The Next War Will Be Fought Over Water

Post-Covid Geopolitics and Power Plays

By Anil Madan

It has often been said. The next war will be fought over water. You have all heard this.

Some years ago, when a friend repeated this presumptive truism, I replied: “The army that does not have water will lose.”

The looming worldwide water shortage is a problem even bigger than climate change. Without water, humans cannot survive. That seems obvious. But when we speak of THAT kind of water, we are speaking of drinking water and water for agriculture. There is a shortage of both.

World War III will be fought over water. Pic –

There is another kind of water that is also important and that is the water of the oceans of the world. That water is important in two respects. First, it is a virtually endless source of drinking water provided one can desalinate and distribute it. Second, even in this age of intercontinental ballistic missiles, control of the seas gives nations the ability to project power, perhaps as never before.

As we look at the horrific surge of Covid-19 infections and deaths in India, it is reasonable to ask if the world will indeed get past this virus. Or will it become a permanent part of human existence and the landscape we must face? Certainly, as I have previously observed, given that the world’s population is some 7.8 billion and worldwide vaccine production is at best about two billion doses a year, it will take about six years to vaccinate the entire world, three if we can double production capacity. This means that with mutants and variants galore, we may be far from a post-Covid world.

If we do get to a post-Covid world, what do water shortages have to do with geopolitics? Well, if you go back to 1947 and the partition of India and Pakistan, you will often hear that the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is about the rights of Hindus versus Muslims. The truth is that Kashmir is a conduit for major rivers feeding water from the Himalayas to India as well as that part of it that became Pakistan. The conflict has little to do with religion and everything to do with water. 

At a higher level, the Indo-Gangetic Plain is the source of much of the water that feeds the subcontinent. Equally so, is the Tibeto-Gangetic Plain or Tibetan Plateau which provides water for almost one-quarter of the world’s population. It is home to ten of the great rivers of the world including the Yellow River, the Yangtse, the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Indus. As the glaciers diminish and the glaciated reserves of the world’s water supply dissipate, control of water will be more and more imperative.

So, if one seeks to explain why China took control of Tibet, one realizes that it has nothing to do with the Communist regime’s abhorrence of religion or Buddhists, but everything to do with control of water. And as China engages with Bhutan and Nepal and the occasional flare-up with India in the remote heights of the Himalayas, think water.

China continues to be aggressive with India about control of these great water Plains or Plateaus. Some years ago, when the water supply was abundant, it seemed the winner would gloat, have an economic advantage and yet leave the loser with a gravely diminished water supply but sufficient to get by. Unfortunately, climate change, glacier melt, and pollution have diminished available water to the point that diversion by any one nation of a great river could present an existential threat to the other. Considering that India and China are both nuclear powers, this is dangerous ground.

Or, turn to Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40% or more of the population is at severe risk of water shortages. The same is true in India, China, Australia and the south-western United States. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is the subject of vociferous complaints from Sudan and Egypt as their water supply is threatened. In the Middle East, skirmishes and wars over water have been commonplace for decades recently and indeed for centuries on a grand scale. 

Expect these conflicts in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to get more intense as time goes on.

The great challenge for almost every nation in the years ahead will be to provide adequate water for domestic use and for agriculture. Desalination provides one major path to get to sufficiency in this area. Rainwater collection is another avenue. These are perhaps the two means to avoiding cross-border conflicts between nations across the continents.

The oceans are vitally important for shipping lanes, fishing grounds, and national security. Here, we see that China is the ascendant power. With an aggressive fleet development program, sophisticated aircraft carriers and a naval presence that dwarfs every other country’s navy, China has become the dominant power in the Pacific Ocean and that part of it known as the South China Sea.

Is there a silver lining here? Well, China is dominant because it trades with the rest of the world, often on advantageous commercial terms. The last thing it needs to do is intimidate the nations of the world or put a damper on trade. Will China see an advantage to being a benign influence in the world or will it insist on domination, control and a ruthless exercise of power?

It seems a given that regardless of what the U.S. and other nations do, China will be a dominant and major naval force in the world. The question is whether China will have the enlightened self-interest to tread lightly and reap the benefits.


* Published in print edition on 4 May 2021

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