Water Issues’ Effect on Conflict and Civil Unrest
In the May 18th Sunday Review of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote a very thought provoking article entitled “Without Water, Revolution.” It covers what is going on today in Syria and how water issues play a big role in the civil unrest that plagues that country today. He describes how the drought that hit the country from 2006 to 2011 significantly changed the distribution of the population, forcing small, independent, proud farmers to abandon their rural lands and move to cities to try and eke out an existence; and how many of the few jobs that did exist were given to favorites of the government. What I found interesting was that when previously I had thought about the unrest in Syria, I did not think about water, and also that one of the main issues some of the people had with the existing government was that they hadn’t done enough in reaction to the drought.
Further research on this topic found the article recently published in Science Magazine by Hsiang, Burke and Miguel entitled “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict.” While most of this article (especially those parts relating to statistics) flew clearly over my head, it was easy to see that this subject has been studied in depth, and that with the many associated variables, coming up with a direct cause and effect is a challenge. Variables such as economic conditions, normal average temperature of a region, and interrelations between temperature and rainfall levels can all affect the data. There are even data presented linking high rainfall levels with unrest such as Hindu-Muslim riots. Hsiang et al state in their conclusions that “We do not conclude that climate is the sole—or even primary—driving force in conflict, but we do find that when large climate variations occur, they can have substantial effects on the incidence of conflict across a variety of contexts.”
In her review of this article, Rebecca Morelle of BBC News states “They estimate that a 2°C (3.6°F) rise in global temperature could see personal crimes increase by about 15%, and group conflicts rise by more than 50% in some regions.” She also found some opposing views where Dr. Halvard Buhaug, from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway finds that civil war in Africa was linked not to climate-related issues, but to other factors such as high infant mortality, proximity to international borders and high local population density. I might suggest that water quality could also play a role in the infant mortality issue and that the population density might be a product of previous drought conditions.
Refocusing from these studies covering centuries of change and human history to our lives in the USA today, I wonder what is going on right under our noses today that may someday become a blip in a future professor’s study. We know in American history, farms, towns, and cities were all built in close proximity to water supplies or areas with sufficient precipitation, or both. This was done for human consumption, irrigation or transportation needs. Immediate changes in the supply or quality of the water were readily apparent. Times in history like the famed Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the Great Plains saw major changes in populations and occupations. Farmers left the dried up land and headed for cities like Los Angeles. This was an obvious change. But slow changes in water availability, like a dropping water table or increasing contaminants, are harder to see and react to. And now that most of us rely on underground pipes to “magically” supply us with water, we really don’t give it much of a thought—until the day when we open the faucet and nothing, or something not exactly like water, comes out. When that happens will we look to our government, just as many Syrians have, and ask, “how could you let this happen?” Will this be a type of climate change that will bring conflict?
We all need to continue to increase our attention to the wide variety of water issues that surround our neighborhoods, towns, cities, workplaces, counties, countries, and world. We must become more aware of changes in our fresh water supplies, learn to use those resources more efficiently, and embrace recycling concepts as often as possible. While we may not be able to affect climate temperature issues that drive conflict and unrest, it is possible that we can counteract somewhat those related to water changes.