In many parts of the world, freshwater is already a scarce resource. It constitutes only 2.5 percent of all available water on the planet. And only about .4 percent of that is easily accessible for human consumption. Of that tiny amount, a decreasing share is potable because of pollution and agricultural and industrial water use. All that would be bad enough, but many freshwater bodies are shared among two or more riparian states, complicating their management.
Of course, the policy community has long prophesied impending "water wars." In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon warned that "water scarcity ... is a potent fuel for wars and conflict." Yet history has not witnessed many. In fact, the only official war over water took place about 4,500 years ago. It was a conflict between the city-states of Lagash and Umma in modern day Iraq over the Tigris river. More recently, there have been some close calls, especially in the arid Middle East. About two years before the 1967 War, Israel and Syria exchanged fire over the Jordan River Basin, which both said the other was overusing. The limited armed clashes petered out, but the political dispute over the countries' shared water sources continues. In 2002, Lebanon constructed water pumps on one of the river's tributaries, which caused concern for downstream Israel. The project never provoked any formal military action, but with peace in the region already precarious, verbal exchanges between the two countries prompted the United States to step in. Both parties eventually accepted a compromise that would allow Lebanon to withdraw a predetermined amount of water for its domestic needs.
In short, predictions of a Water World War are overwrought. However, tensions over water usage can still exacerbate other existing regional conflicts. Climate change is expected to intensify droughts, floods, and other extreme weather conditions that jeopardize freshwater quantity and quality and therefore act as a threat-multiplier, making shaky regions shakier.
So what river basins constitute the biggest risks today? In a World Bank report we published in 2010 (as well as a subsequent article in a special issue of the Journal of Peace Research) we analyzed the physical effects of climate change on international rivers. We modeled the variability in river annual runoff in the past and for future climate scenarios. We also considered the existence and nature of the institutional capacity around river basins, in the form of international water treaties, to potentially deal with the effects of climate change.
According to our research, 24 of the world's 276 international river basins are already experiencing increased water variability. These 24 basins, which collectively serve about 332 million people, are at high risk of water related political tensions. The majority of the basins are located in northern and sub-Saharan Africa. A few others are located in the Middle East, south-central Asia, and South America. They include the Tafna (Algeria and Morocco), the Dasht (Iran and Pakistan), the Congo (Central Africa), Lake Chad (Central Africa), the Niger (Western Africa), the Nile (Northeastern Africa), and the Chira (Ecuador and Peru). There are no strong treaties governing the use of these water reserves in tense territories. Should conflicts break out, there are no good mechanisms in place for dealing with them.
By 2050, an additional 37 river basins, serving 83 million people, will be at high risk for feeding into political tensions. As is the case currently, a large portion of these are in Africa. But, unlike today, river basins within Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Central America will also be at high risk within 40 years. Some of these include the Kura-Araks (Iran, Turkey, and the Caucasus), the Neman (Eastern Europe) Asi-Orontes (Lebanon, Syria, Turkey), and the Catatumbo Basins (Colombia and Venezuela).
CROSSING THE NILE
Among the larger African basins, the Nile has the greatest implications for regional and global security. Tensions over access to the river already pit Ethiopia and Egypt, two important Western allies, against one another. Egypt has been a major player in the Middle East Peace Process and Ethiopia is an important regional force in the Horn of Africa, currently aiding other African forces to battle Al-Shabbab in Somalia.
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