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How Globalization & Water Access Will Shape 21st Century Geopolitics

Today I am going to be writing to you about a passage from the book, Cold War 2.0: Dawn of the Asian Millennium, authored by Andranik Aghazarian.


“The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics. Water will be more important than oil this century.”

Boutros Boutros Ghali., former UN Secretary General.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation’s (WWF), about 70% of our planet is covered with water but, as most people know, only 3% is drinkable, of which two-thirds is locked away in glaciers. Whether these figures are accurate or not, there are over one billion people without access to clean drinking water and 2.7 billion having difficulties securing adequate water.

To make things worse, almost half the world’s population lacks proper sanitation to prevent diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, and other water-borne illnesses. Many rivers, lakes, and aquifers have become polluted, dried up, and destroyed, reducing the availability of one of nature’s most priceless resources. Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of water, and the W.W.F. estimated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will face water shortage.

Nations around the world have been damming rivers to produce electricity for the growing population in a shift towards green energy. However, this has caused severe effects for those living downstream, sometimes across borders. If oil became the dominant resource in the 20th century, then it is water for the 21st century.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (G.E.R.D.) is currently under construction on the Blue Nile, the larger of the 2 tributary rivers, with the other being the White Nile. The Blue Nile originates in Lake Tarna in Ethiopia and is responsible for about 85% of the water flow to the Nile River. Ethiopia is the second most populated African country, and according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, is one of the fastest-growing world economies for the past decade.

According to the Organization for World Peace article, by Julian Rizk, on April 26, 2020, the dam, which was currently about 70% complete, had led to an escalation of tension between the countries that share the Nile’s waters. The Sudanese ex-negotiator Ahmed al-Mufti said, “I believe in one, two, 10 … 100 years, this will cause instability in the region. These are the germs of instability, and it will cause a water war. If not under this government then under another, as no population will see itself dying of thirst when they know that there is water very close by. This was my position when I quit, and every day since then I find more evidence that supports this.”

However, the reasons for moving forward on the Ethiopian side were very sound. Ethiopia had struggled with low foreign exchange reserves after years of importing more than they export, a lack of electricity, and water scarcity. G.E.R.D. is the solution to all 3 problems plaguing the nation.

To pay for the project, Ethiopia resorted to starting a lottery, taking the income of all government employees for one month in 2018, and issuing patriotic bonds which were loans from the population. This left one side solidified in their determination to continue with the project while downstream, Egypt would have the most to lose, and had even gone as far as threatening to bomb the dam.

The Ethiopians responded to the threats with their own to mobilize millions. So far, they have not made good on them. But as the dam nears completion and the reservoir fills, both sides are under increasing pressure as water becomes scarcer.

There are many kinds of water in the world, but have you heard of the terms “virtual water” or “invisible water”? In his book, Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet’s Most Precious Resource, Tony Allen put forward some insightful terms. He described how regions of the world, mostly developing nations, had been exporting their water through globalization and water-intensive crops with consumers blissfully unaware of their water footprint.

For instance, it takes 140 liters of water to produce a cup of coffee, 168 liters to create a pint of beer, 1,700 liters for a 100g chocolate bar, 10,000 liters for a pair of jeans, and 15,400 liters for one kilogram of beef. Whether you are buying produce or a simple bottle of water, the “real costs” of production have shifted upstream to developing nations, that trade fiat currency for diminishing resources. But how long can the broken system continue?

“He who controls the flow of water controls the flow of life.” While water is often undervalued, we do not realize how badly we need it. Without it, there will be no economy, trade, and life. This is why throughout history, settlements have always been at or near major waterways.

If we cannot manage the water in our own countries, how can we hope to maintain an essential waterway like the Nile River, capable of traversing nearly a dozen countries? While most famous for being the end destination of the Nile River, Egypt is just one of many countries sharing this increasingly scarce resource, along with Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.

In a piece by Bran Lufkin, published in BBC News titled Why ‘hydro-politics’ will shape the 21st Century, he stated that, “If there was no access to water, there would be no world peace.” Lufkin made the argument that as global supplies of freshwater came under threat, and the demand for it increased, the strategic value of water as a commodity could cause hyper-nationalism and strain diplomatic relations. In fact, we are already seeing the conflicts due to this arise in several hot spots around the world.

In 2020, India and China saw increased hostilities over their border, which happens to straddle the Himalayas Mountains. The hostilities began around an essential glacier in the region. This part of the Tibetan plateau is the watershed and origin of the lifeblood waters of India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Southern China, and Vietnam. Both the Ganges River and the Mekong River Valley, vital lifeblood of the region, source their precious waters from the snow pack of the mountains deep within Chinese territory.

In a report issued by NS Energy, it was stated that, “Asia accounted for about 42% of the world’s total installed hydro-power capacity of 1,295GW in 2018.” Most of these countries had or were planning to develop hydroelectric dams to limit the flow of water and generate electricity. However, for those living downstream, this could result in flooding and restrict vital access to water. If the water you need to survive originates from another country, there is little that can be done to enforce your water rights. Currently, there is no international governance of water resources since water is managed at a local level. This lack of oversight will empower some nations while leaving others at a disadvantage.

The water situation in India and Pakistan has been getting worse each year. According to the World Bank, India is the most dependent nation on water from aquifers globally, and accounts for about one-fourth of the global demand for groundwater. 90% of the water is used in agriculture while the rest is for drinking water.

In an assessment from the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI), they found that close to 70% of the country’s freshwater was contaminated. The lakes, rivers, and aquifers were more polluted than any other major nation. With water supplies dwindling, many places were forced to dig new, deeper wells which drove the water table lower and were expensive.

Another study from NITI noted that the groundwater level in Bengaluru was a few hundred feet below the ground in 2012; but now, it is more than 1,500 feet, much of which is contaminated. With no alternatives available, many farmers were forced to use raw or slightly treated discharges from sewer pipes and treatment plants.

According to the IMF, Pakistan ranked third in the world when it comes to water insecurity. In May 2018, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources announced, that there would be little to no clean drinking water available in the country by 2025.

In a report issued by Development Advocate Pakistan in December 2016, it was found that as households with flush toilets increased, the levels of access to water decreased. While the Indus Valley Basin relied on the rain and snow melt from the Himalayas Mountains, records showed that the weather events had become drier and more unpredictable. This situation placed more stress upon an already fragile system, leading to diminishing results.

Water also played a vital role in Turkey’s conflict with Syria. Since much of Syria’s fresh water originates in Turkey, the Turks could limit the flow of water on their territory. They had been using this to their advantage in their conflicts in Syria and Iraq. According to Michael Page, the Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch, “In the midst of a global pandemic that is overloading sophisticated governance and infrastructure systems, Turkish authorities have been cutting off the water supply to regions most under strain in Syria. Not only is the Turkish authorities’ water shut-off to communities in Northeast Syria harmful to civilians, but it could also blow back on Turkey itself.” He went on to say, “Rights-respecting public health measures are needed to address the coronavirus; borders alone won’t stop a pandemic’s spread.”

A little further south, in the Jordan River Basin, Israel had been diverting the flow of water for decades, causing unstable water levels of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The streams which originated in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and Lebanese Mountains, are crucial lifebloods for those in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. In an already complex political environment, the Middle East makes up a large portion of environments starting to pass the tipping point of water security.

According to James Famiglietti of the Nasa Grace Study, it is the vast swath of Northern Africa to Mongolia, that is expected to experience some of the most challenging fluctuations to water accessibility in the coming years. An ominous prediction given the fact that the rise of ISIS in the Middle East was partly blamed on the worst drought that ripped through the region in the last 1000 years.

The major metropolitan city, Cape Town, recently felt the effects of the water crisis. After years of inefficient water distribution, and using more than could be sustained, the city almost ran out of water entirely in 2018. The situation got so severe, that the BBC reported one of their solutions involved floating icebergs from Antarctica.

In the data issued by The World Water Council, we can see the areas that are impacted the most by water security. But this did not mean the tropical countries were safe from trouble. Unpredictable weather events due to the ever-changing climate would cause havoc on all parts of society. The water stress indicator is based on a ratio of water usage compared to renewable sources.

But even a wealthy nation like the U.S. cannot escape the effects of the water crisis. While many people had heard about the water situation in California, not many have known that there were 6 other states in the same predicament. According to Vero Water, a water processing company, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nevada, and New Mexico were all running out of water.

In an article posted by Tim Radford, of Climate News Network on October 9, 2019, titled Water stress rises as more wells run dry, he predicted that within 3 decades, almost 80% of the areas that depend on groundwater would see their wells run dry. As the world deals with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, climate change is drastically affecting some nations to the point of no return.

Dr. Inge de Graaf, a Hydrologist from the University of Freiburg pointed out, “The effects can be seen already in the Midwest of the United States and in the Indus Valley project between Afghanistan and Pakistan.” For thousands of years, communities have relied upon groundwater access, which took millions of years to accumulate. As the human population began to skyrocket, so has our ability to use and destroy these limited supplies. This situation has contributed to the levels of groundwater being depleted around the world in areas that need it the most, whereas other areas are getting too much.

According to computer simulations, Dr. de Graff stated in a report published by the journal Nature:

“We estimate that, by 2050, environmental flow limits will be reached for approximately 42% to 79% of the watershed in which there is groundwater pumping worldwide, and this will generally occur before substantial losses in groundwater storage are experienced… If we continue to pump as much groundwater in the coming decades as we have done so far, a critical point will be reached also for regions in southern and central Europe – such as Portugal, Spain and Italy – as well as in North African countries… Climate change may even accelerate this process, as we expect less precipitation, which will further increase the extraction of groundwater and cause dry areas to dry out completely.”

Water, Peace, and Security, an organization funded by the Dutch government, has developed an early warning system to locate potential hot spots for water conflicts. The organization considers the environmental variables like rainfall and crop failures, along with social, political, and economic factors, to predict future water-related conflicts.

According to the system, potential conflicts are brewing in Iraq, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, Madagascar, India, and Pakistan. The main areas of concern cover parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. While the system is interactive and available online, the organization seeks to promote dialogue to avoid conflicts. However, with the growing populations and mass migrations, there is an increasing probability that a number of people will become “environmental refugees.”

How we use our precious water resources needs to be our central focus moving forward. With the increasing value of water, nations will be forced to make changes to the globalized system of exchange, which is putting developing countries at a severe disadvantage. If we continue the path of globalization, things will only get worse. Ultimately, conflicts will arise over water, with protectionism and nationalism not far behind.

As countries try to dam and conserve what water they have, it is going to leave less for others. For countries living downstream of other nations and reliant on that water, they are left with limited options to respond. All these factors will heighten tensions in what is already shaping out to be Cold War 2.0, pushing nations further into conflict. A conflict that will become the first true world conflict involving all nations and all segments of societies.

If you enjoyed this passage from the book, Cold War 2.0: Dawn of the Asian Millennium, then I encourage you to pick up a copy from the link! Stay tuned for more exciting content.

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