Global distribution of the current likelihood of hydro-political issues among the main transboundary basins (transboundary basin borders in black, non-transboundary areas shaded). Graphic: Farinosi, et al., 2018 / Global Environmental Change

By George Dvorsky
17 October 2018

(Gizmodo) – A United Nations report published last week said we have about a decade to get climate change under control, which—let’s be honest—isn’t likely to happen. So break out your goalie masks and harpoon guns, a Mad Max future awaits! Now, as new research points out, we even know where on Earth the inevitable water wars are most likely to take place.

Sarcasm aside, this report is actually quite serious.

Published today in Global Environmental Change, the paper identifies several hotspots around the globe where “hydro-political issues,” in the parlance of the researchers, are likely to give rise to geopolitical tensions, and possibly even conflict. The authors of the new report, a team from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), say the escalating effects of climate change, in conjunction with ongoing trends in population growth, could trigger regional instability and social unrest in regions where freshwater is scarce, and where bordering nations have to manage and share this increasingly scarce commodity.

Obviously, the causes of geopolitical tension and conflict are complex, but as the new report makes clear, we shouldn’t underestimate the role that water is going to play in the future. Competition for dwindling water resources, the authors say, will exacerbate tensions on a global scale in the coming decades, with certain regions more vulnerable than others. But how are the various factors that influence water demand and availability likely to affect populations around the world?

The new study, led by JRC scientist Fabio Farinosi, was an attempt to answer this critical question, and to also create a model that can predict where and when future water wars might arise. […]

Farinosi’s team used a machine learning-driven approach to investigate the various factors that have traditionally given rise to water-related tensions. An algorithm studied previous episodes of conflict over water resources, of which there is no shortage (check out this impressive database of water-related conflicts to get a sense of how common water wars are in our history). The algorithm considered access to freshwater, climate stress (two greenhouse gas emission scenarios were considered, one moderate and one extreme), population trends, human pressures on the water supply, socio-economic conditions, and more. [more]

Here’s Where the Post-Apocalyptic Water Wars Will Be Fought

Likelihood of the occurrence of hydro-political interactions in the main transboundary river basins (from the top-left [normalized likelihood of hydro-political issues, min = 0 and max = 1]: Ganges-Brahmaputra [1.000], Nile [0.761], Indus [0.675], Euphrates-Tigris [0.592], Danube [0.499], Mekong [0.492], Aral Sea [0.455], Niger [0.447], Congo [0.432], Zambezi [0.431], Senegal [0.372]). In the radar chart the normalized score of the main factors determining the likelihood in the specific river basins. Not all the variables explicitly used for the model are represented in the radar chart: the non-included factors, however, are derived from the climatic variables displayed. Graphic: Farinosi, et al., 2018 / Global Environmental Change

(JRC) – JRC scientists have identified the hotspots where competition over the use of shared water resources could lead to disagreements between countries.

The new study aims to facilitate the implementation of strategies to encourage cooperation between countries.

  • The combination of climate change and demographic growth is likely to exacerbate hydro-political issues.
  • Water conflicts are more likely to occur in areas that are already under water stress.
  • The most vulnerable areas are around the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado rivers.

Competition for limited water resources will be one of the main concerns in the coming decades.

Scarce water resources can generate or exacerbate political tensions, regional instability and social unrest.

New scientific methods for early identification of risk areas

JRC scientists used a new machine-learning approach to investigate the pre-conditions and factors that are likely to lead to water management issues in shared water bodies.

They carried out an innovative analysis of past episodes of conflict and cooperation over transboundary water resources, and studied the links with freshwater availability, climate stress, human pressure on water resources and socio-economic conditions.

"The scope of our study is two-fold. First, we wanted to highlight the factors which lead to either political cooperation or tensions in transboundary river basins. And second, we wanted to map and monitor the likelihood of these kinds of interactions over space and time and under changing socio-economic conditions", explains JRC researcher and lead author of the study, Fabio Farinosi.

Determining factors

Scarcity of water, high population density, power imbalances and climatic stressors are the main factors which push countries towards either political cooperation or tensions in transboundary river basins.

The Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado rivers are "water hotspots", where "hydro-political interactions" are most likely to occur.

These areas are already under water stress, and future demographic and climatic conditions are expected to exert further pressure on scarce water resources.

The changing socio-economic and climatic factors will increase the pressure on water resources worldwide.

This is likely to increase competition between countries for water.

Globally, the combined effect of climate change and population growth can increase the likelihood of water-related interactions in transboundary river basins by between 74.9% and 95%.

"This does not mean that each case will result in a conflict. It depends on how well prepared and equipped the countries are to cooperate. This is where we hope our research can help, by raising awareness of the risks so that solutions can be sought early on", Farinosi says.

New tools for monitoring hydro-political dynamics

Based on this research, JRC scientists developed an index and a model which help detect areas in the world that are at high risk of hydro-political conflicts.

These tools can prompt policymakers to design and implement strategies that encourage cooperation between countries before conflicts occur.

The tools also provide an additional method for monitoring the hydro-political dynamics under Target 6.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aims to enhance Water Resources Management and transboundary cooperation.

The index and model complement the SDG indicator "6.5.2 Proportion of transboundary basin area with an operational arrangement for water cooperation", by providing additional intelligence on important contributing factors that are not yet included in the current SDG monitoring framework.

The JRC is in the process of developing a more detailed analysis of the largest river basins in Africa in collaboration with the local institutions.

EU action

This study, which builds on the 2013 Council Conclusions on EU water diplomacy, will further inform the EU's work on water diplomacy and transboundary water management.

The EU is engaged in contributing to peace and security in priority regions such as the Nile basin, the Central Asia region and the Mekrou River Basin, with a number of projects aimed at developing mechanisms for cooperative and knowledge based water management in order to avoid conflicts, and to sustain common water resources for sustainable development.

In 2018, the EU worked to promote global membership to the UNECE Water Convention.

The aim was to underscore the EU's belief in the shared value of international agreements on global water cooperation in order to foster development and peace in a context of increasing tensions over water.

Chad has been the first non UNECE country to join the UNECE Water Convention, and Senegal has followed.

Other African countries are also taking steps towards accession to this international legal instrument which promotes international water governance.

The EU is ready to support interested countries in the accession process.

Read the full study: An innovative approach to the assessment of hydro-political risk: A spatially explicit, data driven indicator of hydro-political issues.

Global hotspots for potential water disputes

Change in the likelihood of hydro-political issues considering four future climate change and population scenarios. Graphic: Farinosi, et al., 2018 / Global Environmental Change

ABSTRACT: Competition over limited water resources is one of the main concerns for the coming decades. Although water issues alone have not been the sole trigger for warfare in the past, tensions over freshwater management and use represent one of the main concerns in political relations between riparian states and may exacerbate existing tensions, increase regional instability and social unrest. Previous studies made great efforts to understand how international water management problems were addressed by actors in a more cooperative or confrontational way. In this study, we analyze what are the pre-conditions favoring the insurgence of water management issues in shared water bodies, rather than focusing on the way water issues are then managed among actors. We do so by proposing an innovative analysis of past episodes of conflict and cooperation over transboundary water resources (jointly defined as “hydro-political interactions”). On the one hand, we aim at highlighting the factors that are more relevant in determining water interactions across political boundaries. On the other hand, our objective is to map and monitor the evolution of the likelihood of experiencing hydro-political interactions over space and time, under changing socioeconomic and biophysical scenarios, through a spatially explicit data driven index. Historical cross-border water interactions were used as indicators of the magnitude of corresponding water joint-management issues. These were correlated with information about river basin freshwater availability, climate stress, human pressure on water resources, socioeconomic conditions (including institutional development and power imbalances), and topographic characteristics. This analysis allows for identification of the main factors that determine water interactions, such as water availability, population density, power imbalances, and climatic stressors. The proposed model was used to map at high spatial resolution the probability of experiencing hydro-political interactions worldwide. This baseline outline is then compared to four distinct climate and population density projections aimed to estimate trends for hydro-political interactions under future conditions (2050 and 2100), while considering two greenhouse gases emission scenarios (moderate and extreme climate change). The combination of climate and population growth dynamics is expected to impact negatively on the overall hydro-political risk by increasing the likelihood of water interactions in the transboundary river basins, with an average increase ranging between 74.9% (2050 – population and moderate climate change) to 95% (2100 - population and extreme climate change). Future demographic and climatic conditions are expected to exert particular pressure on already water stressed basins such as the Nile, the Ganges/Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Tigris/Euphrates, and the Colorado. The results of this work allow us to identify current and future areas where water issues are more likely to arise, and where cooperation over water should be actively pursued to avoid possible tensions especially under changing environmental conditions. From a policy perspective, the index presented in this study can be used to provide a sound quantitative basis to the assessment of the Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6.5 “Water resources management”, and in particular to indicator 6.5.2 “Transboundary cooperation”.

An innovative approach to the assessment of hydro-political risk: A spatially explicit, data driven indicator of hydro-political issues


  1. Anonymous said...

    Wasn't it a decade left 30 years ago? These predictions hurt credibility. If this report from 1989 was correct, then we're out of time.

  2. Jim said...

    Thank you for reading Desdemona! There's nothing in this AP story from 1989 that's been contradicted by events since then. Being a pessimist, I think the 10-year prediction probably was about right, and now we're way beyond being able to avoid the worst effects of abrupt climate change.  

  3. Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the response. I don't doubt that the original report was correct, but the UN should not say that we now have 10 years left to address climate change. Only one can be true.  


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