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Understanding and preventing conflict over water

Stanford water and climate experts discuss climate impacts on shared water sources and potential solutions.

A boy carries water provided by a relief agency in Bogor, Indonesia during a 2023 drought. Credit andi muh ridwan / iStock

Since time immemorial, people have fought over natural resources. The most precious of those – water – could be the focus of more frequent conflicts as global warming raises temperatures and dries out landscapes. Over 3 billion people depend on water that crosses national borders, but only 24 countries have transboundary water basin agreements, according to the UN.

In recognition of World Water Day today, an annual UN-organized observance focused on “water for peace” this year, Anna Michalak, Founding Director of the new Carnegie Climate and Resilience Hub, and Rafael Schmitt, a lead scientist at Stanford’s Natural Capital Project, discussed climate impacts on shared water sources and potential solutions.

Why is there more potential for conflict over water now than in the past?

Michalak: Water quality has traditionally been thought of as a local or regional issue, with factors such as urbanization, agriculture, and wastewater treatment being the main determinants of outcomes. In recent decades, however, our global impact via climate change is becoming a key additional factor. This interdependence increases the potential for conflict locally, regionally, and internationally, especially as climate change accelerates. Being able to anticipate and respond to water quality shocks, for example extreme events such as unprecedented harmful algal blooms in lakes and along coasts, will help to manage impacts in effective and equitable ways.

Schmitt: Conflicts about water have been quite common in the past, being recorded several thousand years back. In the more recent past, such conflicts have typically concerned countries that share rivers and thus water basins. Going forward, trade could alleviate some water conflicts and impacts of climate change – but trade and globalization also open the door to trading more water-intensive goods, such as cash crops or hydrogen. That will lead to a greater value for water and increased potential for conflict.

What is an example of how climate change affects water supply or quality?

Michalak: In the U.S., concentrations of microcystin, a toxin that attacks the liver and is produced by cyanobacteria or blue green algae in lakes, are highest when water temperatures are in the 70s Fahrenheit. We are seeing the band of lakes where the risks of high concentrations are highest move North as climate warms. The high-risk regions will increasingly overlap with the Midwest agricultural corn belt where high nutrient concentrations from fertilizers will get into water and supercharge the effect. Some of our recent work has shown that increases in nutrient pollution in rivers across the U.S. over the past three decades are more closely tied to climatic changes, specifically the amount and intensity of rainfall, rather than changes in land use and land management.

Are there any surprising examples of how climate change impacts to land or water in one country or region might affect the water in another country or region?

Schmitt: Some of our research shows that it is often not climate change alone that impacts water, but rather adaptation to climate change in other sectors. For instance, in Peru we found that hydropower is not very vulnerable to climate change, but agriculture is. If agriculture increases irrigation to deal with hotter, drier weather, this could have huge impacts on downstream hydropower.

Are there any potential hotpots for water-related conflict that you are keeping an eye on?

Schmitt: Among other potential hotspots, I would keep a keen eye on the Mekong Basin. In the Mekong, there is increasing awareness and tension around how Chinese dams and reservoirs impact downstream communities, as well as water security and climate resilience. For instance, Chinese dams are mostly operated to meet China’s hydropower needs, without consideration for the needs of downstream countries and farmers. The most productive farmland downstream is the Mekong Delta. Farmers there might choose to use groundwater to replace less reliable surface water supply. But groundwater use, together with sediment trapping in upstream dams, will increase land subsidence, and thus make the delta and its agriculture more vulnerable to climate change.

What are some of the most promising pathways to cooperation on water conflict issues across around the world?

Schmitt: I think it is critical is to make water management decisions more transparent. For instance, I work with the Mekong Dam Monitor, which uses satellites to track the operation of nearly all dams in the Mekong. This information is otherwise not shared between countries and often not even within a country. We already see that having this information out in the open changes debates in the basin, by holding actors accountable, opening pathways for communication, and eventually democratizing water management. For instance, downstream exceptional low and high flows can now be explicitly linked to upstream dam operations. While it is hard to keep people accountable, it will create awareness in the basin and accelerate political processes.

Michalak: The fact that water quality is now being impacted by climate change means that everyone's actions everywhere impact everyone else's water quality everywhere else. Addressing these challenges will require an unprecedented amount of coordination and collaboration across local, regional, national, and international boundaries. It’s a huge challenge, but also a great opportunity for working towards common goals.

Michalak is also a professor (by courtesy) in the department of Earth system science at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and the department of biology at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences.

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