A United Nations report published last week said we have about a decade to get climate change under control, which—let’s be honest—isn’t likely to happen. So break out your goalie masks and harpoon guns, a Mad Max future awaits! Now, as new research points out, we even know where on Earth the inevitable water wars are most likely to take place.
Sarcasm aside, this report is actually quite serious.
Published today in Global Environmental Change, the paper identifies several hotspots around the globe where “hydro-political issues,” in the parlance of the researchers, are likely to give rise to geopolitical tensions, and possibly even conflict. The authors of the new report, a team from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), say the escalating effects of climate change, in conjunction with ongoing trends in population growth, could trigger regional instability and social unrest in regions where freshwater is scarce, and where bordering nations have to manage and share this increasingly scarce commodity.
Obviously, the causes of geopolitical tension and conflict are complex, but as the new report makes clear, we shouldn’t underestimate the role that water is going to play in the future. Competition for dwindling water resources, the authors say, will exacerbate tensions on a global scale in the coming decades, with certain regions more vulnerable than others. But how are the various factors that influence water demand and availability likely to affect populations around the world?
The new study, led by JRC scientist Fabio Farinosi, was an attempt to answer this critical question, and to also create a model that can predict where and when future water wars might arise.
In addition to pinpointing the geographical areas and countries most likely to experience hydro-social issues, the JRC scientists are also hoping to kickstart conversations amongst all the parties involved to mitigate water conflicts before they arise.
Farinosi’s team used a machine learning-driven approach to investigate the various factors that have traditionally given rise to water-related tensions. An algorithm studied previous episodes of conflict over water resources, of which there is no shortage (check out this impressive database of water-related conflicts to get a sense of how common water wars are in our history). The algorithm considered access to freshwater, climate stress (two greenhouse gas emission scenarios were considered, one moderate and one extreme), population trends, human pressures on the water supply, socio-economic conditions, and more.
Looking at the results, the researchers found that conflicts are more likely to arise in areas where a “transboundary” to water is present, such as a shared lake, basin, or river, and when freshwater is scarce, population density high, and power imbalances and climate stresses exist. A number of potentially problematic areas were identified, including five hotspots: the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado rivers.
Worldwide, the researchers found that rising temperatures and population growth will increase the chance of cross-border conflicts by between 75 to 95 percent in the next 50 to 100 years. That’s not encouraging, but as Farinosi points out, this does not mean that each case will result in conflict.
“It depends on how well prepared and equipped the countries are to cooperate,” he said in a statement. “This is where we hope our research can help, by raising awareness of the risks so that solutions can be sought early on.”
To that end, the JRC researchers also created an index and model to help identify regions at risk of escalating hydro-political conflicts. And they’re working on a more thorough analysis of the largest river basins in Africa in collaboration with local institutions.
This study reveals some scary things about the future, but there are some key limitations. The results were computer generated and based on historical episodes of water conflicts. It’s a normative analysis that doesn’t take future developments into account, such as geopolitical changes that could either exacerbate or alleviate the trends highlighted in the study. The analysis depends on two climate scenarios, but the future could change if we start to curb greenhouse gas emissions (don’t laugh).
Regardless, the future looks rough. If these models are correct, and we fail to address these issues before they arise, we run the risk of stratifying the human population even further. There are so many issues that divide us today, and climate change only promises to make this worse.