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  • Alba Landeras Fernández

A Thirsty Earth: Humanity’s New Battle Against the Climate Emergency

In a planetary scene where climate change is no longer a distant threat but a present reality, we find a new battlefield in international geopolitics: the struggle for a precious resource, water. 


Alba Landeras Fernández


Climate patterns have drastically changed in the last decades and as a result we are seeing extreme natural disasters, with countries’ water reserves diminishing in an unprecedented way. Recent data shows a challenging future ahead and this trend began to become apparent in the 60s, where water stress increased hand in hand with countries' consumption of industrial goods. Following this trend, some estimations establish that the demand for global fresh water will exceed the supply by 40% by 2030. The following map by the World Resources Institute presents the water stress predictions for 2050. By that year it is estimated that 60% of the global population could experience high water stress and the consequences are not only to be expected nationally, but also in the development of regional and global geopolitics.



How turbulent can the waters be?


When understanding the role that water plays in our lives we might overlook the strategic importance of this resource for the stability of entire regions since not all states are self-sufficient, creating a delicate dependency. In fact, there are many examples in recent history which show the potential consequences of water stress. One could think about the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world and now close to disappearing due to the over exploitation of its tributary rivers for agriculture. This situation has left entire communities without their main water source and conflicting regional interests have caused violence in the region in 2014 between the Tajik and Kyrgyz military and in 2016 between Uzbek and Kyrgyz forces. 


Another case can be found when we move to Southeast Asia looking at the Mekong river which involves China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. An estimate establishes that 70 million people live from the Mekong basin resources and competition for these is increasing exponentially. Most disputes have emerged due to the construction of dams for hydroelectric purposes and back in 2012 a report from US intelligence agencies already suggested that tensions in the Mekong region would intensify as a result of increasing droughts and poor compromise efforts from the countries in the region.


Are the waters receding in Egypt?


One of the most prevalent water conflicts is that of the Nile River and predictions about the river flow are not very positive. The United Nations anticipates that the water level could fall by 70% by 2100 due to the current pattern of droughts and lack of rainfall, translating into crop devastation, land erosion or electricity shortages. Countries like Ethiopia or Egypt are already affected by lack of water access due to the political conflicts that have been arising in the last decades. Professor Habib Ayeb explains for France 24 that “there is a lot of competition for water intensified by agribusinesses that grow produce for export. Policies that aim to export water from the Nile in the form of tomatoes or cucumbers do not take into account the [local] populations that need this water.”


Water availability has been a concern for many years in the riverside countries, especially since the Nile is also an essential source of energy, something which Ethiopia had in mind when starting the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011. This country has been experiencing rapid economic growth in recent years, however it is estimated that half of its population still has no access to electricity. 



The Ethiopian government has now built the largest hydroelectric dam in the African continent, with a total capacity to hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. The $4.6 billion project promises to double the country’s energy production, which would not only cover its internal demand, but it would also allow the country to become an exporter. Egypt and Sudan began raising their concerns ever since the construction works were announced and both governments have been pushing to resolve the uncertainty of how the dam reserves will be handled when droughts affect the downstream countries. 


The agricultural sector in Egypt relies almost entirely on the Nile, which is why concerns for water and food security have been raised by the Foreign Ministry, who expressed their discontent by saying that “Ethiopia's unilateral measures are considered a disregard for the interests and rights of the downstream countries and their water security.” Energy security would also be at stake in this case, since Egypt’s hydroelectric plant in Aswan is fully dependent on the Nile waters. 


It is clear that tensions in the region have been heightened in the last years, especially since last year the Ethiopian government announced it had finalized the filling of the dam last year, doing so just in the course of 3 years as opposed to the 12 to 21 years that the Egyptian government was demanding. Concerns over an international armed conflict regarding water resources in the Nile were already raised in 2019 and the increasingly hazardous climatic conditions do not seem to present a very optimistic picture. 


Disparities in resource distribution have the power to ignite long-standing conflicts and foster regional instability, and water is dangerously leaving the human rights umbrella to join the realm of commodities. After this brief article and looking at the data, there is no doubt that water stress will increasingly haunt the political agendas in the years to come. How can we prepare for massive water redistribution if the current economic machinery is not aligned with the complex water regeneration cycle? Which might be the costs of not doing so? These questions can be framed in the same way as the debate on climate change is. We are no longer talking about whether it is a reality, but rather how we will be making the necessary changes in a socially just way. The price of not doing so might be too high.



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