Water Wars


Today's New York Times featured a front-page article on the severe drought facing Australia and the ripple effects that water shortage is having around the globe. In a nutshell, Australia's water deficit has hurt its production and export of rice, the global price of rice has risen sharply, and conflict has broken out in states that rely on rice imports for food.

It's not just a bad Kevin Costner movie. In the literature on emerging conflict, competition for water is expected to be a major factor in future warfare. Competition for food (often the byproduct of scarce water) will also drive conflict, particularly in areas of the world where population growth outpaces food-production capability. And global warming will make the competition increasingly fierce.

Infectious diseases will also serve as an engine for conflict. Nations will crumble from within if they cannot control disease epidemics. States and non-state actors will fight over medical treatment facilities, quarantine measures and other friction points. These issues will also create alliances and enmities between states and regions. It's not hard to imagine scenarios where disputes over these basic life necessities lead to civil wars, interstate wars, terrorism, etc.

I've been an environmentalist since my first YMCA camping trips as a kid; I think we ought to care about the environment for its own sake. But if that kind of liberal idealism does nothing for you, then today's Australia story should give you a reason to care. It's just one of many environmental issues with a national security nexus. (Oil and energy policy, anyone?)

By all means, let's save the polar bears. But let's also save ourselves by being smarter and better on environmental issues.

By Phillip Carter |  April 17, 2008; 7:20 PM ET  | Category:  Emerging Conflicts
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I liked that silly movie! It was a lot of fun, especially if you grew up with Namor the submariner.

Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is a bleakly entertaining exposition on densely interconnected systems and the rippling consequence of ecological collapse. It's relevant to discussion of the Australian example, though Australia itself is not likely to go the way of Easter Island.

Posted by: John Faughnan | April 17, 2008 8:06 PM

The water wars will soon be with us. In addition to "Collapse," "Cadillac Desert," written some 25 years ago, and which examines the western U.S., is an excellent read. And it's not dated by any means: the issues have become worse over the years, with the huge expansion of population in what is, after all, a desert. The same issues are present throughout the world, given the expansion in sheer numbers of human beings.

Phil, if you really want to get into this from an environmental standpoint, you should address the use of so-called "pure" water in plastic bottles throughout the wealthier countries. First, the water is no better than what's available from municipal water supplies at a fraction of the cost. Importantly, those little plastic bottles are an environmental disaster.

And, from a military standpoint, I'd like to see some hard questions asked about why troops in Iraq get pallette after pallette of those plastic water bottles airlifted in at considerable expense when the Army has perfectly good means of purifying even very dirty water in tactical situations. We should also be asking what's happening to all of the empty bottles. An Army in the field is by definition an environmental disaster; why add to it with unnecessary niceties? Bottled water and war do not compute. Why add this kind of thing to the already formidable logistics challenges?

Recall the Four Horsemen? War was only one of them. The rest are on the way.

Posted by: Publius | April 17, 2008 8:42 PM

I don't understand what the obstacles are in setting up desalination plants powered by wind turbines and solar power. I've seen megawatt wind turbines in action and they are pretty impressive.

The technology to help us solve these problems already exist today. It seems to me that people and governments are so averse to upfront monetary & political costs that they become blind to the trainwreck just around the corner.

Posted by: Simply J | April 17, 2008 8:56 PM

"Cadillac Desert" is a great read. It along with the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Through the Looking Glass" are must reads for an understanding of how administrative agencies behave. See:




both central topics in "Cadillac Desert"


Posted by: Walter Olin | April 17, 2008 9:12 PM

I suppose that war may be one option in the quest for water. I hope that global leaders will consider other options or actively provide other options to those less fortunate in their water management and acquisition capabilities.

Posted by: C.B. | April 18, 2008 8:14 AM

I love Cadillac Desert, too! It's such a readable book and full of pictures that drives the point home.

Regarding the bottled water issue, we should note that Canada today is going to outlaw Bisphenol A, one of the ingredients in the plastic bottle. Just think of our soldiers drinking these estrogen-like substances everyday!

The bottle water problem appears to be one of scale in acquisition. Soldiers appear to prefer the taste of bottled water in general over the ROWPU units. In addition, somebody(name unknown) in the Defense Department wanted to minimize the operation of the ROWPU units because they're more expensive than the price from bottling plants.
[don't know if we have enough ROWPU capacity]
So the supply guys decided to buy the bottles in the beginning. And since that's the way they did it, nobody has seen fit to change the policy. And of course we're buying the bottles from Kuwait and other gulf countries.

In addition, because it was treated as a commercial purchase, the supply guys did not want to pay the premium for unique bottle shapes (square ones easier to transport, for example, or the 5 gal water cans).

Mind you, we are paying the contractors to build bottling plants in Al Asad Air Base, and maybe other FOBs, too. KBR also operates ROWPU machines to provide other water on these bases.

And we usually don't use the water buffalos because we also (surprise surprise) wants to save the wear & tear on them.

I don't think anyone did a comparison of the taste of the bottle water after a day in the sun vs that from the water buffalos, though.

Posted by: Jimmy | April 18, 2008 11:47 AM

"I don't think anyone did a comparison of the taste of the bottle water after a day in the sun vs that from the water buffalos, though."

Taste, schmaste. If you get hydrated and don't get the runs, what's the problem? It's a war, isn't it? And whatever happened to the dandy little pills? They work.

'Course, these troops don't get beer, so maybe the taste of water does matter. Once upon a time, I recall warm beer tasting far better than warm water.

Posted by: Publius | April 18, 2008 6:31 PM

i have been saying for a couple of years now that i think the conflict in the darfur region is actually about lake chad, not that lake chad will be around much longer at the rate it is evaporating each year, but its not about religion or skin color really, its about access to fresh water, about resource

i feel blessed to live on the great lakes, it truly is the place to be, knowing what is coming

Posted by: molly | April 19, 2008 8:17 AM

I've been predicting a shooting war in the Southwest US for several years now. Unrestrained suburban-style growth, complete with thousands of bright-green golf courses in the retirement belt, have depleted the water supply WAY below a sustainable level. The Virgin River, which flows into Las Vegas, is an alkaline trickle. Mexico is getting antsy about the water we steal from them.

And according to scientists, the Southwest is in a historically WET period, which is about to end; the long-term sustainable level of water supply is much less than half of what they take out now.

The obvious solution is to stop giving it to farmers, but if you shut down the farmers you're going to have a revolt in the desert.

Posted by: Fnarf | April 19, 2008 10:01 AM

Food riots and water wars should not be unexpected in a world where the human population has surged from less than 2 billion to well over six billion in less than 100 years.

Posted by: Buddy | April 19, 2008 10:35 AM

Lots and lots of conflict over water. Wars between states over water, well, at least not historically. Perhaps it is too much political science schooling, but war for me implies armed conflict between states. Oregon State geographer Aaron Wolf's studies on transboundary water interactions between two or more states shows quite definitively there is LOTS of saber rattling over water but very limited organized shooting between countries and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict accounts for most of it. There also is lots of cooperation over water including between parties in overt conflict in other areas. Part of the explanation seems to be in the resource itself - it is hard for invading armies to pick it up and bring it home, it varies in location, time, quality, and quantity. And we are absolutely dependent and often interdependent on it for so many purposes.

It is not to say there isn't a tremendous amount of conflict over water (or virtual water in the form of food). It is just subnational or civil conflict, within states, and the level seems to be inversely related to the level of analysis ie the most local, the most willing to use violence. And if we get around formal shooting at each other and look at highly disruptive social conflict, there are plenty more cases. Water privatization and price hikes are at the center of protests that bring down successive Bolivian governments in the late 1990s. Social protests against large dams in India mobilize entire social movements. Flash protests in China against water polluting factories, facilitated by SMS and cell phone technology, puts a fright into government authorities who didn't anticipate 10,000 protesters materializing overnight.

So let's not abuse the term war because the evidence doesn't yet (future may not be like the past) bear it out. But let's agree that the water crisis that has 1.1 billion without safe drinking water and 2.6 billion without adequate sanitation poses threats that warrant the attention and some of the resources that our more traditional security threats and institutions garner. So that at the very least the stressed water conditions don't take us into a future that looks even worse than the past.

Posted by: Geoff Dabelko | April 30, 2008 6:27 PM

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