Water – the Ultimate Geostrategic Resource
Water resources are a vital substrate and precondition of life and human development has increased this importance, by introducing considerations of agriculture, economics, industry (especially metallurgy) and energy extraction. Where there is a shortage of water, competition for limited supplies may cause nations to consider access to water as a matter of national security and act accordingly. History is abundant in examples of competitions and disputes over cross-border freshwater resources, which in John Waterbury's (1979) vision is called hydropolitics.
A brief history and account of water conflicts
No historical period has been exempt from conflicts over water.
Absent specialized knowledge, most will tend to regard water as anything other than a source or tool of conflicts. The Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security of the Stockholm Environment Institute offers a long-documented list of historical events in which water was directly involved. The list is not short. Between 3000 BC and 2017 globally there were nearly 400 water conflicts. According to some specialists in the field, the first event in which water is appealed to as a possible threat is to be found in a legend of the Sumerian civilization, 5000 years ago. To punish them for their sins, the Divinity / Enki threatened the Sumerians with a six-day storm, the legend being quite similar to the biblical account of the flood and Noah, conclude the Pacific Institute researchers. An important conflict took place half a century afterwards, between 2450-2400 BC. Also in the Middle East, on the current territory of Iraq, when water was used as a military tool to deviate watercourses in order to damage the irrigation system of the Kingdom of Lagash.
The historical evolution of water conflicts
Without going into too much historical detail, the previous table gives an overview of the historical evolution of water conflicts as they were catalogued by the Pacific Institute. No historical period, be it larger or smaller, has been exempt from conflicts over water. What differs is the accuracy of records. As time passes, the number of conflicts is apparently growing, following also the growth of global population and the stresses on existing water resources. Taking an example from 2011 to present, i.e. only six years, there is an alarming rise in conflicts, leading to the conclusion of an unstable future for global water and water safety. Interestingly, the potential numbers may be understated, as modern judiciaries, property rights and arbitration reduce the potential for violence in water stressed regions that may, nevertheless, deteriorate at a later date, as the recent stories of Californian “water thieves” illustrate.
Currently, the most affected areas are the Middle East, Africa and East Asia regions, reflecting both pressures in the absence of sustainable use, overpopulation, natural patterns and, finally, the lack of accepted regional architectures for resource dispute resolution.
According to the statistics in the table, violence accompanies water disputes in all historical stages. In the past, conflicts were concentrated in the Middle East and Europe, where fragmentary polities practiced agriculture early on, particularly in geographic regions with strong historical roots. Ancient polities in Asia (but also Africa and South America), where geography permitted, for instance, the early aggregation of the Chinese empire, also used water politics to insure internal political power and stability, with control over irrigation and water supplies constituting a source of political power and of economic rents. This was termed “hydraulic despotism” by Karl Wittfogel in his 1957 book, “Oriental despotism”, and was the impetus for the development of sophisticated civilizations with specialized bureaucracies. It has been a recurring feature across in these regions until the present day, when oil has, for a period, displaced water as the tool of the “hydraulic state” like the Middle East-North African petrostates.
We should take into account the intersection between fossil energy production (very reliant on water for extraction) and water scarcity risks which, in the case of the main MENA oil producers, overlap perfectly, setting up an inherently unstable system.
Today, water conflicts affect all areas, though some more than others. Currently, the most affected areas are the Middle East, Africa and Asia, reflecting both pressures in the absence of sustainable use, overpopulation, natural patterns and, finally, the lack of accepted regional architectures for resource dispute resolution. One can also infer other reasons why these geographic regions are marked by conflicts. Therefore, the initial assertion that water shortages or the spectre of it leads it to become a matter of national security is validated.
Water insecurity, well documented
Becoming water secure will require strategic change for many companies.
Among the most frequent foundations of conflicts are water resources as military and political instruments, because water is a possible source of political and economic power, such as for energy resources. The graph below comes from a report by private consulting firm Wood Mackenzie on the intersection between fossil energy production (very reliant on water for extraction) and water scarcity risks which, in the case of the main MENA oil producers, overlap perfectly, setting up an inherently unstable system. This can lead not only to water conflicts, but also internal water disputes, as per the “Global Research Nexus” report from the Transatlantic Academy, as the requirements for the consumption of the population, for agriculture, for industry and for energy extraction collide into a nightmare for resource allocation and sustainable use. This is before we take into account the interwoven nature of these economies, where energy produced with water consumption is sold at a heavy loss to desalination plants to produce drinking water. Such is the case in Saudi Arabia, where the cost of oil for desalination plants, before the current budget contractions, was at 4 dollars per barrel, compared to an export price that went from 100 dollars to around 50 dollars today. The reports were ground-breaking for its time and holds up today as a reference point.
Peter Gleick stated that, if we considered the geopolitics of common water resources, water and water supply systems were the roots and tools of war.
Looking beyond energy, more and more businesses report that water availability is integral to their operations and that water mismanagement, water scarcity, water declines are issues that affect them, as the annual Global Water Reports from CDP show by collating responses from across all relevant business sectors. For the surveyed companies, the impact of water issues on financials was 14 billion dollars in 2016 (up from 2.8 billion in 2015), 47% of this being reported in the energy sector. 65% of companies taking the survey in South Africa, 47% in South Korea, 37% in Canada and the UK, 35% in Australia and 29% in Turkey reported that water issues have impacted their operations. 83% of respondents are integrating water use into their strategies but becoming water secure will require strategic change for many companies.
Water – cause, purpose and instrument of international crises
There are a lot of potential triggers which are constantly in relation to the role played by water in these conflicts. Water was the cause, the purpose and the instrument of the regional and international crises. The actors involved in such geopolitical conflicts, who have always maintained a high level of violence, wanted either to capture watercourses, to develop infrastructure projects (affecting the interests of their neighbours), or to create damage to the other side by intimidation, threats and destruction strategies.
Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stated that "the only reason that would cause Egypt to go to war is water," and the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (and Egyptian Foreign Minister) has said that "the future conflict in our region will be due to the waters of the Nile, not to the policy".
Peter Gleick (1993) of the Pacific Institute stated that, if we considered the geopolitics of common water resources, water and water supply systems were the roots and tools of war. Access to water supply systems from common sources has often been cut off for political and military reasons. Sources of water supply have always been among the goals of military expansion. At the same time, the inequality of water use has been a permanent source of regional and international strain. Interstate conflicts are rarely caused only by water. Often, the main factors of conflict are religious, ideological, border disputes, economic competition, and so on. Taking this into account, the Pacific Institute researchers have identified a number of fundamentals of water conflicts.
Outside of the Middle East, we see areas where multiple hotspots converge for a potentially explosive situation.
Current classes or types of conflicts include:
- Control of water resources (state and non-state actors): supply or access to water is the basis for tensions;
- Military Instrument (State Actors): where water resources and systems are used by a nation or state as a weapon during a military dispute;
- Political Instrument (State and Non-State Actors): when water resources and water systems are used by a nation, state or non-state actor for a political purpose;
- Terrorism (non-state actors): when water resources and water systems are targets or instruments of violence and coercion on the part of non-state actors;
- Military Objective (State Actors): where water resource systems are the targets of military action by States;
- Litigation on development (state and non-state actors): where water resources or water systems are a major source of challenge and dispute in the context of economic and social development.
With the confluence of other factors, like territorial disputes over exclusive economic zones or disputes over borderlands, the water issues can provide a spark for a simmering tension to boil over into a hot conflict.
This classification is far from exact. There are overlapping categories, as the researchers admit. For example, intentional military attacks on water supply systems can be framed by both instruments and military objectives, depending on the angle of the situation. Disputes over water resource control may reflect political disputes over power, disagreement on economic development, or both.
Under these circumstances, ensuring access to water produces the justification for going to war, and water supply systems can become the goal of the military conquest. The best example, observable in the table and the map above, is the extended Middle East. Being a region with an acute water shortage, this has implications. Besides its multiple ideological, religious and geographical fractures, the region is extremely arid. Even those areas that are relatively rich in water resources, such as the Nile, the Tiger and the Euphrates, are under the human pressure of irrigation and energy. In addition, these hydrographic networks are all international basins.
"Water is more than a strategic resource. We need to acknowledge that"
The Middle East has, in the modern period, been a source of conflict since the announcement of the state of Israel in 1948, and the dispute between riparian states over the possession of the Jordan River is an integral part of the on-going conflict in the West Bank. International river basin standards make the Jordan look like an insignificant water course. However, the Jordan River Basin is divided between several antagonistic nations: Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, all of which have very volatile military and political dynamics, as alternative water sources are limited. One of the factors that contributed directly to the outbreak of the Six-Day Conflict (1967) was the attempt of the Arab League members to divert the Jordan course away from the Israeli space. According to Peter Gleick's "Water and Conflict", Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eskol said that "water is a matter of life for Israel" and, as a consequence, "Israel will take action to ensure that water continues to flow". Following the conflict, Israel managed to conquer the Jordanian springs and ensure a more efficient water supply by diverting a significant part of the water to its own territory. Today, almost 40% of the underground waters on which Israel is dependent come from the territories occupied through the Six-Day War. In fact, almost all the increase in water used by Israel since 1967 comes from Cisjordan (the West Bank) and Jordan. We should also mention the dispute between Israel and Syria over possession of the Golan Heights and the water resources there, currently on hold due to the Syrian Civil War.
Looking ahead to 2040, the stress caused by the reduction and degradation of freshwater sources and aquifers will be one of the greatest problems which humanity will have to face.
The Nile River is another international river basin with a tremendous regional significance, and control over its course is already a major source of dispute (and a means for pressure) as water demand intensifies. The Nile is one of those international basins that is divided among ten states, crossing some of the most arid areas of North Africa. The Nile is of vital importance agriculturally to Egypt and Sudan. 97% of Egypt's water comes from the river, and 95% of the Nile's water entering the Egyptian territory comes from abroad, from countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Congo-Kinshasa. The 1959 Treaty solved several important issues, but it was signed by just two nations, Egypt and Sudan. For example, any possible hydrotechnical development on the upper course may reduce Egyptian water volume and may increase tensions in this dry region. Egypt is not only vulnerable to any potential reduction; it is also the most important military force there, being able to force military intervention at any time to prevent any diminution in volume. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stated that "the only reason that would cause Egypt to go to war is water," and the former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (and Egyptian Foreign Minister) has said that "the future conflict in our region will be due to the waters of the Nile, not to the policy". The prior statements are the fruit of political rhetoric, but obviously they are also an indicator of the Nile's importance to Egypt. These issues are coming to a head with the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam upstream from Egypt, a massive hydropower project that is nearly completed, which has raised concerns for its effects on downstream countries and on the Nile Delta. In addition to environmental issues, the Nile Delta is home to 50 million people, or almost two thirds of Egypt’s population (on 2.5% of the land area) with many of the rest living close to the course of the Nile.
Outside of the Middle East, we see areas where multiple hotspots converge for a potentially explosive situation. In his book, “Water. Asia's New Battleground”, Brahma Chellaney argued that China is the world’s largest source for cross-border waterways and the massive Chinese agricultural and industrial consumption of water, as well as its extraordinary investment in hydropower has made conflict with all of its Southern and Eastern neighbours very probable. Consider the extraordinary Three Gorges Dam project and the bitter opposition from India and Bangladesh, since the dam affects the flow of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges rivers, sacred rivers and also essential to agriculture, human consumption and industry. The Indochina peninsula, featuring one of the most international rivers in the world, the Mekong River, also faces such issues that create tensions. All of China’s neighbours banded together to form a regional Water Commission to discuss this important issue but the key player linking all of these interests, China, has declined to be a member. With the confluence of other factors, like territorial disputes over exclusive economic zones (China and Vietnam in the South China Sea) or disputes over borderlands (India and China, with a recent flare-up near the strategically vital tri-border area with Bhutan), the water issues can provide a spark for a simmering tension to boil over into a hot conflict.
The second most common ground in hydropolitics is that of water resources and installations as tools of war. The use of water and water systems as both offensive and defensive weapons has a long history. Even if water resources are permanently renewed, they are in practice poor and distributed unevenly. From practice, we know there are situations where a single nation can control water sources. In these circumstances, the temptation to use water as a political or military weapon is great. Such cases have been known since antiquity, but have recently increased unprecedentedly. Extensive bombing has been widely used in World War II and in the Korean Peninsula conflict. Iraq has also bombed an Iranian dam in the Iranian-Iraqi conflict of the 1980s, and examples can continue with the bombing of the Vietnamese irrigation system by US aviation in the late 1960s, or with the destruction of Kuwaiti desalination plants by the Iraqi army in retreat of the First Gulf War (1991).
Terrorism, a major threat to water supply systems
More recently, terrorism has emerged as a permanent threat to water structures and services that keep all states in the world constantly in tension and vigilance, wherever they may be. For example, from the long list of the Pacific Institute, one can see how cyber-terrorism can affect the lives of thousands and millions of people by a simple click.
The first case of this kind was reported in the US in 1994. A hacker managed to get into the computer system that controlled the Salt River water plant in Phoenix, Arizona, giving him total control over the plant, a critical infrastructure. In Queensland, Australia, the police foiled a man's plan to use computer systems to take control of a wastewater plant in 2000. His goal was to dispose of waste water in public parks, rivers and on the property of some people. In 2011, a new event assimilated to cyber terrorism took place, targeting US water infrastructure. A hacker using a computer with an IP address originating in Russia targeted a Huston water plant. He wanted no more than to prove to the United States how vulnerable the security of its critical infrastructure is, especially as the recent Oroville Dam disaster and the latest reports from the American Society of Civil Engineers show that the US water infrastructure is especially decrepit and at risk from various threats.
More recently, ISIS held the city of Mosul hostage through its physical control of Mosul Dam, threatening it with destruction in case of counter-attacks, which would have devastated downstream areas.
“Water is more than a strategic resource”
This is the title chosen by Sundeep Waslekar for an article published with the World Economic Forum in January 2017. In fact, the full title is, "Water is more than a strategic resource. We need to acknowledge that".
Over the past decades, the United Nations has begun to debate and accept more and more the importance of resources in general and of water in particular, which is ultimately essential for global peace and security. The 2017 debut of water issues during UN Security Council debates was the first of its kind, linking water, peace and security. The debate gathered 69 governments, who have asked to turn water from a potential source of crisis into a source of peace and cooperation. According to Waslekar, the wider recognition of the strategic role of water reflects global developments. Although faced with real water problems, the Middle East region has to cope with the Islamic State (ISIS), which has captured several dams on the Tiger and the Euphrates in recent years. Even if it eventually lost them, ISIS did not hesitate to use the threat of flooding to stamp out dissent and incentivize surrender. Even in the context of the elimination of this terrorist group in Syria and Iraq, the threat will persist for a long time. The destruction of ISIS does not mean, many specialists say, the disappearance of its members. They can reorganize themselves within like Libya and Chad and they can endanger West African settlements and water facilities there.
The strategic importance of water in the 21st century will be comparable to that of oil in the 20th century.
Looking ahead to 2040, the stress caused by the reduction and degradation of freshwater sources and aquifers will be one of the greatest problems which humanity will have to face. At the same time, ISIS strategies are not an invention of the organization, we have already seen that such means of fighting have always been used. South Asian rebel groups repeatedly attacked water infrastructure. State actors have not been far behind when it comes to using them to obtain strategic benefits. From a commercial point of view, Waslekar draws attention to a small river in Central America that feeds the Panama Canal and has a major contextual role. Suppose, the author says, that in the event of a major crisis in Central America, this river (Rio Chagres) would fall into the hands of disruptive forces. Well, since the Panama Channel is facilitating 50% of the trade between Asia and America, then the world economy would suffer enormously.
It is clear today that there is a global consensus on the need to protect water resources and related systems in conflict zones. What is less clear is how to proceed, because, unlike humanitarian aid in the form of food, clothing and medicine, water is not easily transported. Remedying damages to water systems in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine implies cumbersome negotiations between companies, rebels, big powers and international bodies. Each passage must be negotiated, and the road to settlement is long and tedious. To facilitate this process, the most effective approach would be the adoption of a resolution by the UN Security Council to make water a strategic resource for all mankind in armed conflicts.
The conclusion is that the strategic importance of water in the 21st century will be comparable to that of oil in the 20th century. Reality shows that oil has alternatives: natural gas, coal, uranium, wind, sun, etc., while for agriculture, industry and sanitation the only option is water.