Climate change will have many far-reaching effects in years to come, one of the more devastating being conflicts over water supplies. With temperatures rising and rainfall becoming more erratic in many parts of the world, tensions may become strained over the management of river flows across international borders. 

The ancient country of Egypt today has a population of over 100 million people. This may seem surprising when you consider the fact that most of the country is arid desert with few water resources or farming potential. However, a population density map will reveal that the vast majority of Egypt’s population lives within 50km from the mighty Nile River which irrigates the surrounding land. This means the Nile Valley has a population density over 1 100 people per km2, one of the highest in the world. Unfortunately, this means the demand for water for farming and industry is massive and will continue to rise as the population of the country grows. By 2050, Egypt’s population is predicted to swell to around 160 million people (although estimates do vary). 

Alongside population growth, many other factors will contribute to increasing water scarcity in the region. The first is the inevitable effects of climate change. Rising temperatures in the upper tributaries (e.g. under a worst case emission scenario,  temperatures over northern Africa could rise by between 4°C and 6°C compared to the 1986-2005 mean) and increasing uncertainty about rainfall may make river flows less predictable. However, one of the biggest concerns is to do with Egypt’s upstream neighbour, Ethiopia, 

Ethiopia is nearing the completion of the ‘Grand Renaissance Dam’ on the Blue Nile River (one of the two major tributaries of the Nile) which is projected to be the biggest dam in Africa, with a hydroelectric capacity of over 15 000 Gigawatt hours per year. However, the building of the dam has provoked fierce tensions between Ethiopia and its downstream neighbours Sudan and Egypt. At a 2019 meeting in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, the Egyptian representatives claimed that the dam will restrict river flow on the Nile whilst Ethiopia countered that the dam was vital to provide electricity for Ethiopia’s population (as 60% are without electricity) and that the river will smooth out erratic flow regimes. 

The main risk to Egypt’s water supply is the filling process of the dam’s reservoir which could reduce flows towards Egypt and Sudan. The filling began in mid-2020, angering the Egyptian government who wanted a legally binding agreement to ensure equitable water supply. Negotiations have stalled numerous times between the countries and the latest rounds of talk in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) failed to reach any resolution.  The talks were held as the DRC’s president, Felix Tshisedeki took over as chair of the African Union in March, a key multilateral organisation trying to mediate the conflict. Diplomacy offers hope in tense situations like this, but agreements can be near impossible when either one or both parties are unwilling to compromise, even with mediation efforts. 

There are many other places around the world which could see tensions arise over water supplies. Back in 2012, US intelligence agencies predicted that lack of water would become a major issue in many areas after 2022, and by 2030 global water demand would outstrip supply by up to 40%. Major areas of instability will likely be in regions with rising populations, weak governance and already erratic climates including the Middle East, Central Asia, Northern Africa and Southern Asia. 

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climate change water conflicts

Map of the major rivers that have sources on the Tibetan Plateau (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

For instance, China controls Tibet, a huge plateau which is the source of many vital rivers such as the Indus, which irrigates most of Pakistan, and the Ganges, which waters highly populated regions of northern India and Bangladesh.  These areas have a combined population of over 800 million people. In late 2020 China announced a plan to build a dam on the upper Brahmaputra, stoking fears in India over the potential for Chinese-built dams to reduce river flows, increasing the risk of water shortages in Northern India and Bangladesh. 

A similar event happened on the Mekong River in 2019, after dams built by China resulted in farm failures in Thailand due to water scarcity. Despite water scarcity being a huge problem, more rainfall extremes have also led to flooding. Although dams are generally built with the aim of controlling flooding, they can sometimes exacerbate the situation. In summer 2019, it was reported that during the rainy season, surges of water from Chinese-built dams in the upper Mekong caused the river to rise up to 3.7m which adversely affected local fisheries and flooded cropland in Laos and Thailand. China did warn the downstream countries of the risk, but it was little consolation for those affected. It is understandable China wants to ensure suitable water supply for its 1.39 billion people but tensions will rise in the long term if water is not shared equitably with its neighbours. 

Regardless of the politics, climate change is expected to affect the Tibetan Plateau particularly badly. Many of Tibet’s glaciers are shrinking as annual temperatures rise 0.3°C per decade. In a worst case scenario, the sources of the Indus, Yellow and Mekong rivers could disappear by 2035.  

However, China is attempting to mediate these issues and has agreed to approximately 50 water related agreements with its neighbours, but the fact that it controls the sources of most of the rivers in South and Southeast Asia is bound to cause friction as climate change accelerates.  Any conflict between the world’s two most populous countries (India and China) could be disastrous. Already, clashes in June 2020 illustrate the tensions that exist between the countries.  Although these recent clashes were primarily caused by a disputed border, water conflict will only deepen an already tense relationship between the two giants. 

However, although inter-country conflict may appear the most worrying, conflict will likely occur within countries as well. Surprisingly one of the most vulnerable parts of the world to water scarcity is the Central and Western United States. For example, modelling suggests that between 2000 and 2099, the risk of a multi-decade mega-drought is expected to increase by up to 40 times in the Great Plains region compared with the 1950-2000 period. Multi-state conflict has occurred between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River systems. Water use in Georgia (the rapidly growing Atlanta urban area gets 70% of its water from the rivers) during the worst drought in 100 years in 2007 meant that downstream states (Alabama and Florida) struggled to obtain enough water. Georgia has made progress reducing its per capita water usage which has dropped from 150 gallons to 40 gallons. Despite this, Atlanta is America’s third fastest-growing city, and it is predicted that agriculture and energy industries in the area will continue to put more demand on water supplies.  The three states have been locked in a dispute since the 1990s and in 2014 Florida sued Georgia claiming unfair use of water. However, a Supreme Court decision in April ruled that Florida did not make a suitable case that Georgia was unfairly using its water.  

Water disputes are commonplace all across the United States. One of the main areas of concern is the Colorado River basin which runs through seven states. A treaty in 1922 (between California, Nevada, Arizona,  Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico) seemed to allocate more water to the states than actually flows in the river and a drought since 2000 has meant upstream states now want to increase water extraction. In Utah, plans to build a 147-mile pipeline to transport water from a reservoir to the rapidly expanding city of St George were halted due to opposition from the other six states who threatened legal action. Nevertheless, politicians in Utah still stress the scheme is vital for water security in the region, as it will reduce reliance on the strained Virgin River. 

Looking to the future, water conflict appears to be an unavoidable reality. As our climate becomes more erratic and as the human population expands, water resources will be stretched thin. However, the scale of these conflicts is hard to predict. Local conflict over water seems inevitable but whether this will expand to conflict between countries remains to be seen. Nevertheless, peaceful diplomacy between countries is usually successful because the cost of conflict in our interconnected and technologically advanced world is simply too high and in most cases diplomacy has triumphed over conflict. For example, in the last 50 years, the global ratio of successful water treaties compared to conflict, has been around 4 to 1. Global organisations can also help mediate conflict, such as the UN-sponsored ‘Water For Life Decade’ resolution from 2005-2015 which aimed to help promote cooperation over water resources. Climate targets will also be important. If the major polluters of the world can limit global warming then extreme drought will likely be less common. 

With regards to water security, certain regions of the developing and developed world will face serious problems in the near future. It would be wise for governments to ramp up plans to reduce water usage and to cooperate over these issues. 

Featured image by: Flickr