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  • Writer's pictureJennie Cottle

The Race Against Water Scarcity

Water Wars. The alliteration is simple, and the meaning easy to grasp. Despite the readily accessible rhetoric by politicians and the media, understanding whether there is a real possibility for “water wars” in the future is far from simple. A cursory search of water wars reveals high profile figures, Heads of State, the UN Secretary General and a range of literature and studies proclaiming the likelihood that wars will be fought over water; examples range from Israel and Palestine to Sudan to Bolivia to New Mexico. Such figures typically point to global warming and climate change as the central argument for water wars. The belief is that with the onset of the effects of global warming along with an increasing population, we will see greater water scarcity coupled with a higher demand for water. This higher demand and diminished supply could easily result in fighting over such a valuable, and scarce resource.

However, this neo-Malthusian argument reveals only part of the picture. Harry Verhoeven, an academic and researcher on conflict and climate change, notes that such an argument is an over simplified analysis of complex and intersecting forces. In his study, he emphasizes the effects of global warming and the effects of climate change, but argues that a war over resources rarely tells the whole story. Domestic and international political interests, exploitation, intentional and unintentional consequences of development, state and border recognition, all tend to play an equal or greater role in the causes of violent conflict than solely resource or water scarcity. Thomas Homer-Dixon, another scholar in this field, agrees that the causes of violence are more deeply rooted in inequality and social factors rather than or in conjunction with resource scarcity, and that a direct linkage of scarcity and violence cannot be so readily established.

The prevalence of international treaties for water management between states also works against the argument predicting water wars. Verhoeven remarks that the question should not be if states will go to war over water, but rather “why do most communities and societies manage to prevent Malthusian scenarios?” He proposes that state cooperation over resources through institutional agreements is the norm, and it would be more useful to study the cases where violent conflict has erupted. To do this, it is necessary to analyze the failures of institutions and policies to successfully manage the violence, rather than citing ecological changes and resource scarcity as the main drivers of conflict.

Researchers at Oregon State University also assert the importance of institutions in water management. They explain that water has the potential to worsen tensions between actors, but that it is usually not the only cause of a conflict. Their studies reveal that between 1945 and 2008, states that shared a river border were twice as likely to resolve disputes through cooperation rather than conflict. During this period, they discovered only 44 “acute disputes” or disputes involving violence, and propose that violence over water is not as commonplace as predicted since it is “neither strategically rational, nor hydrographically effective, nor economically viable.”


Between 1945 and 2008, states that shared a river border were twice as likely to resolve disputes through cooperation rather than conflict


While this evidence is important in piecing together the way that water, climate change and conflict intersect, the definite future of water wars is still unclear as the ongoing effects of climate change continue. What is clear is the need to be prepared for future scarcity through strong institutions, innovative policies and sustainable solutions. As the evidence from these studies illustrates, the importance of institutions, international safeguards and policies have a large role to play in mitigating water scarcity, and potential conflict.

Water innovation

In these circumstances, there are those who are rising to the challenge. In Portland, Oregon, the city has created “micro-hydropower” technology as a way to generate electricity from its water pipes to be used as electricity. The electricity generated is then sold to the city’s electricity grid. This innovative technology is particularly useful for areas experiencing drought, as traditional forms of hydropower from dams and reservoirs become more costly and less readily available. For much of the west coast of the United States, and California in particular, severe drought has made hydropower too expensive, resulting in an increase in the use of other forms of energy, like natural gas. This in turn, causes greater environmental costs, with higher carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, micro-hydropower projects, such as Portland’s, offer an alternative renewable source of energy by utilizing the existing flow of water through the city’s pipes. The project involves installing turbines to harness the energy from the flowing water, which does require an initial level of investment. However, on the plus side, it is not reliant on weather, like reservoirs or large dam projects, and can produce energy more cheaply since water is constantly circulated through pipes throughout the day.

At the other end of the spectrum, cities which receive excess amounts of rain and groundwater can look towards China’s “sponge cities”. These “sponge cities” aim to capture each and every drop of water from rains, floods and storms to be used to complement a city’s water supply. To do so, sponge cities use ponds, filtration pools, permeable streets, personal water collection barrels, and other measures to soak up storm and flood water. This water can then be used for urban farming projects, be reprocessed as drinking water, or be entered into the city’s water system for residential use.

Urban gardens are another tool for these rain collecting cities. Studies have shown that installing rooftop gardens on apartment buildings can help lower energy costs to cool a building, as well as to catch rainwater to be used for the building’s toilets. In Paris, France, a call for urban development projects led to the launch of of “Paris under the strawberries”, which installed hydroponic gardens on the roof of the city’s iconic department store, the Galeries Lafayette. “Under the strawberries” uses innovative hydroponic techniques that do not require soil, while creatively integrating more green spaces into the dense city. In only a few months, the roof produced 400 kilos of strawberries from its green walls. Yohan Hubert, an agricultural engineer and the mastermind behind the project, explained that while this is not the first installation of its kind that he and his colleagues have conducted, it is definitely the largest and most ambitious. It is also practical, serving as a way to collect rainwater and reducing “heat islands” common in large cities. Moreover, the techniques used allow for the same number of plants to be grown in half as much space. In this case, 500 square meters will produce what would typically require 1,000 square meters of cultivated land. The venture is completely organic, avoiding pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals while making use of recycled materials and micro-organisms all managed by control software. Three beehives provide the necessary number of bees to pollinate the flowers and plants.

There are numerous other examples of water innovation. In New Mexico, a pilot project is using algae to purify the most toxic and harmful substances from wastewater, and leaves behind a residue which can be used as biofuel. It has long-term potential for sewage management systems, and their corresponding energy costs, offering a renewable alternative to decontaminate water provided by organic substances, like algae, which are found in the water itself.

In Perth, Australia, the key to the city’s battle with drought and declining rainfall has been a water management system that aims to efficiently regulate the city’s water supply and its use. Their “Water Efficiency Management Plan” is integrated at all levels of the city via mandatory measures, including training, information on leak management systems, data-gathering, a certification program to promote “water-conscious” companies, and a system of fines for those companies that are not. Such a plan encourages citizen and corporate responsibility to ensure that their communities’ scarce water resources are conserved and well-managed.


In the past ten years, the project reports that water use in residence halls has declined by over 35%, adjusted for the number of residents.


Universities are stepping up as well. At the University of California Berkeley, the school has set water sustainability targets to respond to California’s drought. The project lays out a Water Action Plan, detailing the targets and monitoring the results of water use on campus and in residence halls. In the past ten years, the project reports that water use in residence halls has declined by over 35%, adjusted for the number of residents. The project encourages installing water-efficient technologies in new dorm buildings, as well as other measures on campus like water bottle refill stations.

Water and the Way Ahead

Water, climate change, and international security: three intertwining topics that have risen to the forefront of media, politics, our cities and homes. Just as water scarcity is not the sole cause of a violent conflict, neither is the presence of water the sole solution. Although, water scarcity does not typically represent the only reason that populations and countries go to war, it can exacerbate a conflict as a geo-political strategic asset. However, as evidence has shown, the presence of institutions and international cooperation have helped mitigate the possibility of a full-blown water war.


To encourage this positive trend in the face of ongoing climate change, innovative water policies have a key role to play.


To encourage this positive trend in the face of ongoing climate change, innovative water policies have a key role to play. Such solutions can help ensure that water scarcity does not transform into water war. While many of these projects are being instituted at local or city-wide levels, they are essential contributions for rethinking water management and water use. Even more so, as international conferences on climate change, like the COP21 in Paris this December, provide platforms to discuss and negotiate global measures and commitments. Forward-thinking policies tied to technological innovation can therefore serve as reliable mechanisms to bring about tangible solutions to prevent water-related conflicts. Here’s hoping innovation wins the race against scarcity.


“From Oregon to Johannesburg, micro-hydro offers solution to drought hit cities” - The Guardian - 18/09/2015

“China’s sponge cities: soaking up water to reduce flood risks” - The Guardian - 01/10/2015

“The key to water security could be lurking in a New Mexico sewage farm” - The Guardian - 28/08/2015

“Risk of water wars rises with scarcity” - Al Jazeera English - 26/08/2012

“Perth’s water worries: how one of the driest cities is fighting climate change” - The Guardian - 06/10/2015

“À Paris, on récolte des fraises sur le toit des Galeries Lafayette” - Le Figaro - 16/06/2015

"Paris sous les fraises" - L'Obs - 17/06/2015

UC Berkeley's Water Sustainability Project

“Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Water” - BBC News - 02/09/2010. “Do nations go to war over water?” - Nature 458, by Wendy Barnaby - 19/03/2009.

“Why global water shortages pose threat of terror and war” - The Guardian - 09/02/2014

“The Myth of Global Water Wars” - Toronto Globe, by Thomas Homer-Dixon - 09/11/1995.

"Troubled Waters: Climate Change, Hydropolitics and Transboundary REsources" - David Michel DAvid and Amit Pandya (ed.'s) Global Policy Forum: 2009

“Water and Conflict” - Pacific Institute -

UNESCO. “Water Cooperation.” Natural Sciences: A World of Science: Vol 11 no. 1: January 2013.

U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment. Global Water Security - 02/02/2012

“Climate Change, Conflict and Development in Sudan: Global Neo-Malthusian Narratives and Local Power Struggles.” Development and Change 00(0) Verhoeven, Harry. : 1–29. International Institute of Social Studies; Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK: 2011

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