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Are We Doomed to Wage Wars over Water?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Water, water, everywhere. But will we always have enough to drink? Wash away our waste? Grow crops and raise livestock? Some prominent progressives are warning that, as our population grows and our planet warms, water will become increasingly scarce, and humans will inevitably start fighting over it.

War-correspondent-turned-antiwar-firebrand Chris Hedges expressed this idea during a radio interview with Brian Lehrer of WNYC radio, NPR’s affiliate in New York City. For more than a month, Lehrer has been hosting discussions of my claim—spelled out in my new book The End of War—that war is not inevitable. On February 27 Lehrer went to the heart of the matter and asked Hedges, “Chris, is war inevitable?”

“Yeah,” Hedges responded. “Look, we are living through a time when there is no rational check on serious climate change. We are spending down our natural capital at an alarming rate. Issues as basic as water, and crop yields. I mean, the agronomists say that for every one degree rise in temperature there is a 10 percent loss of yields. Human societies, when they break down, when they don’t have access to basic commodities, will engage in aggressive behavior to attempt to survive. And with the shredding of Kyoto, the failure in Copenhagen, the utter blindness to address what the fossil-fuel industry is doing not only to the country but to the planet, I think in fact we are entering a time where there will be an increase in conflict, scrambling for deleted resources as groups, including nation-states, attempt to survive.”

This same idea has been cited by green leaders such as Bill McKibben and Lester Brown. In a recent essay in The Guardian, Brown argued that “in the Arab Middle East, where populations are growing fast, the world is seeing the first collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level.”

Climate change will undoubtedly disrupt already strained water supplies in many parts of the world. The United Nations and other international organizations have organized World Water Day, held every March 22 since 1993, to draw attention to water shortages. The World Water Day web site warns that climate change “is expected to impact both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, including feed and fodder for livestock, as well as forests and aquaculture…High latitude areas will see an increase in their potential, whereas regions near the equator will experience more frequent and severe droughts, excessive rainfall, and floods which can destroy crops and put food production at risk.”

Droughts have also been correlated, historically, with warfare among tribal people, from the Maricopa of the North American Southwest to the Bantu of South Africa, according to the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley. But a 1992 study of 186 societies, most of them pre-industrial, by the anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember found no evidence that scarcity of food, water and other resources leads inevitably or even usually to violent conflict.

As I explained a year ago in a column on the Embers’ research, the strongest correlate of warfare was a history of unpredictable natural disasters—such as floods, droughts and insect infestations—that disrupted food supplies. The Embers were careful to note that it was not the disasters themselves that precipitated war, but the memory of past disasters and hence the fear of future ones. Another correlate was a society’s distrust of neighboring societies. “Fear appears to be a common thread in the two obtained predictors of wars—fear of nature and fear of others,” the Embers concluded.

In other words, wars stemmed from factors that were primarily emotional, not ecological. Of course, societies in a region with a history of war also fear war itself; hence they arm themselves and even launch preemptive attacks against other groups, making their fear self-fulfilling. The irony—or tragedy—is that war often inflicts on us deprivation far worse than that which we feared.

Given the Embers’ finding of a link between war and fear, I worry about the warnings of antiwar liberals such as Hedges that climate change will trigger wars over water and food. Rather than inspiring people to install water-saving showerheads in their bathrooms and support alternative-energy research, alarmists such as Hedges might provoke voters to stockpile guns and ammo and support higher defense budgets.

A new report, “Global Water Security,” by U.S. intelligence agencies seems at first glance to support the forecasts of pessimists such as Hedges. The report states that over the next decade “water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests.” Moreover, “as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives will become more likely.”

That sounds like bad news. But here’s the good news: “Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts.” The report notes that India and Pakistan have managed to reach water-sharing agreements in spite of their hostility toward each other; so have Israel and Jordan.

The report adds that “improved water management (e.g., pricing, allocations and ‘virtual water’ trade) and investments in water-related sectors (e.g., agriculture, power and water treatment) will afford the best solutions for societal and global water problems. Because agriculture uses approximately 70 percent of the global fresh water supply, the greatest potential for relief from water scarcity will be through technology that reduces the amount of water needed for agriculture.”

In other words, we are not facing “inevitable” conflict. We are facing, as always, a choice. When water shortages loom, nations vying for control of a river, say, may build up armaments, threaten each other and carry out pre-emptive strikes. Or they can join together in finding technological, economic and political solutions that provide greater long-term benefits to both populations. I wish Hedges and other talking heads would acknowledge our capacity to choose this latter option instead of claiming that we’re doomed to wage wars over water. I expect hawks who favor bigger defense budgets to indulge in fear-mongering, but doves should know better.

Image courtesy circumspecte.com and Wikimedia Commons.

 

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David N'Gog 1:51 pm 03/26/2012

    There is so much water on earth. It is quite bad that in 2012 we still don’t have a cheap-easy way to filter out sea-water and turn it into drinking water.

    Yes, there would still be issues of distribution inland… but still this seems like an issue technology could solve if it were given a fraction of the funding spent on “diet pills” or certain cosmetic procedures.

    The fact that the world can’t produce plenty of drinking water for the poorest of areas is linked to poor prioritization by our species.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Steve3 7:30 pm 03/30/2012

    Just look to the south amigo. Are you gringos going to let Mexico take water from the Rio Bravo uhh you call it the Rio Grande — anyway..

    War? Yes! and the USA will be up there with the first aggressors -NO DOUBT!!!

    Link to this
  3. 3. triman 10:23 am 03/31/2012

    FUD fear, uncertainty, and doubt to tools of the salesman with a crappy product.

    Link to this

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