Water Conflicts Will Intensify. Can We Predict the Worst Problems Before Conditions Boil Over?
By Tara Lohan
In 2015 an estimated 1.8 million migrants crossed into the European Union, fleeing countries gripped by violence, political upheaval and resource scarcity like Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Eritrea and Nigeria. Many made their trips in flimsy, overcrowded boats. Thousands drowned along the way. E.U. governments struggled to deal with the influx of new arrivals, and the confluence of humanitarian and political crises that resulted — including a surge in right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Advance warning, experts say, could have helped world governments and aid workers anticipate and adapt for these problems, and probably save lives in the process. But how do we predict future conflicts on a rapidly warming planet?
The Netherlands, which has experienced sharp rises in both immigration and far-right populism, decided to try to answer that question by funding a project to model which areas of the world were likely to face upcoming conflicts.
The result — the Water, Peace and Security Global Early Warning Tool — was released in December. It's an online interface that analyzes data on violent conflicts, as well as dozens of economic, environmental and social indicators, to help pinpoint hotspots where worsening conditions — like food shortages or drought — are likely to shift to violent conflict within the year.
"We used a number of traditional indicators of predicting conflicts, such as economic strength, political, stability, demographic trends and past conflict, which is actually a predictor of future conflict," said Charles Iceland, director of global and national water initiatives at the World Resources Institute. The organization partnered with IHE Delft, Deltares, The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, International Alert and Wetlands International to develop the tool.
A camp hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey. European Union 2016 / European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
When it comes to determining where problems could erupt, water is a key part of the equation.
"We put in a number of water-risk variables on the assumption that no conflict is caused by water alone," Iceland said, "but water may be present as an exacerbating or contributing factor along with a lot of other features of society."
Most recently, drought was one of the driving factors in the unrest that led to Syria's civil war and increasing destabilization in Mali. It was also an underlying contributor to the deadly conflict in Darfur in 2003 and has bolstered the efforts of terrorist organizations like Boko Haram.
The link between water stress and other resource pressures, Iceland warms, is becoming more acute as global environmental crises worsen.
"When you look at the big picture, we're consuming a lot more resources now then are replenished by our natural systems," he said. "Just that alone is enough to cause a lot of problems. And then on top of that you've got a changing climate that's further exacerbating the situation."
The links between climate change and global security are fast becoming a top concern.
A new report released this week by U.S. national security, military and intelligence professionals at the Center for Climate and Security mapped future climate change scenarios and their effects on security. Not surprisingly, the findings are troubling. Competition for dwindling resources, they predict, will increase social tensions and could topple already-fragile states. Natural disasters, social unrest and shrinking economic opportunities will push people from their homes and heighten migration pressures.
The report found that "even at scenarios of low warming, each region of the world will face severe risks to national and global security in the next three decades … Higher levels of warming will pose catastrophic, and likely irreversible, global security risks over the course of the 21st century."
Iceland hopes that the early warning tool could help play a role in averting some crises that could come from these and other scenarios that lead to violent conflict.
Habiba Hossen collects water from a rehabilitated distribution point in Ethiopia during a drought in 2012. Pablo Tosco / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
But it's a complicated picture.
"It would be wonderful to have a perfect tool to predict something as inherently complex as violent conflict," said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, which along with Oregon State University and New America are also affiliated partners of the project. "We'll never have such a tool. But the more information we have about the many factors that contribute to violence the better, especially given the new, real and growing threat of climate disruption."
How successful the resource ultimately is also depends on how, and by whom, it's used. Simply knowing where trouble is brewing is only the first step. Iceland says the resource is geared for decision-makers like foreign-affairs ministries and intelligence departments, as well as development and disaster-relief experts at non-governmental organizations.
"A lot of these governments and non-government entities could use this information to try to figure out where the next problems can occur and get ready for it," he said. "Or the global community could approach those national leaders in developing countries [where problems are predicted] and say, 'We see that you're likely to have a water-related problem in the near future, what are some strategies that we could develop with you to try to address this problem?'"
The system isn't just available to diplomats and international NGOs, though — anyone can use it and download relevant data.
"You can look at a lot of other datasets on the website that might be used as contextual information," said Iceland. "Things like where are the roads and reservoirs with respect to predicted conflict. Or where the population is very dense in relation to these predicted conflict areas."
One area currently on the map as an emerging area of concern, he said, is Iran. The country has a dry environment with a rapidly growing population and is working toward being food self-sufficient.
"But they really don't have enough water to do that and so a lot of these lakes and rivers are drying up," said Iceland. That's forcing people to abandon farms to move to cities, and those who've remained in agricultural communities are beginning to protest the government's water allocations.
Other areas of concern include the eastern coast of South Africa and southern Iraq, he says, but it's too soon yet to show any on-the-ground results from the early warning tool there or elsewhere.
Even so, the resource has started to reveal things that could soon help mitigate future conflicts or allow communities to adapt to upcoming problems.
"This new effort has already given us insight into areas where more efforts at smart water policies, improved management and environmental diplomacy are needed," said Gleick.
And the more data we collect, the more we'll be able to learn.
"I hope and expect the tool to improve over time," he added.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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