Will water insecurity destabilize the world?

In its 2015 Global Risk Report, the World Economic Forum ranks the increasing instability of  water resources as the world’s top risk.

Nothing is more likely to destabilize the global economy than water security; not fossil fuels, not food production, not combat or genocide. But that’s just the thing – these problems are all connected. Without enough water, food production will be inadequate and disease and starvation will rise. Battle over meager resources will result in increased armed conflicts. Migrants fleeing territories in turmoil will flood regions already struggling to maintain native populations. The less water, the more vulnerable the human race becomes.

 And it’s already happening. Many analysts consider drought to be the final straw that led to the break out of Syria’s civil war. Drought triggered food shortages in rural areas which triggered internal migration to city centers where families sought work to feed themselves. In the cities there wasn’t enough work and the influx of so many immigrants put pressure on already limited water supplies. Protests by mostly young men seeking employment were brutally suppressed by the Assad regime and militias took to the streets. Years of fighting has destroyed towns and communities and forced millions to seek refuge beyond the country’s borders, expanding the impact to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and, more recently, Europe.

The crisis in Syria is not the first time that sustained drought has so seriously ravaged a region or civilization. Archaeological evidence points to drought as a trigger for significant changes including warfare and socio-economic instability  in a number of ancient cultures. Classic Maya civilization in Central America and Southern Mexico, Puebloan civilizations in the Southwestern U.S., and the Old Kingdom of Egypt, were all impacted by water insecurity due to changing climate patterns and the over-exploitation of existing resources. In the 20th century, severe famines killing millions were brought on by sustained droughts in China, India and south-east Asia.

Drought_affected_area_in_Karnataka,_India,_2012

With such potential to destabilize peace and security, why isn’t water conservation a priority? Is it ignorance? Can most of us simply not see the looming crisis? Or is it that we don’t believe what’s on the horizon is a crisis?

In his 2009 book Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It, Robert Glennon surveys water managers around the U.S. to find that most are deeply concerned about the state of their water resources. Even states that have high levels of rainfall and large numbers of lakes and rivers like Michigan, Georgia and Massachusettes face dropping water tables, encroaching salinity from ocean and brackish waters, and the overuse of available water for energy production and rapid population growth. The “engineering mentality that assumes there must be a technological fix to water shortages” is a part of the problem, he says. But there is no easy fix; water is finite and we are using it faster than it can be replenished.

 Of course there are communities around the world that are already facing devastation in the face of drought and water contamination. Millions in Kenya, India, Iran, Brazil and the Caribbean do not have adequate access to water as I write. Perhaps if any of these nations were regarded as “developed” or as having dependable public services or uncorrupable officials, the rest of the world would notice. Perhaps…

With this blog, I hope to bring increased public awareness to the value of water and the impact of its mismanagement, overuse and contamination on world populations. I will discuss the effect of drought on living, historic and ancient communities and the successes and failures of technology and conservation strategies. Maybe it’s not too late to ensure the survival of out world by changing our relationship to water.

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