Strategic Foresight Initiative Resident Senior Fellow Peter Engelke and Stimson Environmental Security Program Nonresident Research Fellow Russell Sticklor write for The National Interest on the importance of water in global geopolitics in the twenty-first century:
We live in an age of great anxiety about threats to global peace and stability. Among these are worries that intense water-related stresses, now showing up in regions around the world, may become all-too-common sources of conflict. Just as often, however, concerns about water wars are dismissed as much ado about nothing. An influential school of thought has long contended future international conflicts will not be fought over this resource. Water, it says, is of such elemental importance to human existence that even long-time adversaries will be forced to accommodate one another’s needs in a water-scarce future. As water is too expensive to transport over long distances, moreover, it is very difficult to steal or plunder. And history gives some comfort to this forecast: as few wars have been fought specifically over water, it is highly unlikely humanity will start engaging in water conflicts now. Or so the thinking goes.
In the case of water, this logic — of the past as predictor of the future — is compelling and comforting. But it also is dangerously myopic, for it fails to consider the possibility that the future may look nothing at all like the past. From nearly any standpoint, the world we live in is a fundamentally different place compared with the past. Over just the last century, for example, the global population has rocketed upward from roughly two billion to well past seven billion. While population growth is hardly the only driver of social, economic, and ecological change at global and regional scale, it has been among the most important. Nor is this process at an end. Current demographic projections forecast a global population of at least nine billion by 2050 — and possibly more.