The water bomb
Today many countries already regard water as a strategic resource. In the future its significance for international relations will continue to grow

Consequences for Global Policy

War over Water?

Hollywood has produced a number of films focusing on water in recent decades. In films ranging from Chinatown in 1974 to Erin Brockovich in 2000, the villains are unscrupulous businessmen who extract profits from this scarce resource or pollute the groundwater. In Quantum of Solace in 2008, James Bond fights a criminal syndicate that is buying up the water infrastructure in Bolivia. The dire visions of these movies reflect questions that many people are asking today: What will happen if at some point water is really no longer available in adequate amounts, or if it becomes too contaminated to drink? Will this lead to war?

The International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme is predicting a gloomy future: By the year 2030, almost half of the global population will be suffering from water stress. In other words, about four billion people will be forced to make do with less than one million liters of water per person per year. That sounds like a lot, but it means that because of the high levels of water consumption for agriculture in many parts of the world, more water will be needed than is available—especially in the hot summer months. What’s more, water quality is sinking.

The water crisis in agriculture

In order to visualize this situation, we need to take a closer look at water. We drink between two and three liters of water every day. A person living in an OECD country uses between 120 and 150 liters of water for cooking, showering, and washing every day. But most of the water we use is in our food. This means an average person actually uses between 2,500 and 5,000 liters of water per day, depending on his or her appetite for meat. This “virtual water consumption” takes place on our dining tables. We also have to consider how much water we actually use. Whereas very little of the water we use for drinking, cooking, and showering evaporates, plants consume water through evapotranspiration. This means that we don’t save any water if we only take quick 30-second showers, because very little water evaporates during this time. Our breakfast bacon has more serious consequences, because the feed we cultivate for farmed animals requires huge amounts of water. As a result, the water crisis is an agricultural issue. About 99 percent of our water resources are consumed by the plants we use to produce food for ourselves and our farmed animals. That’s why countries with a large agricultural sector are especially prone to conflicts. Many analysts believe that water is the new oil. Are they right?

Controversial agreements

Today we’re already seeing water hotspots all over the world—places where water resources are becoming very scarce. In most of these cases, irrigation farming is playing a crucial role. For example, it affects surface waters such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia, which has almost completely disappeared since the 1970s. The reason it has dried up is the large-scale cultivation of cotton, which was irrigated by water from the Aral Sea. Another thorny issue is that of surface waters that cross national boundaries. This pertains to rivers in particular. Egypt is one of the countries that are most strongly impacted by this problem. The Nile Delta in northern Egypt, which has been extremely fruitful for thousands of years, is fed by the world’s second-longest river. The 84 billion cubic meters of water that flow down the Nile every year were divided between Egypt and Sudan at a ratio of 80 to 20 by the Nile Waters Agreement of 1959. The reason for this ratio is that the northern part of the Nile Basin has no precipitation, whereas the southern part does. However, this agreement has always been controversial, especially because the countries in which the headwaters are located wanted to safeguard its citizens’ food supply by means of modern irrigation systems. This is why Egypt has declared the Nile to be a strategic resource, for which it would even wage war if necessary.

Climate change – more regional droughts

All over the world, groundwater levels are sinking and increasingly making water a resource in crisis. The global expansion of irrigation agriculture based on the use of groundwater has lowered groundwater levels throughout the world. The best-known examples are in the Punjab region of India and the West and Midwest of the USA. Groundwater levels in Punjab have sunk by as much as 65 percent because hundreds of thousands of small farmers use it to irrigate their water-intensive rice crops. The Ogallala aquifer provides water for irrigation agriculture in the US states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. Between 2001 and 2011 its cumulative level sank as much as it had done during the entire 20th century. The groundwater level has risen slightly since 2011, but if the Ogallala aquifer should ever dry up completely, it would take 6,000 years for rainfall to fill it up again through natural processes.

Climate change is a complicating factor. One of its most important consequences will be the higher variability of precipitation. Researchers at the University of Reading in the UK are observing a trend which indicates that humid regions will receive even more precipitation in the future. Other regions that are already very dry, such as the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, will experience more droughts due to climate change—along with all the possible consequences regarding migration and internal conflicts.

A further problem is the decline in water quality. In Germany, researchers and ministries are observing high levels of nitrates in groundwater as a result of pollution by fertilizer runoff. But this is a small problem by comparison to China, where 80 percent of the groundwater is so severely contaminated that it can no longer be consumed by human beings without a health risk. This is a challenge even Erin Brockovich couldn’t overcome.

Water is becoming scarcer, dirtier, and more fiercely contested. The creators of the James Bond thriller were inspired by the conflicts over water in Bolivia that hit the headlines in 2000. Low levels of precipitation due to climate change and poor management of the water infrastructure were motivating water utility companies there to raise their prices by as much as 300 percent. This had been preceded by the privatization of water networks under pressure from the World Bank, which expected the market to regulate increasingly scarce resources and create a better price structure. The result was months of unrest and several deaths, until the government reversed the privatization of the water infrastructure and invested in the water infrastructure itself.

Will this Bolivian scenario be duplicated in many countries all over the world in the coming decades? It’s true that in sub-Saharan Africa there have been many deaths among small farmers fighting for access to water resources. However, it would be an exaggeration to talk of “water wars.” Thanks to precipitation, water is a renewable resource. That’s why the prospect of tanks guarding rivers is very unlikely. Besides, there are opportunities for using our worldwide water resources more effectively and for improving the cooperation between water users.

»Water is growing scarcer and more fiercely contested«

An opportunity for innovations

The water crisis is an opportunity for collaboration between nations—especially those with less developed diplomatic relations. The countries along the Nile could achieve much more together if they would manage their resources cooperatively. In addition, in countries all over the world—in eastern Europe, northern Asia (Russia), and sub-Saharan Africa—there is enough room to expand agriculture because of high levels of rainfall and fertile soils. But in order for this to happen, we need free and open agricultural trade so that water-poor regions such as the Near East and expanding economies such as China and India can satisfy their demand for food in spite of their water scarcity. If we are to feed the growing global population in the year 2050, there is no alternative to this “virtual water trade.”

Besides, the water crisis is an opportunity. In order to manage and conserve our water resources more effectively, we need new technologies such as more drought-resistant seed stocks and computer-controlled precision irrigation of fruit plants. We also need to find alternatives to meat, which is a major consumer of water. About 70 percent of the land area taken up by global agriculture is used for meat production. The production of one kilogram of beef requires 16,000 liters of water. The world is facing a technological race to find alternatives to meat. The success of these technologies would be a blessing for the world’s water resources, because the production of plant-based alternatives to meat requires only about one tenth as much water as meat production. Some people regard this as fraud against consumers; others would welcome it as a key innovation for avoiding a worldwide water crisis.

Martin Keulertz

is an Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut. Born in Düsseldorf, he has worked on global and local water issues in the UK, USA, Ethiopia, and Berlin