Today, I bring you another article that I wrote with Casey Simmons for Atlantic Voices, the Atlantic Treaty Association‘s monthly publication. In december, the focus what on Unconventional Security Threats. The article was originally published here.
Water is crucial for many aspects of our lives, a necessity which has heightened “access to reliable and sufficient water sources” as a universally-accepted, basic human right. However, according to the World Bank, 40 % of the world’s population faces water shortages today, a challenge with numerous risks such as food insecurity due to the lack of water necessary for agriculture, forced migration, and the spread of diseases because of the lack of sanitation. At the international level, water scarcity has the potential to exacerbate international disputes and be a triggering element of internal conflicts.
Climate change, and in extenso water security, have been recognized by the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review as ‘shaping the security landscape’ and ‘threat multipliers’, thus putting water security on the same level of importance as food and energy security. It is widely believed that instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and in the Caucasus are linked to water security.
Uneven Distribution and Population Growth
The issue of water security was first raised at NATO in 2008 by former Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Two years later, the idea made its way into the Alliance’s 2010 Strategic Concept. The Declaration at the Wales Summit in September 2014 reiterated the idea that “Key environmental and resource constraints, including health risks, climate change, water scarcity, and increasing energy needs will further shape the future security environment in areas of concern to NATO and have the potential to significantly affect NATO planning and operations.” Considering that Europe does not experience significant water insecurity, and Canada sits on one of the biggest reserves of fresh water, why is water insecurity a source of concern for the transatlantic Alliance?
First, “like threats from states, threats from climate change can be unpredictable and destabilizing.” The consequences can neither be predicted nor counteracted by weapons but requires tools which do not exist in NATO’s traditional arsenal. In addition, we are talking about a threat coming from outside the Alliance and not from within as member countries are not seriously directly affected by the phenomenon. The external character of the threat combined with its novelty makes it harder to control.
Second, water insecurity affects regions of importance for NATO such as MENA, Central Asia and the Caucasus. In those cases, water insecurity could have irreversible side effects for the Alliance due to migration waves from the regions, as illustrated by the civil war in Syria. Additionally, the price and availability of water- dependent goods such as grains and cotton coming from the Caucasus could be affected.
Third, water reserves are shrinking due to the exhaustion of non-renewable sources, pollution and climate change. As the world population will reach 9 billion people in 2050, fresh water will not be available for all. Based on the uneven water distribution throughout the world, regions faced with “rapid population growth, resource depletion, poor governance, economic stagnation, and unsettling climate change impacts, all within the context of chronic aridity” will be exposed to dire situations – specifically MENA, the Horn of Africa, Central, South and East Asia.
Water as a Source of Conflict
Water is only an amplifier of interstate conflicts, like in the Israeli/Palestinian case, while it can be the source of intrastate disputes. In the second case, water can be a lever between ethnicities and antagonist groups. Water- induced conflicts do not happen in a nutshell, but complement the devastating effects of “poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions”. It is expected that over the next 10 years, competition around water will increase and shared sources will be a contributing source of political tension.
Considering the increasing value of water, dams, hydroelectric plants and irrigation systems have become critical infrastructure of great value, and have been used by both governments and non- state actors to secure their objectives. Saddam Hussein used water as leverage against the Kurds and other rebels by either poisoning the rivers, diverting the Tigris in 1993 to flood the land of his opponents, or cutting their water supplies.
Creating and Feeding Terrorism in MENA
Water insecurity is also believed to be one of the contributing factors of the rise of extremism, notably in the MENA region. The water resources have dramatically shrunk over the last two decades due to mismanagement, notably in Egypt where water is subsidized and thus largely wasted, and also in oil-rich countries where water is used for the extraction of fossil fuel from underground wells.
In Syria specifically, the succession of drought which hit the country between 2006 and 2010 has irrevocably affected the production of food and forced rural people to migrate. It is estimated that 1,5 million people were forced to abandon their homes in 2011. Combined with other factors, the government’s lack of response to water and food shortages played a role in triggering the civil war. The Syrian government has also used water as means of pressure against the Kurds. Migration and frustration created the perfect breeding ground for terrorism as the population grew opposed to the government. The ungoverned spaces abandoned by the migrants were then taken over by Islamic State (ISIS). The same pattern is visible with Boko Haram in Nigeria. Understanding its importance, “ISIS views water access and control as a strategic objective of campaign, and has commandeered hydroelectric dams, irrigation canals, reservoirs, pipelines, and other water infrastructure to cement territorial gains.” They now control “most of the key upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, the two great rivers that flow from Turkey in the north to the Gulf in the south and on which all Iraq and much of Syria depends for food, water and industry.”
In Iraq, critical water infrastructures such as rivers, canals, sewage and desalination plants have become military targets, as whoever controls them holds the upper hand over the cities – including Baghdad – as well as the countryside.
In Jordan, the migrant crisis from Syria has put more strain on the country’s scarce hydraulic resources due to the influx of refugees. Water shortages are also believed to have affected the price of food, which in turn helped to trigger the Arab Spring in MENA.
Water Exhaustion in Central Asia
The Aral Sea used to be an internal salt-water lake located in Central Asia, bordering Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Today, due to decades of intensive irrigation, mismanagement and lack of regional coordination, the water surface has been reduced by 90 % since the 1960s. Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the two primary sources of inflow of the Aral Sea, have also been affected by nuclear tests conducted by China and the USSR, as well as irrigation, which have seriously degraded the quantity and quality of the water. The Amu Darya river basin, which extends across Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan is also expected to become an increasing source of regional tension. Water is of great importance there, as irrigated land produces 90% of the region’s crops, especially cotton, and is responsible for 50% of Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s electricity production. It is estimated that the lack of water caused the internal migration of 70,000 Kazakhstanis in 1996. The local governments have also demonstrated their reluctance to address the issue, preferring to dig holes to find water rather than question their consumption, which further deepens the potential to shake up the already fragile stability of Central Asia.
The stability of the Caucasus and Central Asia is crucial to NATO, due to geographical proximity to Europe, as well as for the Alliance’s fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Cooperation between NATO and the region is the best vehicle to promote good governance and economic reform in the region.
Lack of Policy Framework
One of the central issues which makes shared water a source of conflict is the lack of international agreements regulated the use of the resource. Out of the world’s 263 river basins and aquifers, a cooperative management framework does not regulate 158 of them. The fact that rivers tend to cross numerous countries makes it harder to regulate water consumption from the rivers.
There must be a framework to address the depletion of water caused by climate change, extensive irrigation and mismanagement, that would promote an improved water planning system, investing in new irrigation methods and water treatment. In order to better prepare for climate risks, the issue must be included in international security forums and heightened to the highest level of urgency.
NATO has put a strong emphasis on water security issues, especially in the face of the resurgence of floods in the Balkans and droughts in MENA. NATO’s Science Committee, with its Security through Science Programme, and the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society (CCMS) has been on the forefront of water-related programs aimed at enhancing international dialogue and the sharing of expertise. The focus has also been put on the Alliance’s Partners from Central Asia and Mediterranean Dialogue.
Various projects have been carried out by scientist from these countries, NATO members, and end-users (local authorities, commercial industries, and governmental bodies). One example of such project focused on pollution of the Black Sea, and was conducted by NATO and other institutions. It resulted in a Strategic Action Plan for the Rehabilitation and Protection of the Black Sea in 1996, as well as the NATO Black Sea Operational Database Management System. Other projects include the Modelling Nutrient Loads and Response in River and Estuary Systems in Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey and the United States, and the 2003 South Caucasus Cooperative River Monitoring, “aimed to establish a social and technical infrastructure that could monitor the water quality and quantity of transboundary rivers and ease data-sharing between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.”
The Need to Address Water Security
Ensuring water security is crucial for the stability of our planet. MENA and Central Asia have so far been affected by water shortages caused by a combination of factors, and the situation is unlikely to improve. As an illustration of the extent of the problem, Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, is expected to run out of water by 2025, thus becoming the first capital to officially run out of this crucial resource, with dramatic consequences to be expected for this war-torn country.
The stability of the Caucasus and Central Asia is crucial for the security of the Euro-Atlantic region due to their proximity. Projects must, however, be conducted with the local industries and government in order to raise awareness about the importance of water in an effort to prevent the emergence of conflicts.
Water must be seen as an economic good rather than a given, as we are exhausting our natural sources of fresh water much faster than is sustainable. Effects of water insecurity are expected to increase exponentially if nothing is done to slow down climate change, and only time if tell if the agreement signed in Paris at COP21 will be sufficient. It seems like water is slowly replacing oil as the most important resource.
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