Water scarcity caused by climate change and overpopulation is likely to spark local armed conflicts over the next century but not necessarily wars between nation states, according to national security and water experts.
A pattern of localized conflict is likely to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, India, China, Pakistan and Burma in coming decades, said Peter Gleick, a water resources expert at the Pacific Institute. But it's wrong, he added, to assume these battles would flare into international armed confrontations.
"I do not like the term 'water war,'" Gleick said in an interview. "We don't fight wars over such issues. Wars are caused by a lot of different things."
Which is not to say water scarcity isn't a problem. The United Nations estimates that almost 3 billion people could be desperate for water within the next 50 years, and many fear such constraints could ignite civil unrest or political tension between nations already prone to clash.
But while climate change and its consequences, to include a likely decrease in water availability in volatile regions, are emerging national security concerns, they are two factors among many, said Aaron Wolf, director of a water conflict project at Oregon State University. More important to Wolf are rapid urbanization and poverty, which could leave billions of people in China and India, for example, destitute and hunting for food and water.
In Wolf's view, cooperation over water is just as likely as armed struggle, which he says is a reality often ignored by those focused on the negative side of an emerging narrative.
"People cooperate [on water] about two times as much as they conflict," Wolf said. "That's a whole side of the story that rarely gets picked up."
Others more attuned to looking at international affairs through a prism of security rather than the environment agreed with Wolf's analysis.
Christine Parthemore, a national security fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said water is one of many economic factors that tend to cause conflict, but rarely has it been a central cause of war between states.
"The term [water war] is definitely an oversimplification," Parthemore said. "I would never attribute any war to a single thing."
In the Middle East, to cite one region already dealing with water politics, Wolf said India and Pakistan, as well as Israel and Palestine, tend to work together on water policy, despite a history of struggle in other areas. This example might be repeated in the region if leaders are able to approach the issue proactively, he added.
"The problem is much bigger than climate," Wolf said. "It's less climate than it is population and poverty. These are the big stressors."
Drought as 'tipping point'
Mark Giordano, head of the Institutions and Policies Research Group at the International Water Management Institute, said sovereign states tend to view water as a relatively small factor in their overall relations with other nations. And even if that changes, a war for water is easily averted, he said.
"It is hard to 'win' the water unless you take over territory -- usually a costly exercise," Giordano wrote in an e-mail. "There are also a wide range of institutions set up for countries to work out water conflicts before they escalate."
Still, Giordano admits climate change is likely to add to the complexity and pressure of these conflicts. Yet he believes mechanisms like formal water treaties tend to point to Gleick's thesis -- in which local conflicts are more likely to emerge -- as the emergent reality over the next century.
"You will find many cases where individuals have fought, even shot, over water," he said. "You will be hard-pressed to find a real 'water war' between states."
But this is not to say water shortages shouldn't be considered as defense analysts draft national security assessments for forthcoming conflicts. Parthemore points to Somalia, where the United States has deployed the Navy and Marines to deal with pirates and unrest in urban areas. Drought, she said, "is a huge piece of the puzzle" as to why Somalia is seen as a failed state internationally.
"Having a decade of drought was the tipping point," said Parthemore, who also expressed concern about heavy urbanization in Pakistan and the ability of extremist groups to use water shortages to recruit young militants.
Another factor is the uncertainty associated with climate change. A warming planet could just as easily mean unwelcome levels of water for regions prone to flooding, said Joshua Busby, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas, Austin. Busby said fluctuations in rainfall and "increasingly volatile rains" could be a bigger problem than scarcity, depending on whom you ask.
"Water scarcity may make people desperate in the way that a herder seeking grazing may end up fighting with his neighbor over access to land," Busby said. "I'm generally skeptical that climate change will contribute to interstate wars over water scarcity."
A history of localized conflict
To Gleick, whose Oakland, Calif.-based Pacific Institute recently updated an online chronology of water conflicts dating from 3,000 B.C., the uncertainty associated with climate change, combined with the known pattern of local clashes over water, suggests the smart move is to prepare for the link, even if the nature of future struggle is unclear.
Gleick noted that the Pentagon is about to release a quadrennial security review that will, for the first time, address climate change as a factor likely to cause armed conflict around the world. If the Pentagon is taking the issue seriously, governments around the world should take heed, Gleick said.
"That's a critical thing, the fact that the military understands the seriousness of the links between climate and conflict," he said.
The Pacific Institute's chronology tracks water conflict from the biblical account of Noah and the deluge through the Peloponnesian War to a recent death in Mumbai during a protest over water rationing. The point, says Gleick, is to illustrate the magnitude of water struggles and lessen the likelihood of violence.
While Wolf sees the Pacific Institute's site as worthwhile, he was critical of the decision to track any instance of violence associated with any aspect of water. Noting the destruction of a dam in time of war, for instance, could distract policymakers from real problems and how to deal with them, Wolf said, or lead to the "false" belief within the media that major water wars are more probable than they are.
"If it gets people interested, I think it's useful," Wolf said. "But the bigger issue is that China is growing massively and needs dams to create hydropower. It's population growth, it's developing countries developing."
Of the six political conflicts or incidents of violence related to water picked by Gleick's chronology for 2009, all six are in Asia and Africa. These range from China blocking loans to India for water projects to a water release in North Korea killing South Koreans. Gleick expects that pattern to continue.
Calling card for terrorists?
At the Pentagon, which did not return calls seeking comment, a more pressing concern than war between nations may be the extent to which extremist groups in volatile regions are able to funnel anger over water scarcity into recruiting operations.
Gleick believes terrorist groups could start to view water infrastructure as valuable targets as tensions rise over water's availability. And Parthemore suggested that in countries like Pakistan, discontent with the West could intensify as water becomes scarcer, which could help extremists bring in new recruits.
Still, Parthemore added that she sees such problems as far more manageable than the cultural barriers that tend to separate radical Islam from the West. In the same breath, she said the "whole Himalayan region" could be in trouble when it comes to water and urged governments there to view the area as a major natural resource issue. Water, she said, "is often basketed with other economic factors. I think it's worth separating it out."
Busby and Giordano, on the other hand, said they see no credible evidence linking water scarcity to terrorism. Giordano acknowledged that water infrastructure may become a target (which he said is "not so much an issue of water"), while Busby rejected the connection completely.
"It would require us to buy into the logic that poor, desperate people are recruitable by terrorists, and that if climate change impoverishes people, that more people might potentially be recruitable by terrorist organizations," Busby said. "It is uncertain if this mechanism is plausible."
Sullivan reported from San Francisco.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.