Tension over water scarcity is increasing across the globe. A new system flags up where this threatens to erupt into violence
Researchers from six organisations have developed an early warning system to help predict potential water conflicts as violence associated with water surges globally.
The Dutch government-funded Water, Peace and Security (WPS) global early warning tool, which was presented to the UN security council before it was launched formally last month, combines environmental variables such as rainfall and crop failures with political, economic and social factors to predict the risk of violent water-related conflicts up to a year in advance.
It is the first tool of its kind to consider environmental data, such as precipitation and drought, alongside socio-economical variables, a combination lacking in previous tools designed to predict water conflicts. It is available online for the public to use, but is aimed more specifically at raising awareness among policymakers, and people and parties in water-stressed regions.
The tool has already predicted conflicts that are likely to happen in 2020 in Iraq, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. Developers claim an 86% success rate in identifying conflict zones where at least 10 fatalities could occur. The tool currently focuses on hotspots across Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia.
Growing global demand for water is already creating tensions – among communities, between farmers and city dwellers, between people and governments. Tensions are expected to increase as water scarcity becomes a reality for more people. According to the UN, as many as 5 billion people could experience water shortages by 2050.
Recent statistics from the Pacific Institute thinktank in California show that water-linked violence has surged significantly in the past decade: recorded incidents have more than doubled in the past 10 years, compared with previous decades.
“The machine learning model is ‘trained’ to identify patterns using historical data on violent conflict and political, social, economic, demographic, and water risk,” said Charles Iceland, senior water expert at the World Resources Institute, part of the WPS partnership.
He said: “It looks at over 80 indicators in all, going back up to 20 years. It is then able to use what it has ‘learned’ about the correlations among these variables to predict conflict or no conflict over the next 12 months, given current conditions.”
Jessica Hartog, a climate change expert with International Alert, a WPS partner, highlighted Iraq and Mali as two countries at risk.
Malian farmers, cow herders and fishermen have been caught up in a spat over the reduction of the Niger River’s water levels. Meanwhile, Iraqi protesters – already infuriated over lack of basic needs – took to the streets last year after more than 120,000 people were hospitalised after drinking polluted water.
“Water scarcity has affected both Iraq and Mali, largely due to economic development projects that reduce the water levels and flow in rivers – a situation made worse by climate change and increased demand due to population growth,” she said.
“In Mali we are concerned about the plans of the government and neighbouring countries to build dams, further expand Office du Niger [overseeing water management projects] and related irrigation channels, which will further affect the water availability in the inner Niger Delta. This will affect more than 1 million farmers, herders and fish[ers] who are fully dependent on the inner Niger Delta.”
In Iraq, Hartog said, a failure to address water concerns and improve water services “directly threatens Iraq’s fragile peace”.
In Syria, meanwhile, water scarcity and crop failure have prompted an exodus from rural areas to the cities, exacerbating the civil war. In Iran, residents in Khorramshahr and Abadan protested over polluted drinking water.
Susanne Schmeier, senior lecturer in water law and diplomacy at IHE Delft, which was also involved in the WPS project, said water problems alone do not create conflict or war, “but they can become ‘threat multipliers’ when combined with other grievances, such as poverty and inequality”.
“Once conflicts escalate, they are hard to resolve and can have a negative impact on water security, creating vicious cycles of conflict. This is why timely action is critical,” she said.
Schmeier said violent clashes over water resources had occurred between local communities and between provinces within the same countries. “Violence is then exerted by non-state actors, potentially even illicit groups, or representatives of certain sectors.
“Such local conflicts are much more difficult to control and tend to escalate rapidly – a main difference from the transboundary level, where relations between states often limit the escalation of water-related conflicts.”
The WPS tool was developed in a collaboration between the Dutch foreign ministry and Deltares, IHE Delft, International Alert, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, Wetlands International and World Resources Institute.