Why water scarcity is not just a 'green' issue

Awareness is growing that drought and pollution don't just pose ecological threats, they present serious political, economic and security challenges as well

Boys herd buffalo towards the Euphrates on the outskirts of Najaf, Iraq on July 2. Iraq is a country where some of the scenarios outlined in a recent UAE discussion document about water scarcity are already playing out. Reuters
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If the growth of climate change’s place in our collective consciousness has done one thing, it has been to dispel the notion that environmentalism is a single-issue cause. Instead of “green” politics or policies being treated or championed in isolation to other issues, there is a growing and more nuanced awareness that ecological damage not only threatens the environment; it has profound social, political and security consequences as well.

This joining of the dots between climate change and the world’s economic, social and governmental futures was on display this week in a discussion paper and accompanying initiative launched by the UAE on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. In Ripple Effect Water Scarcity – the hidden threat to global security and prosperity, the Emirates highlighted the “cascading effects of unmitigated water scarcity”, correctly identifying how the effects of drought and pollution lead not only to loss of life, food insecurity and economic underdevelopment, but can foster humanitarian crises, geopolitical instability and even armed conflict.

Water scarcity is a significant threat to stability in several countries and is an issue that is deeply interconnected with other problems. In this region, Iraq is a case in point. Its two main sources of water, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which account for more than 90 per cent of the country’s reserves, have declined significantly over the years. The construction of dams and the diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Iran have exacerbated the crisis. The UN classifies Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change.

Some of the scenarios outlined in the UAE document are already playing out. Many rural Iraqis suffer from a lack of water for agriculture, with some farmers abandoning their fields. The country’s wetlands, a vital ecosystem that has supported many communities for centuries, are drying up. Water pollution endangers health and leads to involuntary migration as people are forced to move to find better opportunities.

It is a problem the Iraqi government is aware of. Speaking to The National in New York, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani said that new measures to fight water scarcity would be introduced soon. But in the same way that the problem of water scarcity is interconnected with other issues, so too are the solutions. In the case of Iraq, carrying out critical infrastructural work to improve water supply and treatment will also require tackling the endemic corruption and bureaucracy that has dogged the state for years.

There are policies and techniques to address the worst of water scarcity. These include introducing water-efficient appliances and fixtures; recycling and reusing wastewater; making desalination more efficient; using drip irrigation that can reduce water use by up to 50 per cent and switching to drought-tolerant crops or crops that can survive with less water. But all of these require steady investment, a stable economic and political environment as well as commitments that last beyond the lifetime of any one administration. Public support is crucial, too – which makes the idea of increasing charges for water use during a cost-of-living crisis in the West, or in ailing economies in the Middle East difficult to implement, to say the least.

Nevertheless, we are seeing a more holistic awareness of how the climate crisis – and water scarcity in particular – touches upon just about every other aspect of our political and economic systems. Developing solutions that are just as holistic is the next step.

Published: September 27, 2023, 3:00 AM