Though we don’t often think of it this way, climate change is really about water. Indeed, for humans, the most marked impacts of climate change have to do with shifts in the distribution and availability of water. For some areas, like coastal and many mid- and high-latitude regions, climate change will bring too much water in the form of rising seas and more intense flood events. For other parts of the world, droughts will become longer and more severe. And across much of the globe, water availability will become more erratic, making it more difficult to ensure that cities and farms have enough water to make it through periods of shortage.
These changes have many implications, but one of the most concerning is the prospect of increased conflict over water. Former World Bank official Ismail Serageldin’s 1995 prediction that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water” is one of the most well-known warnings of this prospect. But two decades into the twenty-first century, it’s clear that the relationship between climate change, water and conflict is far from simple. For one thing, water has not, so far, been a significant cause of violent conflict—in fact, cooperation is far more common. And while most people assume that it’s water scarcity that drives conflict, in fact issues like pollution are equally important causes. Yet as the world continues to warm and its water resources become stretched ever further, it’s important to understand the relationship between water and conflict—and how to prevent it.