You Should Know

You Should Know

Why is Water Scarcity a Global Security Concern?

By Michael Tiboris

Global water resources are critically stressed in historically unprecedented ways. By 2025, the UN predicts that 1.8 billion people – 22% of the global population – will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity. Why is water scarcity a global security concern? Here’s what you should know.   

Access to adequate safe water is a basic necessity for nearly all aspects of human life public health, economic productivity, food and energy production, and even social equity.

More than 90 percent of the world’s river basins are shared by two or more countries, and expected population growth makes these increasingly contested resources.

Water conflict is complex: Scarcity doesn’t always lead to conflict, and too much water sometimes does. 

Armed conflict between nations – “water wars” – are very uncommon, but sub-national conflicts are not, and include small-scale violence over access, pollution, domestic agriculture policies, and water infrastructure.

The most common factors contributing to water conflict include the effects of climate change, weak governing institutions, and extreme poverty.

Climate change and poor resource management have been implicated as contributing causes to both the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

Soviet era irrigation policies destroyed the Aral Sea in central Asia, causing diplomatic and local tensions between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Lack of cooperative governance between countries sharing water creates tension. Egypt, which is entirely dependent on the Nile River, has longstanding disagreements with upstream countries Sudan and Ethiopia.

Poverty and conflict are interconnected, and lack of access to water for drinking and sanitation results in economic losses estimated at $260 billion annually in developing countries, or 1.5 percent of their GDP. 

Urbanization and rapid development also strain shared water systems. China’s infrastructure boom in the upper Mekong River region worries downstream neighbors dependent on its flow.

Cooperation is possible, even between countries with historical tensions. India and Pakistan have co-managed the Indus River system since 1960

Many existing water treaties, however, fail to include all the countries in a watershed, ignore groundwater, or are unprepared for climate change.

Data collection and sharing is among the easiest steps toward water security. Drought prediction, groundwater modeling, and detailed analyses of water use patterns are valuable tools.

The United States has a stated interest in improving global water access and sustainability in order to improve security, prevent food crises, and reduce the likelihood of human migration.

On World Water Day 2017 (March 22), Council fellows Michael Tiboris and Joshua Busby will discuss water security as a matter of national security.

Learn more or watch the live stream.


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©2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs