It is often said that the next wars will be fought over water.
Despite how frequently this statement is made, there has yet to be a war over water . There has, however, been a plethora of water-related conflicts that include disputes over water resources & infrastructure, attacks on public water supplies & infrastructure as an act of terror, and using water as a weapon to harm the wellbeing of people. The Pacific Institute has an interactive map showing water conflicts throughout history from as early as 3000 BC to as recent as 2012.
Most recently, linkages between water scarcity, drought, and climate change have been tied to the onset of the on-going conflict in Syria, in a recent paper published by Peter Gleick . The onset of the conflict in Syria coincided with an extreme five-year drought that started in 2006, devastating crops, and resulted in the displacement of 1.5 million people who depended on agriculture as their primary livelihood. This devastating drought was exacerbated by a general mismanagement of scarce water resources throughout the region. Government-subsidies for water-intensive crops- cotton and wheat – that are irrigated mainly by flood irrigation, placed a greater stress on the scarce water resources. The thirsty crops were also largely dependent on over-exploited groundwater resources in the region .
It’s undeniable that origins of the conflict in Syria are certainly multifaceted and tied to other growing social and economic tensions. But – it’s quite hard to discount the influences that poor water management decisions coupled with devastating climate conditions can have on social stability.
In 2012, the US National Intelligence Community released an assessment on Global Water Security that stated: “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.”
Conflicts are often thought to exist across international borders, but more commonly water-conflicts are occurring within nation states and at even more localized municipal levels. In the case of California, water-conflicts exist between the North (water-rich) and South (water-poor) regions of the state, between urban and rural water users, and even between surface water and groundwater users. When conflicts arise, they can result in a lawsuit to resolve the issue, in a process that is referred to adjudication. Adjudication is becoming increasingly common within groundwater basins, since California does not currently regulate groundwater use. Water conflicts - oddly enough – have served as a common mechanism for enhancing groundwater monitoring and management in California. But this is hardly a cost-effective and easy way to go about managing water resources.
As California currently experiences one of its worst droughts in history, it’s important to draw upon the lessons learned in Syria. A report released this week by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis estimated the total statewide economic cost of this year’s drought to be $2.2 billion with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs. Although agriculture only constitutes 4% of jobs in California and 2% of our GDP, this loss in agricultural jobs is devastating for many rural communities in the Central Valley that already experience high unemployment rates even in non-drought years.
This all ultimately boils down to good (preventative) policy-making and the presence of institutions to manage water resources. Although water conflicts can often result in some sort of compromise, such as signing an international treaty or adjudicating groundwater basins in California, there are more preventative measures that can be taken to avoid the conflict all together. One way to increase water security in California is to address our lack of groundwater regulation. Good water management should be viewed as a mechanism to enhance not only the security of our water resources, but also the security of our citizens’ wellbeing.
 Wolf, A. T. Conflict and cooperation along international waterways. Water Policy 1, 251–265 (1998).
 Gleick, P. H. Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Wea. Climate Soc. 6, 331–340 (2014).
 Wada, Y., Beek, L. & Bierkens, M. F. Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: A global assessment. Water Resources Research 48, (2012).