International water-related tension set to rise

Posted 26 September 2016

Climate-induced migrationWhether it’s restive negotiations over surface and groundwater sources, or diplomatic strain born of climate-induced migration, international relations are in for a challenging time ahead of an uncertain water future. 

Science correspondent and author of The Water Book (2015), Alok Jha, said international disputes over water are bound to increase as climates change, but it may not be as obvious as waging war on the banks of a drying river. 

Jha appeared earlier this month at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.

“As the climate changes, different parts of the world will become more or less liveable. We have a system of cities and countries with economies based around the availability of water right now, and the availability of water we’ve had for the last couple of hundred years,” Jha said. 

“If that availability changes, if the natural resource on which economies are established changes, then economies will change too. Countries and their political powers will transform.

“I don’t think nations will necessarily discuss these things as water issues; they will pop up as economic issues, resolved in terms of business negotiations.”

And with nations restrained by physical borders and established institutions, the way in which conflicts are solved is likely to take a similar tack. 

“Since civilisation has existed, we have had to negotiate with one another. I don’t necessarily think there will be [conflict involving] military. People don’t want that. You have to live with these people. You can’t move your country,” Jha said.

But one aspect of international relations that’s set to be more affected by water resource problems in future is climate-related migration, Jha said. 

“Migration is something that is a very natural part of human history. We have migrated all over the world for numerous reasons,” he said. 

“Now, because we have a lot of permanent settlements – cities and nation states – this is much more difficult. Now there are barriers and therefore tensions when this happens. 

“But people will move, like they have always done. Humans need water and food and they will go where they can find it. If it isn’t being provided in their country for whatever reason, they’ll move and they have every right to do that.”

Jha said while mass migration scenarios are not solely caused by water resource issues, drought can be a catalyst for political and economic tension, or make present conflict worse. 

“Take somewhere like the Middle East for example – Syria in particular – if climate change or other factors are creating water shortage and crops fail, then that adds tension to a civil war that’s going on already, which means a lot of people will want to leave,” he said.

“I’m not suggesting the immigration issue going on in the Middle East right now is solely due to water, but it is certainly exacerbated by the fact that those places are becoming more unlivable, not just because of the war going on, but because of the lack of food and crops.”

As climate change settles into to the international agenda, Jha said it makes sense to start managing migration as a shift that’s both inevitable and world changing. 

“We have to deal with these mass migrations of people. It’s silly to ignore the issue because, although it might not happen immediately, people will move. The fact that our current cities can’t be moved is just a blip in human history,” he said.   

“Animals do what is natural. They will move to where the water is and to where the food is. And, in a very self-conscious sense, humans do the same thing. It’s just that we have applied a layer of civilisation on top of ourselves, which requires security checks and papers. 

“And that’s fine, that’s what civilisation is. But if there are huge changes in the way that human beings need to live, I’m afraid that those formalities just are not going to be as important.”