In the history books the 20th century will go by many names; the American century, the Nuclear century, the science century. The 20th century could also be called the oil century. When it was discovered that oil could be used as fuel and in various industrial applications, the once low substance became a vital resource over which wars were fought and lands conquered. The 21st century will likewise go by many names, and one of those names could well be the “water century,” as nations may find themselves embroiled in state-to-state wars and internal civil wars over access to water supplies.

An exploding human population is straining all of the Earth’s resources, none of them more important than water and by 2025 as many as 2.5 billion people could be facing “water based” vulnerability. And with the human population expected to peak at 10.5 billion in 2050, ensuring a stable, safe, and sustainable supply of water is becoming essential.

While water covers about 73 percent of the Earth’s surface, less than 3 percent of that water is fresh, and much of that is now polluted. The importance of water cannot be underestimated. Just look at your own body, about 60 percent of it is water. Further, a healthy person could survive a month or so without food, but few people could survive more than 3 or 4 days without water.

Water Supplies

So far desalination plants have proven to be extremely expensive and energy consuming. Industrial pollution and run-off meanwhile have damaged many freshwater sources, and global warming threatens to dry up important water reservoirs and increase the occurrence of droughts.

Protecting the fresh water resources we have will be vital, but will require the cooperation of nations, corporations, and a multitude of other actors that have frequently been resistant to international control and regulation of resources and policies. And as populations continue to grow in water deprived regions, such as the Middle East, the tensions between the “haves” and “have-nots” are set to escalate. The same tensions could arise within regions within a single country, and any destabilization through efforts to privatize water resources, or cut subsidies in poor regions could result in civil unrest or even civil war.

Just as wars have been fought over oil, the near future could bring wars over water. Already, access to water resources is a sensitive subject that has raised tensions and brought conflict. For example, in 2000 the World Bank forced Bolivia to privatize its water resources as a condition to receive further loans. Unsurprisingly, water prices rose dramatically and only a few months after privatization protests erupted. The Bolivian government was brought under intense pressure, eventually having to declare a state of emergency, and after protestors were killed, the repeal of Bolivia’s water privatization acts.

The case in Bolivia, while extreme, is not isolated. In the 1990s the Canada’s Ontario government gave a shipping company permission to ship tankers full of Lake Superior water to Asia before political backlash and protests derailed the plan. The Peruvian government had to suspend train services to the Inca citadel Machu Picchu due to protests over a proposed irrigation plan that might caught off water supplies to rural communities. Meanwhile Egypt, Sudan and other Northeast African nations have traded barbs over the Nile River, with Egypt going as far as to threaten armed force.

Rises in any commodity can threaten unrest and war. Already the world is frequently racked by protests and conflicts over food, fuel, and other basic resources. Given that disruptions of waters supplies for even one or two days could cause immense suffering, the scope and speed at which civil unrest and conflict could spread from said disruptions could be even more severe.

Indeed, while the international spotlight seems to be trained more on Green House Gas emissions and renewable energy, water supplies may prove to be an even more pressing need. While certainly many of these issues are intertwined, international movements to secure and stabilize water supplies have not reached the level of intensity or scope as the movements driving other reforms.   The world’s institutions and governments should start formulating the policies and protocols necessary to manage and avoid water conflicts in the future.