As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report made clear last week, there are some daunting times ahead. On top of threats to biodiversity and infrastructure, one of the many climate change impacts explored in the report was intense droughts and mass water shortages. In turn, this has the potential to spark “water conflicts” where states and militia groups battle for access to water resources. Yep, literally like the post-apocalyptic nightmare of Mad Max: Fury Road.
A new study has mapped out where in the world these tensions and possible conflicts are likely to take place. As reported in the journal Global Environmental Change, researchers from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre looked at the likelihood of what they call “hydro-political issues” in different countries, essentially where water shortages are likely to strike combined with geopolitical tensions and population growth.
These forces are expected to increase the likelihood of water-related interactions, potentially in the form of armed conflict, in transboundary river basins by 74.9 to 95 percent.
“This does not mean that each case will result in a conflict. It depends on how well prepared and equipped the countries are to cooperate," lead author Fabio Farinosi, scientific officer at the Joint Research Centre, said in a statement.
The team's findings highlight some key areas where hydro-political issues are likely to be fired up. Many of these places are located around the iconic rivers of Asia and North Africa, such as the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, and Tigris-Euphrates.
The results also show that there’s a really high chance of intensified “hydro-political interactions” in parts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico surrounding the Colorado River.
How these tensions play out is anybody's guess. As anyone can tell you, geopolitical tensions are complex, ever-changing, and often unpredictable. While it’s perfectly possible that many of the disputes will be ironed out peacefully through cooperation, there is a very real potential for these interactions to spill into violent conflict.
As early as 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stated: “The only issue that could take Egypt to war again is water.” That’s because the Nile Basin is an especially worrisome area. Ten countries share the basin of the Nile; Burundi, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over 250 million people live in these countries and that number is set to double over the coming decades.
Indeed, battles over rights to rivers, bodies of fresh water, and the sea are as old as war itself. However, it’s now becoming clear that water resources will turn out to be an increasingly big factor in the world’s politics.