Dear Pakistanis! The wars of the future will be fought over water not oil

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There’s a prominent idea in political science known as the resource curse.

It refers to the paradox — seen time and time again throughout history — that a country with an abundance of highly valuable natural resources experiences higher rates of corruption, more conflict, and have less democratic governments.

Important resources like minerals, oil and diamonds often go hand-in-hand with conflict and poor governance.

But when it comes to one particular resource — the most important resource of all — many think a different theory will hold true.

Often referred to as the water wars thesis, it suggests that growing water scarcity will drive violent conflict as access to water dries up for certain communities. Analysts worry that people, opportunistic politicians and powerful corporations will battle for dwindling water supplies, inflaming tensions.

Modal TriggerAide workers distribute water in the Ivory Coast after several damn dried up in June, 2018.
Aide workers distribute water in the Ivory Coast after several damn dried up in June 2018.Getty Images

In a new study, researchers tried to map out how water wars will emerge around the world and which countries are most likely to see a water-related conflict in the coming decades.

The study, led by scientist Dr. Fabio Farinosi from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center was published this week in Global Environmental Change.

The paper was an attempt to illustrate where future water wars, or “hydro-political issues” might arise.

“Competition over limited water resources is one of the main concerns for the coming decades,” researchers wrote.

The effects of climate change coupled with population growth are expected to drive competition for water, potentially exacerbating political tensions in parts of the globe.

“Although water issues alone have not been the sole trigger for warfare in the past, tensions over freshwater management and use represent one of the main concerns in political relations between riparian states and may exacerbate existing tensions, increase regional instability and social unrest.”

Looking at the years 2050 and 2100 under different daily temperature and precipitation estimates, different emissions forecasts and other factors, researchers designed an algorithm to predict the likelihood of conflict under different scenarios.

Modal TriggerGlobal distribution of the current likelihood of hydro-political issues among the main transboundary basins (transboundary basin borders in black, non-transboundary areas shaded).
Global distribution of the current likelihood of hydro-political issues among the main transboundary basins (transboundary basin borders in black, non-transboundary areas shaded).Science Direct

Worldwide, the researchers found that rising temperatures and population growth will increase the chance of cross-border conflicts by between 75 to 95 percent in the next 50 to 100 years.

The study identified potential hot spots, which were often places where a water source such as a lake or basin was shared by a number of countries or political groups.

Modal TriggerThe dried up Rawal Lake near Islamabad, Pakistan.
The dried up Rawal Lake near Islamabad, Pakistan.Getty Images

Water sources like the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra in the Indian subcontinent, the Indus river in Asia, the Tigris-Euphrates and Colorado rivers were highlighted as potential hot spots.

But Farinosi was quick to point out that tension won’t necessarily boil over into conflict. “It depends on how well prepared and equipped the countries are to co-operate,” he said in a statement. “This is where we hope our research can help, by raising awareness of the risks so that solutions can be sought early on.”

Scientists, the United Nations and world governments have been sounding the alarm about water-related conflict for years.

In 2012, the US Director of National Intelligence said the risk of conflict would grow as water demand is set to outstrip sustainable current supplies by 40 percent by 2030.

“These threats are real and they do raise serious national security concerns,” Hillary Clinton said at the time.

South African city Cape Town went dangerously close to running out of water earlier this year.

Modal TriggerThe Theewaterskloof Dam near Cape Town, South Africa was at 20 percent capacity as of May, 2017.
The Theewaterskloof Dam near Cape Town, South Africa was at 20 percent capacity as of May 2017.Getty Images

Meanwhile, cities across the world are becoming increasingly thirsty as the demand for water grows and supply dwindles. From Bangalore to California, scientists are offering up grim predictions.

Groundwater is being pumped so aggressively that land is sinking. Some neighborhoods in Beijing (the world’s fifth most water-stressed city) are sinking at as much as four inches a year.

“What’s happening bit by bit is that water scarcity is becoming increasingly common all around the world, no matter where you look as country after country hits the limit of what it can use,” Professor Mike Young, a researcher in Water and Environmental Policy at the University of Adelaide told News.com.au last year.

“Whether that’s in Australia, California, China, India, Pakistan, or right throughout Africa.”

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