Security & Defense, Uncategorized

Water Insecurity: Creating Instability, Conflicts and Terrorism

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

Water sec

The Earth’s Water – Source: Office of the DIrector of National Intelligence – Global Water Security )

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 Programs

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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Amdetsion, Fasil; “Where water is worth more than gold: Addressing water shortages in the Middle East & Africa by overcoming the Impediments to Basin-Wide Agreements”; SAIS Review vol. XXXII no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2012)

Engelke, Peter & Sticklor, Russell; “Water Wars: The Next Great Driver of Global Conflict?”; The National Interest (15.09.2015) Available at: feature/water-wars-the-next-great-driver-global-conflict-13842

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Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

Nauru: When Development Goes Wrong  

Imagine an island lost in the middle of an Ocean where people have lived in peace and harmony with the local nature and wildlife for centuries. Then imagine the damages of colonialism and the exploitation to exhaustion of the local natural resource. Then what? Well, everything, from the local culture, wildlife, source of revenues and chance for a bright future have disappeared. This is what happened to several isolated places around the world. The most extreme case is, however, that of Nauru. This little island of 21 square kilometers located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, has been through it all, from peace to war, from a quiet traditional life to extreme westernization, and from wealth to poverty.

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Discovered in 1789 by a British Captain who nicknamed it ‘Pleasant Island’, Nauru was then colonized by Germany in 1888 and taken over by Australia after World War I. The Japanese occupation during World War II dramatically reduced the local population by deporting two-thirds of them to Micronesia for force labour, or because of starvation and bombings during the war. After the conflict, Nauru became a trust territory administered by Australia. The island finally seized its independence in 1968, thus becoming the world’s smallest sovereign entity of the time.

From ‘Heaven’ to Hell

In 1900, it was discovered that Nauruans were sitting on large amounts of phosphate, a highly demanded natural resource used as fertilizer for agriculture. The exploitation of the mineral thus started. The production became more intense with the development of new means of transportation and the modernization of the industry. Australia was the main importer of the resource. The entire economy of Nauru adapted to the wealth of their soil: all traditional occupations disappeared and everyone reconverted into the production of phosphate. As the local population was not sufficient, foreigners arrived on the island, mainly from neighboring islands but also from Asia. At the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that “out of a total population of 12,000, some 4,000 are foreigners. Australians serve as managers, doctors and engineers, Chinese run the restaurants and shops, while other Pacific islanders do the dirty work in the mines.”

Phosphate made Nauru extremely rich: in the 1970s, the island even became the second largest country in the world, with three times the GDP of the United States. The island quickly developed, and the newly founded sovereign state took it upon itself to offer the best services to its population, possible thanks to the revenues generated by the mining. With the feeling that the wrongs of the past had been corrected, namely that the local resources were finally in the hands of the local population after decades of foreign rule, the Nauruans were now able to consume to their liking, and did not need to work to enjoy a high quality of life. The government could indeed provide free health care and education to everyone without imposing taxes.

This situation lasted as long as there was phosphate left: being a finite resource, phosphate eventually ran out. The ‘resource curse‘ had stricken.

A Series of Poor choices

Nobody was oblivious: it was clear from the very beginning that the phosphate would not last forever. A series of measures to continue benefiting from the revenues of the mineral were put in place such as a diversity of investments abroad. Most of them, contracted by the Australian authorities and the Nauruans government both seemed to have met misfortune, thus shrinking the long term revenues for the island. In addition, eager to enjoy their wealth, the Nauruan governments made some poor choices which cost them later on: the creation of a local airline, Air Nauru, was clearly not adapted to the needs and size of the island with its 7 planes even though the local population was around 10,000 inhabitants. When the revenues came to lack, Nauru was no longer able to pay for all the services it had previously offered, and accumulated large amounts of debt it tried to cover by asking for loans from the Asian Central Bank, but also by trying to become an offshore banking center, and tax haven for the Russian mafia, without success as the G7 quickly put an end to it. Nauru even sued Australia in 1989 in front of the International Court of Justice asking for repair for the destruction of one third of the island during the colonial era. Australia settled the suit for about $75 million. The fall of the price of phosphate in the 90s only worsened the situation, until it ran out in the early 2000.

The story of Nauru’s descent from prosperity to penury is one of the most cautionary tales of modern development

Dramatic Consequences

Beyond the impact on the local economy, the exploitation of phosphate irreversibly affected numerous aspects of Nauru’s life. First, the local population seems to have forgotten how to do anything with is not linked to mining; fishing has long been forgotten and replaced by imported processed food and the excavation of the phosphate has destroyed all possible arable land. As a result, the island entirely depends on imports for its food and the population presents high levels of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure, and the life expectancy has dramatically dropped to 50 for men and 55 for women. It is estimated that 95% of the population is overweight.


Nauru from the sky – Photo: Radio Australia

The consequences for the local climate are also worth mentioning: the deforestation on 90% of the islands have induced a continuous drought and is struck by heat waves. In addition, the local population lives on the coast, which is only 10 meters above the sea level, making them very vulnerable in the face of climate change and the rising of the oceans. For that reason, Nauru has joined 44 other small countries like Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) who fight together to ensure the survival of their threatened nations. The Maldives are on the forefront of the battle, hoping to put pressure on the big countries to halt the already ongoing global warming process which is already harming many in small islands around the globe.

Today, “seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation.”

All in all, Nauru has become “case study for environmentalists and anthropologists in how easy it is to destroy a tropical ecosystem and crush a native culture.”

Finding Something Else To Do

The phosphate age is over and Nauru has needed to find new sources of revenue, which it has found by working with Australia. “Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the nation introduced the now-infamous Pacific Solution, a policy of diverting asylum seekers to detention centers on nearby Pacific islands.”

As a result, Nauru has become a refugee camp for all those got caught while trying to reach Australia by the seas. Since 2001, the Nauru Regional Processing Center has been hosting around 650 refugees at a time in unsanitary barracks. “In addition to the unnecessary and excessive processing period for asylum seekers, the camp has been singled out as substandard and inhumane by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” which corroborates with the numerous cases of violence and rape which have become public.

Although it does not come close to the revenues once generated by phosphate, supporting ‘Solution Pacific’ is what Nauru has found to get some revenues. Who knows what will happen when the UNHCR will finally act and close those camps and Australia addresses their refugee crisis…

More about Nauru

I recently finished reading a novel taking place in Nauru titled “J’ai entraîné mon peuple dans cette aventure” (I led my people in this adventure) by Aymeric Patricot. Based on the history of the island, the story shows through the eyes of the main character how he experienced the changes the island was confronted to, how the local life evolved and how the local authorities, Australian than Nauruans exploited the phosphate and led the country to its loss. Although romanticized, the book appears to give a clear image of what happened in Nauru and how the local population who were eager to have access to more led their country to their doom.