National Intelligence Council: Water wars are coming

In 2012, the U.S. Intelligence Council issued a report warning that in the next few decades, the fragile ecosystem of international trade and political partnership that America relies on will be threatened as countries that are “important to US interests” come to blows over a single invaluable resource: water. Not oil. “Water is the new oil,” so say economists, business executives and political scientists. Yes, while the majority of the wars of the 20th century were fought over terrain bubbling over with crude, the wars of tomorrow will likely be fought over countries with access to aquifers, canals and fresh water springs.

People, people everywhere, and not a drop to drink

As the U.S’s drought this year has proven, water scarcity is coming for all of us. California has become a kind of national symbol of bad times to come; their current predicament presents all kinds of water-related conundrums that Americans seem to have little response to but bafflement. 

Yet if idea that fresh water is disappearing is a truly horrifying prospect for commodity-coddled Americans, these harsh conditions have been a reality for millions of people all over the world for quite some time. As it stands now, nearly “1 billion people in the developing world don’t have access to” clean drinking water. With this lack of clean water comes rampant disease, sickness and death; it’s estimated that a child dies from water-related illnesses every five minutes.  

The bad news is that as horrible as this is, things are actually about to get a whole lot worse, as our population is growing and our water supplies are shrinking. We’re currently speeding towards a global population of 8 billion people by 2025. A National Intelligence Council report predicts that: “The developing world, with its rapidly expanding urban centers, will see the biggest increases in water demand, as its population grows larger and more affluent.” Put simply, there’s a whole lot of demand and very little supply. The report continues:

Between now and 2040, global demand for fresh water will increase, but the supply of fresh water will not keep pace with demand…annual global water requirements will reach 6,900 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2030, 40 percent above current sustainable water supplies.

That’s right: we’re looking at a global water shortfall of roughly 40 percent, which will leave billions of people without adequate water. With that kind of scarcity, it doesn’t take wild stretches of the imagination to see how things are ripe for conflict — which the report warns could happen within years.

Weaponizing water

The report predicts that, over the next decade, water will increasingly become a political asset as well as a weapon — something that countries with the abilities to “to construct and support major water projects,” will use as leverage against those that don’t. In this way, water will become a means by which nations “obtain regional influence” and dominance over others. Those with the means to do so will find themselves in a race to buy up as much water — and therefore, as much political power — as possible. 

USS Annapolis, via Wikimedia Commons

USS Annapolis, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet the report also warns that, after the next decade, conflicts over water may not stop at political squabbling. It says that “as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years…future water shortages and a well-established pattern of water problems…[will aggravate] regional tensions” between nations, leading to “political conflict and even war.”

Even more concerning, the report suggests that water-centered terrorism may become a trend. Considering that “the fear of massive floods or loss of water resources would alarm the public,” radical groups will be motivated to target infrastructure such as dams, desalinization facilities and water pipelines. As water-related infrastructure projects become “high-publicity targets,” terrorists will use them to garner media attention and damage important public resources.

The biggest threat 

Maybe the biggest threat to peace, however, isn’t exploding dams but rather the threat of state failure, with countries collapsing from within due to lack of water. The report suggests that water scarcity will destabilize key political and economic systems, which may cause countries already under considerable strain to buckle and implode. Factors that may contribute to this level of instability include:

  • Risks to national and global food markets: Approximately 70 percent of the world’s water supply is devoted to agriculture, which makes a water crisis a huge threat to agricultural output and food markets. Due to the global population boom of recent years, many nations have “over-pumped their groundwater to satisfy growing food demand.” The report warns that, without mitigation, nations risk exhausting their current water supplies. This would result in a decline in food production, causing market failure and mass starvation.
  • Risk to energy resources: Because hydropower is still an incredibly important means of generating electricity, water shortages pose a huge threat to developing countries and their infrastructure. Without sufficient hydropower, developing nations will need to switch to an alternative source of energy, or face mass destabilization.  

Water shortages exacerbate any underlying political or economic issues. In this sense…

…when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions— [water shortages contribute] to social disruptions that can result in state failure.

Given that the U.S. controls the largest reservoirs of fresh water in the world, it is unlikely that America will face state failure. But states that America considers vital to its interests are not so lucky, and destabilization amongst the countries we dominate for resources could have a significant effect on the U.S. economy, as well as its political and military reach in the world.

Potential solutions

So how do we curb the likelihood for chaos and war? The report offers several tentative solutions, such as water sharing agreements and improved water management technology. Yet the report warns against what is perhaps the most common solution suggested in America and around the globe: water privatization. As I’ve written about before, water privatization is favored by many powerful political and corporate actors, including the World Bank. The report warns that: 

Privatization…can threaten established use patterns by increasing the costs of water or transferring ownership of water sources to private companies without proper local governance structures. Privatization also makes water supply vulnerable to market forces which…can lead to instability, as people become unable to afford water and/or become restive as they perceive their right to water being threatened.

Instead of privatizing water supplies, the report suggests that properly run government water utilities can both produce enough revenue to finance infrastructure, and can adequately provide for low-income as well as high-income communities. For America, this is the only logical solution. Profits for shareholders should never be a motivating factor in the management of our most precious resource. The best we can hope for is that grass-roots initiatives in the U.S. will help keep public water in the hands of well-funded and responsible local government. This is the only way of ensuring that our water will continue to be considered a right — not a “product” for the likes of Nestle and Citibank.


Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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