Ismail Serageldin, former Vice President for Special Programs of the World Bank warned in 1995: “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” In truth, “the challenge of freshwater scarcity and ecosystem depletion is rapidly emerging as one of the defining fulcrums of world politics and human civilization. A century of unprecedented freshwater abundance is being eclipsed by a new age characterized by acute disparities in water wealth, chronic insufficiencies, and deteriorating environmental sustainability across many of the most heavily populated parts of the planet. Just as oil conflicts played a central role in defining the history of the 1900s, the struggle to command increasingly scarce, usable water resources is set to shape the destinies of societies and the world order of the twenty first century. Water is overtaking oil as the world’s scarcest critical natural resource. But water is more than the new oil. Oil, in the end, is substitutable; but water’s uses are pervasive, irreplaceable by any other substance, and utterly indispensable.” (Solomon, 2010, p. 367). Proponents of realist theory would argue that Serageldin is correct, and that in light of increasing water scarcity, conflict over water is inevitable. However, since Serageldin’s pronouncement more than fifteen years ago, while there has been conflict, not one water war has ensued and international cooperation over water issues have been the norm. According to neoliberal institutionalist thinking water scarcity provides a motive for cooperation since water interests transcend national boundaries and states stand to gain from cooperative efforts addressing water supply issues. (Dinar, 2009). Constructivists would argue that cooperative efforts would be expected so long as states can gain from those efforts. Should the status quo become upset, constructivist thinking would indicate states would reevaluate their position(s) and pursue courses of action in reaction to the changing situation. (Viotti and Kauppi, 2009). So which school of thinking is correct and which outcome is most likely? Water wars or water peace? As Allan (2009), Bierman and Boas (2010), Solomon (2010) and others illustrate, the state of world peace and the future of human civilization is balanced on the delicate fulcrum of each nation state’s supply and access to freshwater. While the world’s leaders may choose differing courses of action in response to water scarcity according to the school of thought they subscribe to, ultimately they will all share the same cause of action: the forcing of their hands by climatic change affecting the water cycle and precipitation distribution combined with accelerating population growth. Humanity is at a crossroads. This article will argue that increasing global water scarcity and water quality deterioration will hasten either a global degeneration into a Hobbesian state of war or spark a transformation of nation states into a peaceful global civil society.

As the water cycle, and climatic change affecting the water cycle, is the lynchpin that affects each nation’s water supply it is necessary to understand what the water cycle is and how it is affected to understand the growing magnitude of global water scarcity issues. Simply put, the water cycle is the circulation of freshwater on the planet.

The water cycle begins with evaporation from the world’s oceans. Each day, solar heating causes water to evaporate from the surface of the oceans and enter the atmosphere, where the water is cooled, condenses into clouds, and eventually falls as rain or snow. When water falls on mountain tops during cold weather, it builds snow packs and increases glaciation, which store water for release into rivers when temperatures warm. When water falls in warmer climes, water infiltrates the soil to be captured and used by plant life and then released back into the atmosphere through plant transpiration, percolates into groundwater, or most commonly, runs off in rivers to the sea where the process of evaporation begins again. In this way, water is spread to every area of the planet and provides for the sustainability of all life, unless it is intercepted and held in lake basins or otherwise diverted from its natural flow by the activities of man.

“The same, finite net, 4/1,000th of 1 percent of Earth’s total water that recycles endlessly and falls over land in the process of evaporation-transpiration and precipitation has sustained every civilization from the start of history to the present. Man’s practical access to this renewable freshwater supply remains limited to a maximum of one-third, since about two-thirds quickly disappears in floods and into the ground, recharging surface and ground water ecosystems and ultimately returning to the sea. Even so, that one-third totals enough available renewable water to more than suffice for the planet’s six billion—if it were all distributed evenly. But it is not. A large share runs off unused in lightly inhabited jungle rivers like the Amazon, the Congo, and the Orinoco and across Russia’s remote Siberian expanses toward the Arctic in the giant Yenisei and Lena rivers. So the actual total amount of readily available, renewable freshwater per person often averages less—often far less—in some regions than the threshold annual 2,000-cubic meter measure of water sufficiency. And it is declining sharply in inverse relationship to the escalation of world population.” (Solomon, 2010, p. 374).

In addition to the challenges presented by the uneven distribution of precipitation, man’s activities are interfering with the water cycle and reducing the amount of water available. Three of the major impacts to the water cycle and the available freshwater supply stem from deforestation, global warming, and overutilization of groundwater reserves.

Deforestation is taking place at the rate of 1% per year in the Amazon rainforest, and in other areas around the planet to make room for grazing lands and human civilization. (Viotti and Kauppi, 2009). On deforested land, water does not percolate into the soil or recharge groundwater systems, but quickly runs off, reducing growing seasons, stunting plant life, and reducing agricultural yields.

Mountain glacial systems have been retreating steadily for the last one-hundred fifty years due to global warming. But with warmer temperatures and the disappearance of glaciers, the earth is losing a natural water storage system that slowly releases water into river systems for use during the warm seasons. (Bierman and Boas, 2010). Faster runoff means less of the water provided by the water cycle will be available for use, further exacerbating water scarcity and agricultural issues.

Finally, unsustainable use of groundwater systems threatens to deplete these vast underground seas. Groundwater reserves are the source of water for the world’s wetlands, springs and desert oases. Groundwater is contained either in the soil or in aquifers. There are two kinds of aquifers: rechargeable aquifers, and fossil aquifers. Wetlands are fed by rechargeable aquifers, just underneath the surface of the ground, and they play an active part in the water cycle. Fossil aquifers, however, are separated from the water cycle.

In the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer—which contains as much water as Lake Huron—allows for agriculture in eight states west of the 100th Meridian. Not only does agriculture in this region provide the United States with the majority of its corn and wheat, but it also provides the grain for a large percentage of the world’s population. (Annin, 2006). The aquifer under Saudi Arabia has mostly been squandered for lavish displays of Saudi wealth: fountains, golf courses, manicured lawns and desert wheat fields. Seventy percent of Saudi Arabia’s aquifer, which once measured one-sixth the size of the Ogallala is gone. In 1992, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer was discovered by Qaddafi in Libya who quickly started planning a way to tap it and turn Libya green. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer is the largest groundwater reserve on the planet, but not only is it situated beneath Libya, it extends beneath Egypt, Chad and the Sudan as well and these countries object to Libya’s plans to exploit the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer’s resources. While the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer may provide water for some time, it shares the same characteristics as the Ogallala and the Saudi aquifers—the water they contain is fossil water. Over the eons, water slowly percolated into the ground until it couldn’t percolate any further because it was trapped by impermeable layers of rock. While it took nature tens of thousands of years to fill these aquifers, it has taken man only the better part of one century to mostly deplete them. Once depleted, these aquifers can not be recharged and the agricultural industries that depend on them will disappear. (Solomon, 2010).

The altering of the planetary water cycle, the inequitable redistribution of available water from changing climatic conditions, the growing earth’s population and increasing demands on available water, and the depletion of fossil groundwater that has allowed civilizations to grow unsustainably are all potential pathways to conflict, and at the same time, potential pathways to peace.blockquote> “While it is true that water disputes have taken a military turn on at least seventeen occasions during the period 1900–2001, the last all-out war over water took place 4,500 years ago—between the city-states of Lagash and Umma. In comparison, thousands of water agreements have been concluded, the oldest dating back to 3100 BCE. Consequently, as Wolf and Hamner have noted, ‘the more valuable lesson of international water is as a resource whose characteristics tend to induce cooperation, and incite violence only in the exception.’” (Dinar, 2009, p. 109).

However, in the past, it was relatively easy to conclude water agreements when there was enough water to go around. How will these agreements be concluded when there isn’t any water left to share? The second part of this paper will address this question and look at some of the possible pathways to both conflict and peace that increasing water scarcity presents.

“While violent conflicts over transboundary water may be rare, political disputes and ‘conflicts of interest’ over shared freshwater are not. This is the case in regions currently known for relative peace among the regional actors (such as Europe and North America) and regions known for relative political volatility among neighboring states (such as the Middle East and Central Asia). Consequently, the literatures on environment, security, and hydropolitics have turned to explaining why disputes have taken place in such regions. Similarly, studies have invested much effort in understanding how cooperation ensues or fails in international river basins.” (Dinar, 2009, pp. 109-110).

Dinar goes on to explain that the relationship between water scarcity and cooperation is non-linear. Referencing John Rawls and Elinor Ostrom, Dinar articulates what might be described as a “Just Right” Goldilocks window of opportunity for cooperation.

“Rawls has conjectured that when natural and other resources are abundant, schemes of cooperation become superfluous. Conversely, when conditions are particularly harsh, fruitful ventures break down. A situation of moderate (or relative) scarcity, therefore, provides a suitable impetus for action between parties. Similarly, Ostrom has argued that for cooperation to occur, ‘resource conditions must not have deteriorated to such an extent that the resource is useless, nor can the resource be so little used that few advantages result from organizing.’ By extension, if water were abundant, a treaty dividing the waters may be unnecessary. Conversely, instances of very high scarcity would also discourage cooperation. If water were extremely scant, the parties would have very little to divide amongst themselves, nor could they share any of the benefits that could be thereby derived.” (Dinar, 2009, p. 119).

Perhaps the “Goldilocks Zone of Cooperation” in terms of water scarcity represents a unique period in human history and global civilization evolution when practical considerations, that may be representative of constructivist thought, will allow the transformation of society into a truly global civilization capable of finding solutions to the most pressing of global issues before it is too late and a perpetual Hobbesian state of war ensues. The water situations and interdependencies on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (Dinar, 2009); along with the enduring Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan that persists despite serious disputes over territory in Kashmir strongly illustrate this idea. (Sahni, 2006).

“The Indus Waters Treaty set a precedent of cooperation between India and Pakistan that has survived three wars and other hostilities between the two nations…. As Stephen P. Cohen has observed, ‘The Indus Waters Treaty is a model for future regional cooperation, especially on energy, environmental concerns, and even the management of the region’s impressive water resources.’” (Sahni, 2006, p. 154).

That India and Pakistan continue to honor and abide by the IWT is impressive, but perhaps it pales in comparison to water cooperation in the Middle East. Contrary to realist theory that would predict water wars, water cooperation in the Middle East is the norm. Allan explains that the

“Middle East is the most water-challenged region in the world, with little freshwater and negligible soil water. Water is therefore a key strategic natural resource, and realist theory, as well as popular intuition, has it that the scarcity of water in the region will lead to water wars. Despite growing water demand, the Middle East has shown no signs of a water war since some minor military events in the northern Jordan Valley in the early 1960s. On the contrary, there is much evidence of cooperation over scarce water resources in the region, especially in the Jordan River Basin, where freshwater is scarcest.” (Allan, 2002, pp. 255-256).

This state of cooperation in the Middle East, however, is likely to be affected by increasing water scarcity elsewhere in the world. Currently, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestinians have compensated for their lack of water resources by importing “virtual water” through the world grain market. Rather than growing their own grain, which is extremely water intensive, the Middle Eastern nations simply import it, and by doing so, obviate their need to supply their own water—which, of course, they don’t have. Not needing huge supplies of water to grow grain and other food commodities allows cooperation over the resources of the Jordan River and the aquifers in the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon, the West Bank and the coastal plain. (Allan, 2002)

Cooperation over Middle Eastern water resources will become more and more important, however, as impacts on the grain market due to climate change and growing population ensues.

“China and India, together with America, produce half the world’s grain—their combined influence on international food markets is like that of OPEC on oil. The looming prospect of India and China becoming major grain importers therefore threatens to dramatically push up global food prices, crowd out the poorest and most water-famished nations, and help trigger humanitarian tragedies and political upheavals around the world.” (Solomon, 2010, p. 418).

Therefore, increasing population in India and China represent the biggest threat to water security and cooperation in the Middle East, but it’s certainly not the only threat. As already explained, the Saudi aquifer which supports the wheat crop in Saudi Arabia is seventy percent depleted; and with changing climate patterns that are predicted to affect the grain belts of North America, it is unclear how long the Ogallala Aquifer will be able to sustain Midwestern grain production. Even more critically,

“India relies on groundwater mining for more than half its irrigation water. No other nation in the world pumps nearly as great a volume of groundwater. By some estimates, water is being mined twice as fast as natural recharge. Food produced from depleting groundwater is tantamount to an unsustainable food bubble—it will burst when the waters tap out. One warning occurred in 2006 when, for the first time in many years, India was forced to import large quantities of wheat for its grain stockpile. As the water tables hit bottom, clashes were breaking out between food producers and industrial and domestic users. In 2003, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottling plants in southern India were scapegoated and had their licenses revoked on unproven accusations that they were responsible for the region’s exhausted groundwater reserves.” (Solomon, 2010, pp. 423-424).

If virtual water supplies dry up in the Middle East, for whatever happens, what happens then? Currently Israel is pursuing advanced desalination technology to guarantee its supply of freshwater, yet capacities of desalination plants are inadequate to meet national need. (Dinar, 2009). Yet the augmentation to the Israeli water supply will certainly prolong the window of cooperation and perhaps greater technological innovation, as Malthus noted (Viotti and Kauppi, 2009), will postpone the inevitable war over water that the realists are predicting. However, all roads do not lead to war, and perhaps the liberal institutionalist perspective will win the day. As Solomon articulates:

“while the risk of water war in this thirstiest and most politically combustible of regions is high, it is by no means inevitable. The existential threat posed by water scarcity is so palpable that it generates opposing cooperative instincts for mutual survival as well. At the worst moments of the second Palestinian intifada, while Israel’s hegemony over West Bank water was being vehemently decried by angry stone throwers, Palestinian and Israeli officials continued to meet quietly and agreed not to damage each other’s waterworks. As a religion of the desert, Islam accords water a special esteem that also favors cooperation. All inhabitants in the starkly arid land share an intuitive appreciation of the Turkish Proverb: ‘When one man drinks while another can only watch, doomsday follows.’ In what might be considered a corollary of the mutually assured destruction doctrine that helped avert direct military conflict in the postwar nuclear age, it is possible that with rare statesmanship and sufficient desperation, a Middle Eastern water famine might lead inexorably not to devastating warfare but to a cooperative model of water détente that helps forge regional peace. It would be ironic, but not impossible, if salvation from the worsening regional water crisis came about through a resurrection of the faded dream of a marriage between state of the art Israeli agricultural know-how and Arab oil investment.” (Solomon, 2010, p. 412).

While water scarcity issues are certain to intensify, the jury is still out regarding which of the differing philosophical perspectives has the best insight into ultimate outcomes. But certainly as long as cooperation over water resources prevails and the Goldilocks window remains open, international efforts to address the water scarcity issue provide possible pathways to the evolution of a global civil society. Two such pathways stem from addressing environmental issues, especially those concerning environmental refugees; and the emerging understanding and recognition of a human right to water.

The first pathway, spurred mostly from increasing water scarcity, desertification, deforestation and climate change concerns the rapidly increasing number of climate refugees.

“Drought and water scarcity is the third main climate change impact that may significantly contribute to climate-related migration. A temperature increase of 2–3 degrees centigrade could cause around 800 million-1.8 billion people to suffer from water shortage, assuming low population growth. In the worst-case scenario, the additional number of people experiencing hunger due to climate change could be around 200 million by the 2050s. Moreover, the supply of fresh water will decrease due to glacier retreat. More than one-sixth of the world population currently depends on water supplied by glacier melt, which will further decline in the next decades.” (Bierman and Boas, 2010, p. 69).

While these statistics are at once both overwhelming and alarming, Bierman and Boas go on to argue that “dealing with the resettlement of millions of climate refugees over the course of the century will require not only a new legal regime, but also one or several international agencies to deal with this task.” Additionally, they note that these issues are already being addressed from a security standpoint by military and defense planners, and in truth, in terms of any nation’s national security, it is in the best interests of all to plan for waves of climate refugees to mitigate the impact of potentially hundreds of millions of human beings moving across the planet in mass migrations. Therefore, Bierman and Boas advocate for a new research program in what they call “global adaptation governance.”

“In light of the most recent scientific findings, which indicate possibly accelerating climatic change, there is thus an urgent need for a new academic research program on what we propose to call ‘global adaptation governance.’ Global adaptation governance will affect most areas of world politics, including many core institutions and organizations of current global governance. The need to adapt to climate change will influence, for example, the structure of global food regimes and the work of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); global health governance and the agenda of the World Health Organization (WHO); global trade in goods whose production will be harmed or helped by climate change; the world economic system and the ability of the International Monetary Fund to address climate-related shocks to national and regional economies; and many other sectors from tourism to transportation or even international security.” (Bierman and Boas, 2010, pp. 60-61).

While Bierman and Boas do not suggest the formation of a world government, whether it be in the form of a federation of existing nation states or some other organizational structure, certainly by calling for research into how to govern issues from a global perspective, specifically the issue of climate refugees, suggests a transformation to a true global civil society. And so does the emergent human right to water, which can be construed as a basic right:

“Gleick’s interpretation leads to a construal within later international documents of a specific right to water that seems to qualify as what Henry Shue terms a ‘basic right.’ The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) both explicitly name the human right to water, the first as part of the right to development and the latter as part of a general right to health. In Shue’s well known formulation, basic rights guarantee things ‘essential to a normal . . . life’ and are essential to protect ‘against a standard threat to rights generally. This is precisely why basic rights are basic. That to which they are rights is needed for the fulfillment of all other rights.’” (Hiskes, 2010, p. 330).

Recognition and institution of global adaptation governance programs in concert with the recognition of the emerging human right to water would certainly add to the gains that are being made in regional state cooperation over the management of dwindling water resources. Another piece in the puzzle is the emergence of transnational networks of activists creating what Kaldor calls an emerging humanitarian regime.

“During the 1990s, a new phenomenon of great importance was the emergence of transnational networks of activists who came together on particular issues-landmines, human rights, climate change, dams, AIDS/HIV, corporate responsibility. I believe they had a significant impact on strengthening processes of global governance, especially in the humanitarian field. Notions of humanitarian norms that override sovereignty, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the strengthening of human rights awareness—all these factors were very important in the construction of a new set of multilateral rules: what we might call a humanitarian regime…a new responsiveness to global civil society offers the possibility of a system of global institutions which act on the basis of deliberation, rather than, as in the past, on the basis of consent for American hegemony.” (Kaldor, 2003, p. 588).

Continue Reading the Second Half of this Article in Water Wars or Water Peace, Part II


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