The Hidden Impacts of Climate Change 3: Water War

When you hear about climate change, what is the first thing you think about? Deforestation? Rising sea levels? Or global warming? Although the research behind these categories is already daunting, are we being told everything?
In this series, the hidden impact of climate change, I will be digging deeper into the true effects that climate change has on our planet. Not only on humans, but also on the environment and animals.
This is part 3 of the Hidden Impacts of Climate Change.

You said…water?

Yes, water and war. Still squinting at your screen with a confused look? Trust me it is intentional. Although, not a clear link, it is now becoming a daunting future over the horizon. The water we use every day in many ways, now has a possibility of becoming scarce in areas around the world. But why would people fight over such a simple necessity?

Well, we often focus on how water is destructive as a stronger force due to climate change, normally overlooking other problems it brings. Concerns are rising regarding how population is rising, how places are becoming drier and that there is less freshwater available. As we know, water is the basis of our survival, so these factors listed would only create tension and conflict between populations. Nearly two-thirds of the global population are living in water-stressed conditions, according to Brahma Chellaney’s book, Water, Peace and War. The world population is estimated to have exceeded 7.9 billion as of November 2021 and is growing every day.

With little spotlight being shone on this colossal issue, the unsustainable treatment of water being left unchecked threatens every human’s existence in the far future.

So what is going on?

The Dutch government-funded Water, Peace and Security (WPS) uses environmental data to raise awareness among policymakers, and people and parties in water-stressed regions. They’ve developed a Global Early Warning Tool, which uses machine learning to predict conflicts before they happen. It combines data about rainfall, crop failures, population density, wealth, agricultural production, levels of corruption, droughts, and flooding, among many other sources of data to produce conflict warnings. They are displayed on a red-and-orange Mercator projection down to the level of administrative districts. This is one example of action made by powerful groups towards an issue that does not directly affect them yet, but is enabling others to recognise the scale of this problem in present day.

An example of direct unrest and conflict caused by water is when Iraqi protesters took to the streets in 2019, after more than 120,000 people were hospitalised after drinking polluted water, where police opened fire on those who protested. This comes as a consequence of when government and business prioritise economic development, over health and wellbeing. This is clear here as consideration for water was clearly neglected. In Syria meanwhile, water scarcity and crop failure have prompted an exodus from rural areas to the cities, exacerbating the civil war. In this instance, water scarcity would be considered as a ‘threat multiplier’, meaning it can escalate conflict further.

We see water availability diminishing not only due to weather though. Humans are the underlying cause for all of these repercussions, but there are situations where we directly inhibit our ability to access clean water. This could range from the way we treat wastewater to water pollution. Pesticides, fertilisers and natural oil leaks are a few ways humans contaminate water supply; the water supply that people in poor communities drink and clean themselves with, and in some places, whole communities rely on. This is where climate change doesn’t help. All the previous points are what is going in our world, but when combined with more unpredictable rainfall, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, etc., a bleak future slowly casts down on us.

Real World Examples:

Water scarcity is already a widespread problem, today this dissonance is leading many cities – from Rome to Cape Town, Chennai to Lima – to ration water. Water crises have been ranked in the top five of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks by Impact’s list, nearly every year since 2012. In 2017, severe droughts contributed to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, when 20 million people across Africa and the Middle East were forced to leave their homes due to the accompanying food shortages and conflicts that erupted. Nearly 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture, in a growing population where approximately the other 30% is being demanded increasingly every day.

Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia all depend on inflow from the Blue Nile and have long exchanged political blows over the upstream Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project – a dam built at $5bn (£3.6bn), and three times the size of the country’s Lake Tana. When the Ethiopian government announced plans to press ahead regardless, Egypt and Sudan held a joint war exercise in May this year, pointedly called “Guardians of the Nile.” It has perhaps the highest risk of spilling into a water war of all the disputes in today’s political landscape, but there are several other hotspots around the world. Pakistani officials, for example, have previously referred to India’s upstream usage strategy as “fifth-generation warfare”, whilst Uzbek President Islam Karimov has warned that regional disputes over water could lead to war.

India is also a severe case already, where they are already struggling to supply freshwater to all of its citizens. For example, India’s Northern Plains, are one of the most fertile farming areas in the world, yet today, villagers regularly clash over water scarcity. The underlying data reveals that population growth and high levels of irrigation have outstripped available groundwater supplies. Despite the area’s lush-looking cropland, the WPS map ranks nearly every district in Northern India as “extremely high” in terms of baseline water stress. Several key rivers which feed the area – the Indus, Ganges and Sutlej – all originate on the Tibetan side of the border yet are vital for water supplies in both India and Pakistan compounds the problem. Several border skirmishes have broken out recently between India and China, which lays claim to upstream areas. A violent clash in May last year in the Galwan Valley, through which a tributary to the Indus flows, left 20 Indian soldiers dead. Less than a month later there were reports that China was building “structures” that might dam the river and so restrict its flow into India.

All of these cases are exacerbated by climate change; an unwelcoming and detrimental factor on top of the warning signs. They keep signalling urgent change is needed, but have you heard of any significant state action?

Causes & Effects of Climate Change

This section underlines how climate change impacts upon vulnerable areas and their water supply. This is going to summarise and simplify the main and obvious consequences that are not talked about, underpinning why this is such a serious issue.

Changes in rainfall patterns:

As the climate heats up, rainfall patterns changes, affecting the availability of fresh water. More frequent and severe droughts and rising water temperatures are expected to cause a decrease in water quality. Such conditions encourage the growth of toxic algae and bacteria, which will worsen the problem of water scarcity that has been largely caused by human activity. The increase of cloudburst events (sudden extreme rainfall) is also likely to influence the quality and quantity of fresh water available, as storm water can cause untreated sewage to enter surface water. 

The resulting contamination of drinking water by bacteria, viruses, and cysts could trigger outbreaks of waterborne disease, while increased toxic contamination could have both acute and long-term health effects.

Atmospheric rivers (AR) are also something that is being researched, and its frequency is rising. Conditions usually include high humidity levels, strong low level winds, and a moist neutral atmospheric profile, which allows for extensive precipitation production when air is lifted over geographic features, which is shown to cause heavy rainfall and snow leading to landslides and flooding. 

Rising temperatures: 

More droughts, meaning less groundwater. Temperatures are responsible for whether water comes down as rain or snow, therefore a factor that can initiate floods and other extreme weather events. For example, when ice caps and glaciers melt, sea levels rise causing the chain reaction which is described in the other 2 boxes. Therefore, the underlying issue exacerbating other factors.

Rising sea levels:

With the rising of sea levels, saltwater can more easily contaminate underground freshwater-bearing rocks, called aquifers. A process called desalination removes salt from saltwater, but it is a last-resort, energy-intensive, costly process for places where there are persistent droughts, and freshwater is lacking.

Parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caribbean use desalination to produce freshwater out of necessity.

But what now?

It is practically impossible to create water for all of the areas affected, so solutions need to be made fast. Making current systems more efficient, technological innovation and redistribution are ways of allowing people to access water, but are only short-term solutions. They work to combat the issue instead of preventing it. So how is water scarcity being prevented?

Rapid adoption of desalination technologies in arid regions such as the Middle East, has helped countries deal with physical water scarcity. In Saudi Arabia, desalination now accounts for nearly 70% of their drinking water. However, desalination plants are power-hungry using 4 kilowatt hours of energy for every cubic metre of water produced. This costs customers as much as $5 per 1000 gallons versus $1.50 per 1000 gallons from a typical municipal water supplier even if the costs have fallen significantly over the last 2 decades.

Reusing and recycling water should alleviate municipality and industry-wide water scarcity. Depending on whether it is drinkable, water can irrigate orchards, recharge groundwater or wash vehicles. Wastewater treatment technology has improved exponentially in the last decade. Kurita Water is a prime example that has created Zero-Liquid Discharge (ZLD) systems, a closed-loop process which treats and reuses water without any discharge. The public appears to remain sceptical as to whether recycled, treated wastewater is drinkable though. Highly visible champions such as Bill Gates are vouching for its safety, which should help grow the practice. Australia turning to greywater would save 1 trillion litres of water.

There are also projects that aim to increase the accessibility to water, such as UDUMA and ORISA. UDUMA is a sustainable drinking service for rural Africa, which has replaced old and broken-down pipes, also giving inhabitants an electronic card for simplified payment. ORISA is a portable family-sized water filter for populations with no access to drinking water. It is 100% recyclable and the filter removes bacteria and viruses.

Below are other organisations/charities, a few involved in water conservation:

  • Charity: Water
  • Clean Water Fund 
  • Global Water Challenge
  • World Wildlife Fund
  • World Resources Institute

As we can see, there are many efforts to solve the common goal of preventing water scarcity. But this is mainly for areas already affected, so is still not enough as climate change disproportionately affects areas of Africa, the Middle East, and places with high populations, in terms of water scarcity. We can also make efforts to save water, but ultimately change is needed in many industries, and government intervention is also required. For example, according to the UN one pair of jeans takes 7,500 litres of water to make – a number that includes the water used to grow the cotton, make the denim and get the product shop-ready. To put that in context, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation says that, for most people, 2 litres of water are sufficient for drinking every day. So that pair of jeans you just bought could contain the equivalent of about 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person. A startling statistic that is meaningless unless it is taken into account; if perhaps protests or boycotts against this unsustainable method began, something may change? Nonetheless, there are more significant ways of saving water that need attention now.

Closing Words:

Water is perhaps our most precious resource, but every year we are extracting and consuming more. Some of the figures and facts discussed in this article are startling and are thought-provoking, making even you more conscious of your use of water. The idea that what you use every day unconsciously, could ignite war elsewhere in the world could bring a whirlwind of emotions, but as previously stated, it is the action that is important.

Overall, a water war is not far fetched, so is worryingly becoming more of a headline on news outlets and investigations. There is an element that is only caused by rising populations, as it was inevitable that if more people share the same water, problems will occur. However, climate change is a factor putting more pressure and strain on many communities around the world, quite literally to survive. Therefore, as discussed in the ‘causes and effects of climate change’ section, this is one of the hidden impacts that climate has on an already existing epidemic. Unfortunately, many components of the problem are out of human reach, but still so much can be done to prevent avoidable damage.

If you want to read more about the economic, social and environmental effects of water, these links below may interest you:

Thank you for reading!

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