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Water wars are an unlikely future

Apr 19


Foreign policy writers have long warned of the possibility that clean drinking water might become “the next oil” — that is, that major wars might be fought around the globe over access to potable water. With expanding populations and finite water supplies, these critics argue that humans will inevitably fight each other to secure drinking water for themselves at the expense of rival societies.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan dismisses those concerns, and then summarizes some of the key reasons why he believes this type of conflict is unlikely in at least the near-term future.

Below is an excerpt from Peter’s April 19 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

When people start talking about wars over water, everyone pictures tooth and nail, Mad Max-esqe fighting… but our imaginations might be getting away from us here. Allow me to paint a more realistic picture for you.

There are some practical limitations to water wars. Water isn’t easy to move, and redirecting rivers or directional flows is time consuming, expensive, and hard to do. To add another layer of complexity to the mix, most water sources are held by countries of power (you know, water tends to help with things like food production, industrialization, growing populations, and military development). So, when a dry country decides it needs water, there’s often not much it can do.

Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule. Egypt depends on the Nile River, Central Asia relies on those diminishing glaciers, and the Middle East will have some choice words over dam construction. However, the majority of countries that lack water resources simply cannot conquer or secure water from other nations.

Everyone, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from snowy Colorado. Today, we’re going to do another one in the ongoing open series of things I do and do not worry about this is one that I do not for the most part worry about. And that’s water wars, you gotta admit, it’s a sexy idea, the idea that a country that is dry and desperate for water is going to march on another country to take it. But a few things to keep in mind. You can’t take the hunter with you. Water is very bulky and very dense and very difficult to move. And it clings to itself with friction. So pumping it is difficult. So you’re not talking about just conquering a river basin and somehow redirecting it, you’re talking about conquering the river basin and occupying it. And for most countries, that’s a pretty heavy carry under any circumstances. So that’s number one, the bar is high. Number two, the countries that have water are the world’s major powers. And the ones that do not have water are not major powers. Why will they have water, because if you have water, you can grow food, if you can grow food, you can industrialize yourself, if you can industrialize yourself, you can build your own military without having to import a lot of equipment. And if you don’t have water, you don’t get to do any of those things. So there are very, very few places where you’ve got a dry country next to a wet country where there’s even a theoretical possibility of the dry country doing anything. There doesn’t mean that there aren’t any exceptions. There’s just very, very few let me give you three and really that’s it. Number one Egypt, country that’s on the river needs the river to survive upstream. Ethiopia has been building some dams, I can see some scenarios where the Egyptians would spend special forces in to damage or destroy the dam. The problem with that strategy now, though, is that the dam has been built, the lake behind it’s been filled. So if the dam were to go away, so would Egypt so you know, no to Central Asia, the glaciers of Central Asia had been desiccating for about 50 years ever since the Soviets built a series of water diversion systems in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to grow cotton in the desert because they didn’t want to be dependent on American cotton or Egyptian cotton. You fast forward that 50 years, and the glaciers are pretty much gone. And the flow and the rivers the ammo in Syria are falling precipitously, and the whole areas desiccating. So I can see a scenario where a dry country whose Becca Stan, which has the third largest post Soviet military, and marches in and just takes over Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, so that its own people have something to drink. The third one involves the Middle East. And this is actually an issue of the wet countries taking issue with the dry countries. There have been issues in the past in the Jordan Valley where various countries most notably Lebanon, have built dams on rivers that would impede the flow to the Jordan, the Israelis have a problem with that. So they bombed the depths. Similarly, you’ve got a wet country, Turkey, and a dry country, Iraq and Syria, where the Turks have built lots and lots and lots of dams in southeast Turkey called the Grand Anatolian project in order to prove agricultural possibilities for the southeastern part of Turkey, and provide an economic ballast to dissuade say, Kurdish separatism. However, if you happen to be downstream in Baghdad, this is a bit of a problem in New York places drying out. But again, you’ve got a wet country, Turkey, doing things that are messing with a water table in a dry country, Iraq, and there’s not a lot that Iraq can do about it. So there are plenty of things that are worth fighting over though, in the world. Water is arguably one of them, but the countries that don’t have it don’t have the capacity to go get it. So I don’t worry about that one.

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