Human history is replete with examples of the devastating effects of the lack of water. A centuries-long drought is the prime candidate as the ultimate cause for the collapse of the major “classical period” civilizations of ancient Mexico, including the Maya. But to the modern world, with its advanced technology and systems, water issues pose no existential threat.
Or do they?
Water is as essential to modern life as it was to our progenitors. Arguably, our current situation is even more fragile, because our societies -- although they seem and are robust in many ways -- are hypersensitive to resource interruptions. In some ways, they exist as close to the edge as earlier societies, and perhaps even closer. And the most fundamental resource is water. Without sufficient water, human life is simply impossible; without reliable water supplies, human civilization quickly unravels.
Make no mistake: the world is on the cusp of a serious water crisis. Approximately 1.2 billion people have no access to safe water, and 2.6 billion -- more than a third of the world’s population -- have no access to sanitation. It is estimated that close to two million children die every year because they have no access to clean water. The risks that this creates range from individual human suffering on a vast scale to serious challenges to political stability: they could fuel geopolitical struggles that might lead to war, including war between nuclear-armed states. It is easy to imagine that the brunt of the water resource problem falls on the poor, which at the moment is true. However, this set of conditions will not necessarily last.
China provides an excellent example of the challenges in modern water security. There are more dams in China than in any other country in the world. This is not due just to the need for water for human consumption and sanitation, but also because of the massive demand for electrical power that China’s population and growing industrial base require (sometimes called the "productive resource” use of water). In the middle of the last decade, China announced plans to triple its hydroelectric power generation between 2007 and 2020. Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese NGO, has stated that many Chinese rivers simply will not be running in ten years if China meets these ambitious hydropower goals.
Much of the water flowing through these dammed-up rivers is already polluted to an astonishing level. Consider the now-infamous dead pig incident on the Huangpu River in Shanghai province in March 2013. Approximately 16,000 porcine corpses were found floating in the Huangpu – a crucial source of drinking water for Shanghai’s 26 million residents. Chemical pollution may be an even greater problem. In Lanzhou, Gansu province, municipal leaders were forced to find a secondary water supply following the discovery of high levels of benzine in the city’s tap water. The list of similar incidents is lengthy.
It is key here to understand the tightly-coupled nature of modern social and economic systems. Water touches every facet of them, and water issues cannot be dealt with in isolation. This makes the problem -- or more properly, the complex of problems -- much more intractable. There is evidence, for example, that the Huangpu floating pig disaster is a direct result of an attempt by the Chinese authorities in recent years to crack down on the illegal sale for food or processing of sick or dead-from-disease pigs. Unable to sell them, the farmers simply dumped the pigs into rivers, and the end result became a global bad news story.
These water issues complicate and amplify the enormous and escalating problems China faces on many other fronts. Not-for-attribution sources estimate the actual number of protests in China to be an astonishing 190,000 per year -- far above generally-reported figures. Critically, most of these protests are economic in nature and not political. Water disruption is a key factor (among a number of others) that could easily lead to an inflection point from which China would find it hard to recover, and which its government might not survive. Needless to say, the disintegration of a country led by a political regime that might use any level of coercion necessary to try to retain its grasp of the reins of power, and that is armed with nuclear weapons with reliable delivery systems, is not just an internal threat but also a threat to its neighbors and indeed to the world.
China is not alone. Across the Himalayas lies India, with its burgeoning population and its own set of liquid crises, and this is not to mention Southeast Asia, which draws from many of the same sources as China. Both China and India derive a great deal of their water supply from the ice cap of the Himalayas, which has been called the water tower of Asia. Some geopolitical analysts believe that the longstanding Chinese political oppression of Tibet has more to do with securing the water resources of the Himalayas than it does with the political question of Tibetan autonomy.
The role of water as a causal factor of social disruption and war is becoming better understood.
Drought can degrade or destroy agriculture, dramatically increasing migration to cities that are already under huge strain from decades of urbanization, poor resource management and government, and poverty. Couple this with rapid population growth and the effects are potentially explosive. Indeed, new research suggests that water scarcity has direct ties to the Syrian conflict and the rise of ISIS. A National Academy of Sciences study published in March 2015 highlights the relationship of water disruption to an unfortunate causal complex of ill-advised economic development, bad political leadership, corruption, and regional instability. The study claims this was at least a proximate cause (if not the ultimate cause) of social collapse and the rise of extremism in Syria.
The al-Assad family that rules Syria focused efforts in recent years on the cultivation of higher-value export crops that happened to be extremely water-intensive. (Big chunks of the extra revenue generated ended up, of course, in the Assads' own pockets.) At the same time, the drilling of illegal irrigation wells led to the depletion of groundwater in the country’s most fertile regions. Very quickly, agricultural production, which had made up one-fourth of the Syrian economy, plummeted by 30 percent. In the northeastern part of Syria -- the hardest hit in terms of water shortages and not coincidentally the area in which ISIS saw its first significant successes -- herds of livestock were obliterated, the prices of basic foodstuffs, particularly cereals, doubled, and childhood-nutrition-related disease rates skyrocketed. This led to the flight of up to 1.5 million people into Syrian cities, thinning out the countryside and making it easier for ISIS to consolidate its gains in what had become a very sparsely populated area.
Dee Smith is the founder and CEO of the Strategic Insight Group. (c) Dee Smith.