No Wars for Water

Why Climate Change Has Not Led to Conflict

The world economic downturn and upheaval in the Arab world might grab headlines, but another big problem looms: environmental change. Along with extreme weather patterns, rising sea levels, and other natural hazards, global warming disrupts freshwater resource availability -- with immense social and political implications. Earlier this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a report, Global Water Security, assessing hydropolitics around the world. In it, the authors show that international water disputes will affect not only the security interests of riparian states, but also of the United States. 

In many parts of the world, freshwater is already a scarce resource. It constitutes only 2.5 percent of all available water on the planet. And only about .4 percent of that is easily accessible for human consumption. Of that tiny amount, a decreasing share is potable because of pollution and agricultural and industrial water use. All that would be bad enough, but many freshwater bodies are shared among two or more riparian states, complicating their management.

Of course, the policy community has long prophesied impending "water wars." In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon warned that "water scarcity ... is a potent fuel for wars and conflict." Yet history has not witnessed many. In fact, the only official war over water took place about 4,500 years ago. It was a conflict between the city-states of Lagash and Umma in modern day Iraq over the Tigris river. More recently, there have been some close calls, especially in the arid Middle East. About two years before the 1967 War, Israel and Syria exchanged fire over the Jordan River Basin, which both said the other was overusing. The limited armed clashes petered out, but the political dispute over the countries' shared water sources continues. In 2002, Lebanon constructed water pumps on one of the river's tributaries, which caused concern for downstream Israel. The project never provoked any formal military action, but with peace in the region already precarious, verbal exchanges between the two countries prompted the United States to step in. Both parties eventually accepted a compromise that would allow Lebanon to withdraw a predetermined amount of water for its domestic needs.

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