If the most dire climate change scenarios come to fruition, some commentators have speculated that nations will go to war over access to drinking water. While such a war may be unlikely in the short term, it's a threat the U.S. government is taking seriously.
In October, the Pentagon released a report naming climate change a threat to national security, and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats held two hearings in 2014 on the emerging threat of water-related conflict. For the latest, a Nov. 18 hearing titled Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace, the subcommittee tapped Bucknell University Professor Amanda Wooden, environmental studies, to testify.
Wooden had previously briefed ambassadors and government officials about water in Central Asia as a member of the international Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The subcommittee asked her to outline how disputes over water in Central Asia might impact U.S. security interests (through terrorism or spillover into neighboring Afghanistan, for example).
"They asked me to give them the background — basically, to teach them what the situation is — and then to suggest what the U.S. should do," said Wooden, a political scientist who studies environmental protest and conflict in Central Asian nations such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Wooden is skeptical about the "water wars hypothesis," the hypothetical scenario in which countries, especially non-democratic ones, will go to war as water becomes more scarce, but she told the subcommittee that the contentious politics of water within Central Asian nations can create internal strife, which could spill over into international disputes.
A 2010 revolution that ousted Kyrgyzstan's president, she said by way of example, began after a year of blackouts in a nation where the majority of power is produced by hydroelectric dams. This was followed by a doubling of electricity, water and heating tariffs in the middle of the winter. Protests began in the coldest, most mountainous areas and eventually moved to the capital, where government troops fired on protesters. The president was run out of office.
"Hydroelectricity manipulations, corruption and the inability of the government to provide this basic resource led to a revolution, and there are a number of cases like this," Wooden said. "The relation between water and conflict is indirect, and it's not usually a risk for interstate war, but people do suffer, and when they suffer, sometimes those grievances help to mobilize them. This is where water scarcity can be a problem, especially when interacting with other socio-economic issues and corruption.
Day-to-day experience really matters for instability. It's where the buildup of frustration occurs."
Wooden noted that conflicts between states in the region have mostly been confined to small-scale, local incidents along the borders that have been resolved amicably. Security efforts along the region's ill-defined borders have increased in recent years, however, funded in part by the U.S. in the name of combating terrorism, and Wooden suggested those efforts might be counter-productive.
"All of these minor infrastructure projects about water, transport, electricity, etc., have become part of the bigger border delimitation disputes, which are now wrapped up in a rhetoric about terrorism," she said.
Wooden told the Congressional subcommittee that U.S. interests would be better served by funding scholarship in the region, especially for climate, glacier and drinking water monitoring, and by investing in renewable energy resources — in Central Asia and at home.
"The U.S. Congress should recognize the important role of climate change in creating ecological problems for human communities around the world," Wooden told the subcommittee. "Recognizing this important role means seeking to tackle the overall issue of climate change by reducing the U.S. contribution to greenhouse gases over the next dozen years and decades, as well as targeting aid in Central Asia to mitigation and adaptation efforts."
Watch Wooden's testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats (Wooden's testimony begins at the 19-minute mark):