2024 - The Year Water Challenged Global Security

"At the 60th Munich Security Conference in 2024, what will be the most important security challenge on the agenda, and why?", we asked the applicants for our 2014 "MSC Junior Ambassadors" program. In the second essay published, Eirik K. Sørensen argues that "the most important security challenge on the agenda will be conflicts over water, in all its forms."

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace speaking at the MSC 2012 (Photo: Moerk).

Since the dawn of civilization, nature has served us well. We have lived under its protection, fed from its reserves and enjoyed its beauty. Yet, the harmony between human beings and the planet earth has long been under siege. Unsustainable greed and overconsumption has pushed nature to its limits, and further. Nobody knows the full consequences of this decadence, but one thing is certain: unless the peoples of the world unite in the battle to restore the natural balance of the planet, the prospects of the future may end up being far less pleasant than the memories of the past.

This observation brings the concept of security to a different level. Conflict and war, in all their horrors, are generally geographically bound, temporary, and ultimately can be controlled if there is sufficient political will. Water scarcity, the melting of the arctic and rising sea levels, however, are global challenges that are both largely uncontrollable and irreversible. That’s why, at the 60th Munich Security Conference, the most important security challenge on the agenda will be conflicts over water, in all its forms and capacities.

Firstly, water scarcity will by 2024 have fundamentally redefined questions of global security. 1.8 billion people will be living in regions or countries with absolute water scarcity, which implies having less than 500 cubic meters of water per person per annum. For large parts of the populations in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, the potentially devastating effects of water scarcity are almost unimaginable. Traditional pastoral cultures and societies will be forced to move into the cities in waves of mass urbanization. Even at a significantly smaller scale, urbanization has previously proven to be a source of increased poverty, drastically reduced living standards and surging crime rates. All of these effects pose a threat to national security in its own capacity, but when occurring at the same time, pose a threat not only to national security, but also regional and ultimately global security. The realist myth that state security ultimately is a question of military capacity vis-à-vis other states will by 2024 be proven wrong by the dramatic increase of illegal border crossings by water refugees, taking to desperate means such as organized crime to survive under the increasingly harsh conditions.

Secondly, by 2024, regional water scarcity will likely have contributed to further increase tensions between already rivalling peoples and states. Topographic atlases are good starting points for predicting the conflicts to come: the Euphrates and the Tigris, the Nile, the Brahmaputra, water depots in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf – access to these key sources of fresh water is already an important question in regional and national security politics and policy-making, and will increasingly be so in the future. Disputes are already gaining momentum, and violent clashes over water seem ever less inevitable. The Pacific Institute recorded 31 water-related violent incidents in 2012, and unless action is taken, there is no reason to believe that this number will decrease in 2014, and certainly not in 2024.

Thirdly, at the same time but in a completely different part of the world, disputes over access to the Arctic waters, the North-west Passage and Greenland’s periphery are beginning to shape the regional and global security landscape. Contrary to the largely equatorial challenges of water scarcity, the challenges of the North stem from the increased speed of ice melting, producing not only, paradoxically, large amounts of fresh water, but also opening up new waterways for global trade and access to potentially large reserves of oil and gas. The geo-political positioning has already begun between the shareholders of the north, most notably Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway, who all hold more or less legitimate claims to parts of the soon-to-be ice-free Arctic. The ice melting introduces new battlefields of influence, property rights and struggles for access to resources, the destabilizing potential of which should never be underestimated, however much the actors are known for abiding to international law and convention.

Fourthly, and related to ice melting, by 2024 the prospects of rising sea levels will force millions of people to leave their homes, leading to a large-scale neglect of state borders, uncontrolled migration and public unrest. According to a study conducted by the Bangladesh Agricultural University in 2009, the sea level in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta outside Bangladesh will rise by 14, 32, and 88 cm by 2030, 2050 and 2100, which would cause the inundation of, respectively, about 8, 10 and 16% of the total land masses in Bangladesh, which already has one of the highest population density rates in the world. The millions of Bangladeshi currently populating the costal areas will become climate refugees exerting immense pressure not only on the already existing vulnerable food securities of Bangladesh, but also on the neighboring countries and the region as such. Contrary to popular belief, this is not only something that impacts on the so-called third world countries. If the current warming trends are allowed to continue, London, Bangkok and New York, Shanghai and Mumbai will be among a number of cities that will eventually end up below sea level, if not within our lifetime. And if that was not enough, the rising sea level will contaminate both surface and underground fresh water supplies – worsening the world's existing fresh water shortage.

Conflicts between human beings, in all their terror, pale in comparison to the possibility of a full-scale conflict between us and nature. Fresh water, either by its scarcity or its abundance, is bound to be considered not only as a part of the ‘climate issue’, but as a serious question of global security and the preservation of human life. It is a paradox, indeed, that the ultimate precondition for life – water – now appears to be so life-threatening.


Eirik K. Sørensen is a Graduate Student at the University of Cambridge, He is one of three Junior Ambassadors at the 50th Munich Security Conference and recipient of the Ulrich Weisser Scholarship.


About the Ulrich Weisser Scholarship

The Munich Security Conference awards three annual Ulrich Weisser Scholarships. These scholarships allow three promising students or young professionals, who have qualified through an essay contest, to participate in the Munich Security Conference. The scholarships are awarded to honour the memory of Vice Admiral Ulrich Weisser, who passed away in 2013. Vice Admiral Weisser was Head of the Policy Planning Staff at the German Ministry of Defense from 1992 to 1998, author of books and many articles on security and defense issues, and one of Germany’s leading strategic thinkers of the past decades.

23. Januar 2014, von Eirik K. Sørensen