erosion, urbanization and agricultural encroachment have eroded the canopies that provide the needed cover. Naturally, this leads to the loss of both the quality and the quantity of water availability. 

The inadequate pricing of water services, a politically explosive issue

Another complex driver of acute imbalances in water accessibility is the inadequate pricing of water services as well as the methods and practices through which people access water and their costs. Historically, the price of water to consumers has been based on delivery costs. The reality is that, in most parts of the world, even this marginal cost is never recovered. The notion that water is a basic human right and therefore must be free permeates water-policy debates everywhere—but especially in poor and middle-income countries. 

Only in wealthier countries is charging recovery fees an accepted and common practice. About two-thirds of OECD member countries already meter (and charge) over 90 percent of their single-family houses. This is far from the norm in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America or large countries like China, India and Indonesia. These are all places that face longstanding and significant financial deficits in the water sector, leading to chronic and massive underinvestment, deteriorating water infrastructure and increased health and environmental hazards. In the poorer regions of the world, some 650 million people lack access to safe water due to the political obstacles that make it impossible for governments to get consumers to pay for operating costs. In this sense, water is politically explosive.

Efforts to adopt these systems have often led to social conflict, such as the so-called Cochabamba Water War, which took place in Bolivia in 2000, a violent protest that took place as a reaction to an increase in water tariffs to finance a new dam. 

As a result of the lack of modern water distribution systems, the poor are forced to pay much more for their water than in those countries where such systems exist. In Nairobi, the urban poor pay 10 times more for water than do people in New York City. In New Guinea payment for the required daily water can be as high as half of a worker’s daily income, while in the U.K. that cost rarely exceeds one or two percent of daily earnings. 

Technological innovation as a partial solution

Humanity is facing grave problems regarding the availability and usage of water. While technologies like fracking, for example, deepen some of our water problems, we can reasonably expect that technological innovation will help us fix some of them. It is not overly optimistic to expect that in the not too distant future, new technologies will make desalinization cheaper, more environmentally friendly and easily accessible to water-stressed cities and regions. It is also possible to envisage the ascent to power of political leaders who are able to persuade their followers that it is in their self-interest to pay for the water they consume. The other two main drivers of water crises—population growth and climate change—are harder to contain and, unless vigorously addressed, will seriously threaten the survival of important portions of animal and vegetal life in our planet.


The author: Moises Naim

Moisés Naím is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he deals with economic research and international politics. He is the author and editor of over 10 books, including recently “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, why being in charge isn't what it used to be” (Basic Books, 2013). Naím is the chief international columnist for El País, and his weekly column is published worldwide. Before starting his collaboration with the Carnegie Endowment, Naím was chief editor of Foreign Policy magazine for fourteen years. He has held various public positions, including that of the Minister of Development of Venezuela (Fomento) in the early 1990s, director of the Central Bank of Venezuela and executive director of the World Bank. He has also taught economics and business administration and was academic director at IESA, Venezuela's largest institute of administration studies. He holds a bachelor's degree and doctorate (PhD) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.