Is water set to become the central factor in global geopolitics?

Sensemaking / Is water set to become the central factor in global geopolitics?

The uneven distribution of water around the world could play a central role in global politics in years to come, says Forum for the Future's Chief Executive Peter Madden.

By Peter Madden / 20 Nov 2012

The uneven distribution of water around the world could play a central role in global politics in years to come, says Forum for the Future's Chief Executive Peter Madden.

In 2030, will water, rather than oil, be the central factor in global geopolitics and economic success?

Will India find that over-exploitation of aquifers, a major reduction in the Himalayan melt waters, and the increasing demands from its population of 1.5 billion, bring its economic development crashing to a halt? 

Will China, also facing huge water availability challenges, become the global centre for innovative environmental technologies and management systems, which it then exports around the world? 

Will we see those countries with abundant fresh water – Canada, Chile, Colombia – exploit their new comparative advantage?

Experts predict that, within two decades, demand for water will be 40% higher than it is today, and more than 50% higher in the most rapidly developing countries.

Supply pressures will mean that available water acts as a magnet, with communities developing around fresh water sources. When water runs out, people will move. 

Huge coastal desalination plants, water grids, and deep earth drilling (often several kilometres down) will provide temporary fixes, but will also bring new vulnerabilities and unwanted environmental side effects.

For individuals and communities, local water management will become a much bigger part of their lives. Expect to see dew and water vapour harvested, widespread use of hydroponics, and closed-loop water systems joining up waste water systems with food production and aquaculture, even in cities.

These coming shortages will hit us in the pocket, too. Water pricing will have been introduced in some countries to prioritise water use and drive its conservation. In other places, those who hold water rights are likely to squeeze the maximum economic value out of them. And there will be increased attention to the water ‘embedded’ in exports.

We can already see signals of this world to come. In Peru, fog catchers dot the deserts around Lima. In Cyprus, researchers are using concentrated solar power for a desalination scheme that will ultimately create an extra 5 million litres of water a day. And the Chinese Government recently announced that it will introduce a pricing scheme for water, where rates will rise exponentially as water consumption increases.

I think that water is bound to become more important than oil, simply because there are no alternatives. We need water for life, and we need water for food. Agriculture accounts for over 70% of global water use.

This vital resource is very unevenly distributed. China has 18% of the world’s population, yet only 8% of its freshwater. The Middle East, already suffering serious water issues, expects a doubling of population over the next 40 years. Add to this the impacts of climate change, and the severity of the situation becomes clear.

The tensions this will bring have led some to talk of ‘water wars’. Certainly, if we carry on down the same paths, desperation may well force countries into armed conflict, and also into geoengineering – seeding clouds and diverting river flows.

This is going to be a big challenge for our generation. Of course, as with any shortage, it should stimulate technological innovations, increase intelligent management and improve efficiency – and there are many examples of this in the Green Futures Special Edition ‘Water Works’. Yet we will undoubtedly need international political cooperation, too, if we are all to have access to our most precious resource.

Peter Madden is Chief Executive, Forum for the Future.

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