June 21, 2016
The amount of freshwater available for drinking, agriculture, power, and industrial use is coming under strain worldwide. The combination of increasing demand from a growing population with higher living standards and decreasing supply from climate change is reducing the amount of renewable freshwater per person.
Water stress has major implications for international stability. In 2012, the U.S. National Intelligence Council released a report on future water security challenges and concluded:
We assess that during the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests. Water shortages, poor water quality, and floods by themselves are unlikely to result in state failure. However, water problems — when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.
Though water stress is a challenge for many countries around the world, the NIC’s report highlights the particular danger of water stress on already fragile or poorly governed states. In this light, the overlap between state instability and projected water stress points to five countries that could face major social disruptions over the next quarter-century exacerbated by water shortages.
Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan are all rated as “High Alert” states ranked among the top 13 most fragile states in the Fund For Peace’s annual Fragile States Index. Simultaneously, all are projected to face “extremely high” water stress by 2040 according to the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Projected Water Stress Country Rankings, making them among the 31 most water stressed countries on the planet.
Particular attention should be paid to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, where water stress is projected to hit their agriculture sector hard - sectors that account for nearly a quarter of national GDP in all three countries. The loss of jobs and money in the agricultural sector as a result of drought could have an outsized impact on these three countries, potentially exacerbating ongoing social and economic frustrations. Syria has already seen significant political violence exacerbated by this exact issue - drought and water stress decimating agricultural production, a major source of national income and employment, which put more pressure on an already fragile country.
The combination of state fragility and projected water stress could prove dangerous over the next several decades without better water management, economic development, and governing institutions in each country. For Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, how they manage their water over the next quarter-century could be the difference in whether their social and security situations stabilize or continue to get worse.