Goccia d'acqua nel deserto

Water in a G-Zero World

Living in an era characterized by the unravelling of the old American-led world order complicates both geopolitics and access to water more than ever.

by Ian Bremmer
7 min read
by Ian Bremmer
7 min read

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

Ours is a G-Zero world, one defined by the unravelling of the old American-led world order. The lack of a clear geopolitical pecking order has affected the way countries approach trade (see: US vs. China, TPP), technology (see: 5G leadership, the battle for AI supremacy), and security (see: Syria, NATO tensions). The result is a world that is less stable, less secure and less predictable as the geopolitical risks steadily mount.

Those risks will only be compounded by the looming era of by water stress. Global demand for water will be 55 percent higher in 2050 compared to 2000, while climate change is going to result in too much or too little water across every part of the world. Put another way—a fundamental building block of human infrastructure is going to be increasingly threatened, and at a time when there is no international structure in place to effectively deal with that reality and all the complications that will inevitably arise. Living in a G-Zero world makes both our geopolitics and our access to water trickier than ever. And a big reason for that is that geopolitics will drive water stress, and water stress will drive our geopolitics. Here’s how. 

The term “G-Zero world”, first coined by political scientists Ian Bremmer and David F. Gordon, refers to an emerging vacuum of power in international politics created by the decline of Western influence. It aims to explain a world in which there is no single country or group of countries that has ability and will, economically and politically, to drive a truly global agenda.

How Geopolitics Drives Water Stress

First, two big examples where geopolitics is already driving water stress, and will continue to do so for years to come.

Per capita, Asia is the world’s driest continent, and the geopolitical instincts of its major powers are only exacerbating the continent’s water challenges. The geostrategic rivalry between India and China is the backdrop to both countries’ decisions to build dams, divert or otherwise manipulate rivers, and even to ionize clouds in the Himalayan plateau to increase rainfall. These actions are having a major impact on the availability and quality of water for hundreds of millions of people; better coordination between the sub-continental countries and China would lead to much better water outcomes for all involved. But the prospects of that are lower in a G-Zero world, where countries feel like they are increasingly forced to fend for themselves. That breeds competition, not cooperation—and water will be one of the resources over which competition will be fiercest, in Asia and beyond.

Africa is where the impacts of water stress will be most acutely felt. This is nothing new for the continent—start with the Nile. A 1929 treaty (and a subsequent one in 1959) gave Egypt and Sudan rights to nearly all of the river’s waters (Egypt depends on the river for 90 percent of its water needs). Ethiopia was not party to the deal even though its Blue Nile contributes much to the flow, and the country has moved ahead with the construction of a major dam to generate the electricity it needs to achieve its domestic and regional ambitions. Talks between the three countries have so far failed to produce an agreement. That’s not surprising given the dependence of all three on access to the Nile, and the difficulty of compromising on such a critically important resource. That points to the need of other political actors, like the US and/or the African Union, to step in and help broker a viable agreement acceptable to all. 

How Water Stress Drives Geopolitics

The other side of the coin is how water stress both causes and amplifies geopolitical conflicts. The political and humanitarian crisis in Syria, the northwards migration of people from South and Central America and the flow of refugees from North Africa into Europe have all been linked with varying degrees to increasing levels of water stress. It’s not hard to see why and how populations affected by water stress tend to move, and that such movement tends to cause conflict with significant geopolitical implications. But there are two less obvious—but equally important—links between water stress and geopolitics that tend to get overlooked.

The first stems from too much water, not a lack of it. As climate change at the poles turns increasing amounts of ice into water, competing geopolitical interests come to the fore. The sea lanes that open up, including in the Northeast and Northwest, present new questions about who has the right to control these seaways and to benefit from the undiscovered natural resource deposits that lie beneath them. There’s a history of conflict between the five Arctic Coastal states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States. Factor in China’s growing interest in securing energy commodities that are now increasingly open to extraction and transport, and the change in the hydrosphere becomes an intensifier of geopolitical rivalry.

The second less-obvious way water stress drives geopolitics is by limiting the possibility of geopolitical reconciliations. Take the Trump Administration’s Middle East peace plan for instance; the acute water shortage faced by Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Jordan make it much harder to achieve the outcomes laid out in the plan, as it relies on the new territories achieving and maintaining a form of self-sufficiency as a means of reducing conflict. Yet, acute water shortages, caused by drought conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean for 15 of the last 20 years, means each of the key states is likely to face increasing domestic water stress. That reality is not accounted for in the peace plan. Indeed, a peace plan that would have been built from the “water up”— i.e., if renewed rights and territory allocations were based on the types of cross-border water relationships required to enable sustainable water use—would look very different than the one ultimately presented. That’s wasn’t feasible given the political realities of today, which is a big problem when water stress constrains the political realities of the future.

Water politics is nothing new; what’s new is the fractured international politics of the moment. We will be living in this G-Zero world for the foreseeable future, which means water will be more important and more contentious than ever. How countries prepare for this reality will go a long way in determining which governments are most successful at navigating the choppy geopolitical waters ahead. 


The author: Ian Bremmer

President of the Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and author of the volume Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism, a New York Times bestseller published in Italy with the title of We against Them (Bocconi University Publischer, 2018).