DRIP... DRIP... DRIP
water have taken place in India. Some of the occasions involved protests over dams or canals, and some were farmer-versus-herder disputes. In 2014, in northern India, during a drought, a group of bandits announced that they would kill people who lived in villages near their hideout unless the people brought them water every day. Twenty-eight villages said they would take turns paying what they called a “water tax.”
Indirectly, water affects civil migration, which in turn affects politics in the form of responses to migration, such as the rise in Europe of right-wing nationalism and the election in Italy in March of populist factions opposed to immigrants. Last year, speaking at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Francis wondered “if we are not on the path towards a great world war over water.” People who think a water-conquest war is unlikely tend to point out how difficult it is to move water, but it isn’t any more difficult to move water than it is to move oil.
Gleick thinks that water is less likely to cause a war than to be used as a weapon. In 2014, in the journal Weather, Climate, and Society, he published a paper called “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria.” He described the area’s water conflicts, which are ancient— the first, according to the Water Conflict Chronology, appears to have occurred forty-five hundred years ago when a king named Urlama diverted water through canals to deprive an enemy of it. More recently, climate change and the scarcity of freshwater resulting from a drought between 2006 and 2011 led to what one expert described as the “most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” Gleick’s paper discussed how all this encouraged the discontent that led to Syria’s civil war. “No one argues that climate change or drought caused the civil war,” he told me. “But they had an influence. And after the civil war started, there were massive and unrelenting attacks by pretty much all the parties on civilians and infrastructure, including, explicitly, water resources. Attacks on the water-treatment plants in Aleppo, attacks in Iraq on local water systems—use of water as a weapon. ISIS took over dams on the Tigris and Euphrates and released water on downstream villages to prevent attacks on their bases.”
“Water Wars” makes a fine headline, Gleick said, but he thinks any such conflict between nations would be more complicated. “India and Pakistan have been fighting forever over water in the region of Kashmir,” he said, “but if it breaks into war, water would only be a part of the cause. Egypt has threatened Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Ethiopia is building over the Nile at the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. Egypt is completely dependent on the Nile, but would they actually attack the dam? I don’t think so, but it’s possible.”
The future is rarely a continuation of the present, and doesn’t usually play out as we expect. Maybe we don’t run out of water. Maybe science finds a better means of providing drinkable water from castoff water and sewage. We tend to think of societal calamities as happening in places where the people are different from us, yet matters of race and culture seem irrelevant when we all require a half gallon of water each day to survive. When a region runs out of water, the people left there don’t really die of thirst. They die mainly from the diseases that come from drinking bad water. In these places, the equation is succinct: Demand, simple human need, the assertion, even, of a right, overwhelms supply.