Wendy Barnaby has an excellent piece in last week’s Nature (free for now, behind the paywall soon) challenging the conventional wisdom that wars of scarce water supplies are a likely result of the collision between population growth, aridity and climate change.
Barnaby had set out to write a book about water wars. But the more research she did, the more she realized they didn’t happen. Why is that? Her answer seems straightforward and persuasive: Water shortages show up in their most extreme form as a shortage of water needed to grow food. Nations that cannot grow all their own food import it from elsewhere. Conflict over a lack of water, she found, is routinely addressed by nations through food imports rather than going to war:
The relationship of food trade to water sustainability is often not obvious, and often remains invisible: no political leader will gain any popularity by acknowledging that their country makes up the water budget only by importing food.
This is not some arm-waving theoretical argument, but rather an empirical assertion. To the extent there are wars that might look like wars over water, Barnaby argues, they in fact are wars over more complex power relations between nations, with water a bit player rather than a central cause.
Barnaby may have scuttled her own book, but she seems to be on to something here:
Book or no book, it is still important that the popular myth of water wars somehow be dispelled once and for all. This will not only stop unsettling and incorrect predictions of international conflict over water. It will also discourage a certain public resignation that climate change will bring war, and focus attention instead on what politicians can do to avoid it: most importantly, improve the conditions of trade for developing countries to strengthen their economies. And it would help to convince water engineers and managers, who still tend to see water shortages in terms of local supply and demand, that the solutions to water scarcity and security lie outside the water sector in the water/food/trade/economic development nexus. It would be great if we could unclog our stream of thought about the misleading notions of ‘water wars’.