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Water Scarcity is Making for Some Scary Conditions

In a study published in Science Advances, Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra estimate that over 4 billion people, approximately two-thirds of the world’s population, face severe water scarcity for at least one month out of the year – far greater than previous estimates of between 1.7 billion and 3.1 billion.

The authors examined global water scarcity data from 1996 to 2005 on a monthly basis and at a more localized resolution to show how water scarcity affects different places at different times of year. Population growth, intense irrigated agriculture, and climate change all contribute to growing water scarcity.

The most vulnerable regions are in India, China, Australia, the western United States, and the Arabian Peninsula. Managing Earth’s freshwater resources while keeping up with the demand of a growing population “will be one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century,” write the authors. They suggest communities and businesses focus more on efficiency, work towards better cooperation around shared resources, and institute caps on consumption in river basins.

An article in the open-access journal Earth System Dynamics investigates the narratives through which climate and security are being studied and their portrayals of vulnerability. The authors, Uche Okpara, Lindsay Stringer, and Andrew Dougill, explore three main climate conflict discourses: climactic centrism, context centrism, and denial claims. The three differ in which issues they recognize as central, their assumptions about causality, and their recommended responses.

Ultimately, the authors write, because climate change interacts with a variety of governance and social factors, it should be analyzed through a contextual, needs-based lens in places like Africa where human security is a priority. Contextual vulnerability “can be more apt for studying current vulnerability to the social impacts of climate change, such as conflict and violence,” because it best accounts for the social, political, and security components of societies.

Where in the World are there Problems?

Water Hotspots

The ongoing violence in Syria exhibits the potential for water problems – a historic drought, in this case – to exacerbate existing social and political problems and contribute to humanitarian crises. In a recently released infographic, Circle of Blue combined data from the European Commission Joint Research Center’s Global Conflict Risk Index and the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas to identify 10 hotspots around the world where water “could play a role in developing or exacerbating humanitarian crises” in 2016.

The Global Conflict Risk Index evaluates the statistical risk of violent conflict over the next one to four years based on a quantitative analysis of indicators gathered from social, economic, political, security, geographic, and environmental dimensions. This data is gathered “with the assumption that structural conditions in a country are linked to the occurrence of violent conflict.”

The Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas uses data such as withdrawal levels, total irrigated agricultural areas, renewable water supply, and gridded population to create a highly detailed, localized map of stress factors impacting water resources around the globe. Governments, individuals, and companies use this information to understand emerging water risks and opportunities globally.

The infographic combines these indexes to show hotspots for the next year. Each of the 10 identified hotspots are assigned a water and conflict risk level, with different shades of blue and orange representing degrees of water and conflict risk, respectively. The infographic then elaborates on the specific issues affecting each hotspot.

A Global Tour

A country does not need to have both a high water and conflict risk level to be considered a hotspot. Nigeria has a water risk level of two and conflict risk level of nine, yet is identified as a vulnerable area due to a combination of resource-based conflict, terrorism by Boko Haram, and a rapidly growing population that is increasingly subject to displacement by natural disaster and violence.

Brazil’s water risk level of one and conflict risk level of seven, paired with the fact that the country’s water infrastructure requires massive levels of investment that its failing economy cannot provide, makes it a hotspot. São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, came within five months of running out of water last year.

São Paulo came within five months of running out of water last year
Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Somalia made the list as well. Famine, insecurity, drought, and early warning system predictions contributed to the identification of these three countries as potential risk areas. Ethiopia is expected to face serious food emergency issues and increased humanitarian needs, following several seasons of below-normal rainfall and debilitating drought.

Water risk (three) and conflict risk (zero) are both low in South Africa, but overburdened infrastructure and civil unrest caused by unemployment and ineffective governance make it place to watch. Droughts, heatwaves, and energy and water shortages are further exacerbating this unrest. The potential for civil unrest also landed Saudi Arabia on the map with its scarce water resources, rising food prices, and a vulnerable oil-based economy.

The infographic identifies Pakistan and India as hotspots mainly due to geopolitical factors. Pakistan is increasingly strained by dwindling water resources and loss of the disputed Kashmir region could lead to full control of Indus River headwaters by India.

Pakistan and India’s water risks remain low, at four and three respectively, yet their conflict risks are high considering the potential for decades-old tensions to affect Pakistan’s supply. Geopolitical tensions and conflict also contribute to poor water infrastructure and depleting resources in Gaza, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The Syrian refugee crisis has severely stressed the resources and governance capacity of Lebanon and Jordan, resulting in a water risk of three and a conflict risk of six for both countries. As the Jordanian government struggles to deal with depleted aquifers, Lebanese refugee camps are increasingly threatened by waterborne diseases.

The map also takes into account regional issues that affect risk levels in individual countries, such as Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. This area of Central American is identified as a hotspot following a debilitating drought in 2015, chronic violence, lack of economic opportunities, and tension surrounding mineral resources and subsequent water pollution.

The map does a great job of illustrating how a variety of factors, across several continents and at multiple levels, create the potential for water-related crises – and how unique these factors can be.

This story and the accompanying one have been re-published with permission by the Wilson Center.

Grace Cook
Researcher The Wilson Center
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