Conflicts over Water - an Underrated Threat

In the second essay by our Junior Ambassadors, Hanns Koenig argues that the international community should be more aware of water security as a key issue in security policy. After all, he writes, "a lack of access to clean and affordable water is likely to lead to conflict within and between states."

Kumi Naidoo, International Executive Director of Greenpeace, speaks at the MSC 2012 (Photo: Moerk)

While water security has been on the international agenda for some time and numerous international conferences have been held, tangible outcomes are few and far between. This, and the rapidly rising demand for water over the coming decades, will raise security questions which need to be addressed urgently at a global scale. Otherwise, a lack of access to clean and affordable water is likely to lead to conflict within and between states. As an international forum of private and public sector decision makers, the Munich Security Conference should therefore increase the prominence of water security on its agenda.


Water, energy, food, the environment and development all are closely related and form a complex web of interdependencies. Some aspects of this nexus, such as the “peak oil” debate or Catastrophic famines are well-analyzed and regularly feature in public discussions. Water itself is talked about a fair amount, in fora such as the United Nations or the World Water Forum, but with too few concrete outcomes, given the importance it will have over the coming decades. Economic developments as well as natural trends will mean that water shortages will be more severe and widespread than is currently anticipated by most. In some cases, conflicts and instabilities are bound to follow.




There are three major factors driving water demand in the future. First, as a recent study by the Universities of Minnesota and California, Santa Barbara, predicts, global demand for food is set to increase twofold by 2050, while food crops face increased competition for arable land from fuel crops. The only way out will be more efficient use of the land available, which requires better and more irrigation. Second, water demand from energy generation already makes up 15% of global water use, and will rise further. Depending on the energy carrier, it takes between 7,400 and 60,000 gallons of water to produce one megawatt-hour of electricity; even more water is needed for ethanol production and the booming unconventional gas and oil production. In its most recent World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts water consumption for energy purposes to increase by 85% by 2035. Third, economic development will drive demand: as countries in Asia, South America and Africa grow rapidly and raise their living standards, their demand for drinking water will follow suit.


In terms of supply, the economics of water makes it an inherently regional good: high-weight and low-value, it is prohibitively expensive to transport over long distances, such that a world market of water is not feasible. Hence, water supply has to be analyzed at a strictly regional, or even a local level. While certain parts of the world, such as Northern Europe, have abundant access to clean water, this is not the case elsewhere, including much of the developing world, where demand is growing fastest. In a recent paper, researchers Peter Gleick and Meena Palaniappan argue that “peak water” (PW) will become a major concern in watersheds around the world, either because rivers do not supply enough water (“renewable PW”), because ground-water supplies are depleted (“non renewable PW”), or because water can only be produced at ecological costs that outweigh the human benefits derived from the water produced (“ecological PW”).




In a 2012 Intelligence Community Assessment, the US Director of National Intelligence argued that “water problems” could easily lead to a number of important security problems:


“During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems – shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives.”


This is, of course, completely correct: water scarcity bears potential for both inter-state conflict, for instance between upstream and downstream countries or between countries with sea access and those without, and for intra-state conflict, as lack of access to clean water drives revolts against governments. While the assessment above recognizes the dangers, it appears to underestimate the scale and the immediacy of the problem. Given the long lead times of infrastructure projects and of setting up the necessary mechanisms and institutions, action needs to be taken now, if significant problems are expected “during the next 10 years”. However, the present water dialogue does very little to tackle the problems presented above in any concrete way.




Evidently, a multi-faceted problem like that of water conflicts needs a multi-faceted solution. Technology will have to play an important role, so research and development of low-energy water treatment methods and of more efficient power and industrial plants will need to be carried out, and, if need be, subsidized. Second, investment and incentives for investment in water infrastructure will be vital. However, there is also a strong institutional dimension: they are needed to prevent and resolve water disputes. At a global level, the International Energy Forum (IEF) could serve as a role model. The IEF is an international organization focusing on dialogue and data sharing, with the aim of fostering trust between the traditionally opposed consumer (IEA) and the producer (OPEC) states. At the local level, the Nile Basin Initiative (NPI) may prove a good prototype for rivers such as the Zambezi and the Volta. Comprising all riparian states of the Nile, it provides a platform for ministerial meetings, joint preservation initiatives, and negotiations over water access. Despite some disagreements, it has thus far averted violent conflicts between the countries in the Nile Basin, some of which face serious drought problems. What the IEF and the NPI have in common is that they are not ‘hard’ institutions with the ability to issue legally binding decrees—mutually distrustful states are unlikely to sign up to such solutions immediately. Much rather, they assemble the leaders of the countries involved, further exchange and distribute data, which facilitate the monitoring of multilateral agreements, for example over extraction quotas.


As an international forum of private and public sector leaders, the Munich Security Conference is uniquely positioned to contribute to solutions in the area of water security. It could set the R&D agenda, bring together government representatives and investors to overcome funding bottlenecks, it could invite representatives of organizations that successfully deal with controversial issues in the realm of energy and resources already, and it could further the involvement of industrialized countries, who are currently less vocal in the water policy dialogue, presumably because they are less directly affected. For these reasons, it would be desirable to see last year’s very high-profile, but broad panel discussion on energy, resources, and the environment followed up by one specifically about the issues posed by water scarcity.


Hanns Koenig (23) is a graduate student of international economics and international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where is a Haniel Fellow of the German National Academic Foundation. He is one of three Junior Ambassadors at the 2013 Munich Security Conference.

21 January 2013, by Hanns Koenig