Water wars
August 13, 2006 5:04 PM   Subscribe

Lots of people seem to think that the biggest conflicts of the 21st century will be over water. So, putting on the futurist glasses for a moment, in the next two decades, say, where will those battles be fought - who will be on either side - and how will they play out?
posted by gottabefunky to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The United States and Canada will squabble over water in the Great Lakes. Here's how it will play out:

--The U.S. will pump lots of water from the Lakes, far more than agreed under the various water treaties in effect. The water level in the Lakes will drop visibly.

--Canada will complain and sulk, and otherwise do nothing. Perhaps a strongly worded Note of some sort will be sent.
posted by jellicle at 5:26 PM on August 13, 2006

Mexico vs. the U.S., over Colorado River water that flows into the Gulf of California and also fuels some of the best-producing agricultural land in Mexico. What happens when the U.S. swallows all the Colorado River water to slake the thirst of fast-growing communities in the Southwest? Mexico's economy never improves, forcing more people to head north to look for work. Eventually, the U.S. responds militarily to the border situation...
posted by frogan at 5:31 PM on August 13, 2006

More likely, desalinization technology will radically improve, and the problem will devolve down to powering the desalinizers, i.e. oil production and distribution.
posted by effugas at 5:41 PM on August 13, 2006

These are economic wars that are already being fought in the US. You could argue that the entire west coast salmon industry has essentially been put out of business by a handful of special interest groups in CA and OR. Well, special interest groups and the 50 billion people who all want to live in CA, but disproportionately by a small number of farmers and power companies. There are a lot of politics but if you are interested in this kind of thing that's as good a place to start as any.

Then there are the more subtle issues like flood control and the connection that diverting water and controlling it has on sediment transport, coastal defense and flooding. See: New Orleans, Mississippii River, flood control thereof.

Finally there is water discharge. As people import more and more water into seasonally dry or arid lands it has to go somewhere once they're done with it. The Salton Sea is one place it goes. Bays and estuaries are others. A midsized suburb can wipe out a local fishing communtiy, given poor planning and a lack of infrastructure.
posted by fshgrl at 6:03 PM on August 13, 2006

Response by poster: I should have been more clear - I'm talking about actual fighting/war.
posted by gottabefunky at 6:16 PM on August 13, 2006

The biggest wars are not going to be in the developed world. Much less the US and Canada. I remember reading a wonderful article in the past 2 or 3 years about this very question. It detailed exactly which areas were likely to erupt. It must have been in National Geographic. Also, I think that the number one area it mentioned was Uzbekistan. A quick Google search reveals the: Aral sea basin program (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) water and environmental management project
posted by maelanchai at 6:18 PM on August 13, 2006

The water wars of the future will not be fought between nations. They will be fought between corporations. Bechtel vs. Pepsi. Nestle vs. Coca Cola. These wars are already taking place in the third world in places like India and Bolivia and also in some place in the United States where governments take payoffs to privatize an entire region's water supply. Politicians will be bought off to allow pollution of whatever fresh water is left so the profits continue to rise. Their most profitable product right now is bottled water. The more we buy the more hungry they will get for increase revenue from it. I'll tell you there is nothing that disgusts me more when shopping than to see some stupid brainwashed fool with a couple of cases of bottled water in their cart when the tap water in my neck of the woods is the purest in the nation. If you really can't trust your drinking water get yourself a damn filter and buy a damn water bottle to carry around with you all day.

posted by any major dude at 6:38 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Palestine and Azerbaijan, to name two. (NB: A very close PhD friend of ours does water rights/development NGO work. She's been to these places, among others.)
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:01 PM on August 13, 2006

Egypt will end up going to war with countries nearer the Nile headwaters. This may or may not spawn a larger "arab-african" vs. "black-african" conflict (cf. Darfur) in the areas south and east of the Nile.

Southeast Asia will also get tricky, and may also go to war over dams along the major rivers. China will become involved, probably directly.

Broadly speaking, downstream nations will be attacking upstream nations. Look for dams to be used as weapons (cf. the recent battles in Sri Lanka, only much larger, and with people blowing up dams they're unable to capture).

I suspect you'll also see wholesale destruction of river habitats, as people build dams everywhere they're technically feasible.
posted by aramaic at 7:03 PM on August 13, 2006

There's one going on already. Israel's tactics have been to control the water far more than the land because they are overexploiting the resources which, of course, the Palestinians did not do. Many civilizations in the Middle East have died because of water issues (Assyrians being one). Israel will cause another, with the victims being not only the Israelis.
posted by TheRaven at 7:27 PM on August 13, 2006

It's pretty hard to go to war over water because it's an immediate need. If you plan on attacking someone upstream they can cut off your water supply and bring you to your knees pretty damn quickly if they are ready for it. Which you would think they would be.
posted by fshgrl at 7:28 PM on August 13, 2006

I suspect you'll also see wholesale destruction of river habitats, as people build dams everywhere they're technically feasible.

That has already occured, pretty much everywhere. And with much further reaching consequences than just destruction of the immediate environment.
posted by fshgrl at 7:29 PM on August 13, 2006

So far its only a court battle, but Georgia, Florida, and Alabama have been fighting over water for 16 years with no end in sight.
posted by TedW at 7:44 PM on August 13, 2006

I'm with aramaic: mostly, Egypt v its southern neighbours over the Nile, SE Asia over the Mekong. Also agree with Maelanchai that it will be a developing nation thing.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:36 PM on August 13, 2006

maelenchai, the article you're remembering might be this one that was in Wired a few years ago: The Great Thirst.

Here's a quote that talks about some areas where water is in contention:
In the late '50s, Egypt and Sudan engaged in a short-lived war over Egypt's plans for the High Aswan Dam, and competition over the Jordan River has several times escalated into armed hostilities between Israel and Syria. On a provincial level, conflicts have been much more numerous. Two years ago, along China's Yellow River in the Shandong Province (which, like Karakalpakstan, is the area farthest downstream), thousands of farmers fought with police over a government plan to divert more water from the already overtaxed river, and the same year, rioting over privatization in Bolivia nearly swept the ruling party out of office.

In water-stressed regions like Central Asia, the best way to avert conflict — and conserve the resource — is to agree to a sharing plan in advance. Here, downstream countries Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan depend on vast quantities for agriculture during the growing season. Upstream, however, in the mountainous countries where 90 percent of the region's water is stored in the form of snow and glacier fields, the object is to save water during the warm months so as to release it in winter, when it will turn the turbines that generate electricity for heating homes. Water released to dampen the fields of Kazakhstan in summer is useless in mountainous Kyrgyzstan, where demand for energy drops off significantly. Water released during the winter months is useless to low-lying Turkmenistan, since its fields are fallow this time of year.
posted by MsMolly at 8:51 PM on August 13, 2006

Poland Spring vs. Aquafina
posted by whobynumbers at 10:41 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Have you ever looked back upon a prediction or perspective you had many years ago about how things might turn out in the future and realized how simplistic your prediction was and how uninformed it ended up being as time churned forward over the days, weeks, months, years, and decades, and the events of daily life over that time gobbled up your issue and chewed it up with the zillion other things going on and made it look much differently?

I've read a number of these water war articles myself and have been wondering if this is one of those issues that will be resolved in non-catastrophic ways, but which appears really worrying now because of our tendency toward futurist foreshortening, compressing issues and events and urgency in times ahead, and thinking of them in somewhat of a vacuum, isolated both in terms of their context in the larger picture of life and of the sort of "compound interest" effect of our future selves' inevitable reaction to the issue over time. We sort of assume that the status quo of a given issue will continue forward unchanged, nobody will come up with new ideas, nobody will take action, and then one day it'll just reach a head and explode and become the big issue. What really happens is that people do react and actions are taken over time as part of the tapestry of everything else happening in society. The result is usually a much more ordinary-seeming arc of events than the vague dooms we predict.

So even as important as water is, it will always be only one of many issues that people and nations deal with every day. It won't be an isolated issue on which battle lines will be drawn. I'm only guessing that because it just feels like one of those predictions you look back on and realize how many details, options, choices, new issues, new tech, cooler heads, social change, etc. you didn't know to factor in.

So I'll go out on a limb and place the probably unpopular bet that there will not be actual wars over it, or at least not solely over it. Our descendants won't read about the Great Water Wars in their history books brain uploads. I bet there will be tension, disputes, scuffles, but not war. The issue will be spread out over decades and will not have the powderkeg urgency as when imagined from the present. It won't be a Mad Max type of situation with guerilla raids for water tankers and grubby post apocalyptic tribes huddling back at the armed compounds waiting for the warriors to return with agua. Rather, I think that as conditions gradually grow more pressing, people will adapt because they'll have to. A physical, economic, political, and social equilibrium will assert itself, if somewhat sloppily. It will cause gradual structural changes in the affected regions, perhaps moved forward by episodic flareups of tension. There will be ration-driven new tech, commonsense reclamation (those Australians will drink their pisswater after all, for example), disease-driven policy change, regional treaties, basic lifestyle changes, gradual migration, pollution control, etc. And it will play out over a long time in the context of modern, industrialized, generally war-averse society. I just don't think people will wake up one day with dry taps and decide to attack upstream. The exponential growth rate of the population will eventually near a point that a planet of finite resources can't support, but it won't happen on, say, a Tuesday. It just looks that way from where we're sitting. It'll be much longer and more complex than that.

Resource scarcity has historically led to conflict, I'll grant you. Look at the current oil-soaked conflict map, for example. So maybe it will get ugly. Maybe I'm being naive. I just feel like the issue will unfold gradually, piecemeal, and in a context of a global community that often stamps down things like this before they can flare up overly much and then tries to mediate and come up with solutions.

By the way, this this book appears to talk all about water and its future as an issue.
posted by kookoobirdz at 10:50 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with kookoobirdz. Barring some sort catastrophic reduction in supply, it seems likely that as communities see current sources drying up, they'll find other sources. When all viable sources are all but tapped, people will go where the water is. Is this too simplistic?
posted by bullnipple at 1:32 AM on August 14, 2006

The only people fighting over water will be in the third world. As long as people in first world nations have need of water there will be more desalinization plants built to accomodate that need. The ocean is real big, and there is a lot of water in there. Water reuse and refiltration will experience drastic improvements as the profit margin makes it more appealing.

People in Africa, the Middle East, Central America may launch attacks against their neighbors for control of water supplies, but I think the real internation resource struggle will be over the oil, not the water.
posted by sophist at 3:50 AM on August 14, 2006

Turkey is currently building a dam on the upper Tigris that is seriously pissing off Syria and Iraq/Kurds.
posted by wilful at 3:52 AM on August 14, 2006

The most hotly contended area of the world, vis-a-vis water resources... that is sure to be faught over, perhaps sooner than the other areas brought up, are the Golan/Syrian Heights area.

The water issue has been largely swallowed and buried by the larger Israeli/Palestinian(/Syrian/Lebenese) Conflict... but it's very real... and is a powder keg, I assure you.
posted by cadastral at 4:41 AM on August 14, 2006

Have patience people. As soon as we melt the ice caps, all these water problems will disappear.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:47 AM on August 14, 2006


That's ridiculous. Everything of which there isn't enough for everyone is a commodity. The question is how to distribute it fairly; here, socialists and libertarians will differ in obvious ways. Increasingly, there isn't enough water to go around, and I don't foresee desalinization ever becoming cheap and efficient enough to take care of the problem. I think there will be wars, but I don't know where.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on August 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks Msmolly: that was exactly the article I was thinking of--I just didn't associate it with Wired...
posted by maelanchai at 5:07 PM on August 14, 2006

Table of Water Scarce Countries

Map of their Locatations.

Northern Africa and The Middle East seems to be where it's at. Notice all of these countries border on oceas or seas, but will most likely not have the economics resources to shell out for large scale desalinization plants. To add the water problem onto a region that is already is very bad shape pretty much spells disaster in my eyes.

As far as first world countries go, I highly doubt we will be seeing a US vs China type battle over water. This conflict will be over oil. Right now that fight is still mostly economic/political and not physical, but that won't last forever. Still, not a bad time to start investing in the desalinization industry. We can survive without cars but we can't without water.
posted by sophist at 2:33 AM on September 14, 2006

Another book that might be appropriate to this topic is Water Under Threat. According to the publisher (Palgrave), it should be available in the US in October.
posted by rikhei at 1:06 PM on September 27, 2006

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