Water & Peace

by Paul Olson, President Emeritus


My church, First Lutheran Church in Lincoln, has become something of an integrated church for an unusual reason. Several Sudanese people joined this past fall: tall beautiful people with perfect posture and wonderful African clothes—people who fled as refugees from the war in South Sudan. Their war in Sudan began in Darfur over ten years ago and extended to the rest of the country as Islamic North Sudanese were forced south by drought in northern Sudan—until civil war developed. Then the warring Islamic North and the Christian South were separated into different countries. The drought continued and tribal groups from the mostly Christian South Sudan began fighting one another over scarce resources. Resource shortages contributing to each of these sets of tribal conflicts brought my fellow co-parishioners here.

In the Sudan case, the wars were apparently largely occasioned by water shortages precipitated by global climate change. Indeed, climate scientists have generally ascribed the recent droughts in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to changes in the earth’s climate—causing the reduction of rainfall in the Nile Valley, the desertification of its grazing lands, and the fleeing of desperate people to non-traditional lands. The positive integration of my church came about, paradoxically, because people fled the negative violence in their native country.

Military people have ascribed many of the destructive recent wars in the Nile area to the same causes. The Department of Defense’s “2014 Quadrennial Defense Review” warns that, because of climate change, Africa will increasingly see such events.

Climate change contributes to outbreaks of violence in three contexts—the drying up of rivers crossing national boundaries; regional rainfall changes and warming that lead to diminished local food supplies; and the depletion of water supplies for large cities.

River change: The Nile River is not the only major river or body of water that crosses boundaries separating nations and cultural groups. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers do so in the Middle East as do the Indus and Ganges in the Indian subcontinent. The Jordan does this in Israel/Palestine, as do the Mekong in Southeast Asia and the rivers and storage lakes of Central Asia. The drying up of lands in the already dry upper Tigris/Euphrates valleys has probably contributed to the destabilization of populations in that area, to the tensions between Turkey and Syria; between Kurd, Turk, and Iraqi; and perhaps to some of the concern over ISIS’ potential control of the Haditha and Mosul Dams that provide irrigation water to Iraqi dry areas. In the future, as the glaciers in the Himalayas feeding the Mekong and Ganges rivers melt from climate change, we can expect that these rivers will at first increasingly flood Vietnam and Bangladesh. When the glaciers have largely melted, severe shortages of water will affect the rice paddies of both countries, contributing to their tensions with neighboring countries. New large-scale migrations of people will occur, and wars such as we are seeing in the Sudan.

These matters have, or may have, human solutions. Until the Palestinian Authority and Israel negotiated a treaty over the Jordan waters in 2010, control of these waters was a major bone of contention between the two powers. The same may be said for the waters of the Indus River that were allocated by a treaty between Pakistan and India in 1960—a treaty that has been kept even during the subsequent Pakistan-India wars despite their bitterness.

Rainfall pattern change: As the climate changes, prevailing winds will alter their courses and deliver rains to different lands, affecting what crops and herds can be grown where. In a recent issue of the Nebraska Report, I reviewed a book that argued persuasively that much of the Civil War in Syria had been caused by a drought in its eastern provinces that drove the Sunni pastoral tribesmen into the eastern cities where they came into conflict with their Shiite compatriots. The first demand of the Syrian rebels, starved out in the countryside, was for food and jobs. Generally, scholars believe that, as rainfall patterns change, pastoral peoples who have lived on traditional grazing lands will be forced into formerly agricultural areas where they will come in conflict with farmers, reenacting the classic conflict celebrated in the American Western where the farmers (commonly described as ‘rustlers’) fight with the upright ranchers (supposedly the heroic defenders of law).

This kind of neo-Western conflict is likely to occur in Africa, in central Asia, and perhaps in parts of Argentina and the American West. Changes in rainfall patterns will also mean that areas having ample topsoil may not have enough rainfall to produce traditional commodity crops, and that areas having heavier rains may have very thin soils unable to sustain agricultural production.

Cities: In 1900, the population of the world was about 1.5 billion people; by 2050, demographers project that it will be over 9 billion people. The larger proportion of these people will be city dwellers dependent on massive city water supply systems. Adding to the natural tension between urban and rural in all societies will be the fight over water distribution between city and country. Many cities may have to be abandoned, as was the city of Fatehpur Sikri built by the Moghul Indian Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. Sanaa, a city of over 2 million people and the capital of Yemen, will, according to prediction, run out of water in 2025; its 2 million-plus residents, when displaced, will probably create significant social conflict in Yemen and in the Arabian Peninsula. Tripoli, the capital of Libya, another city of about 2 million people, is entirely supplied by fossil water; what will happen when that water runs out? Quetta in Pakistan, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Los Angeles and Phoenix in the United States are supplied by now virtually dry rivers or limited underground aquifers. Climate change will undoubtedly stress the fragile water resources of those cities—and should they run out of water, we can be certain there will be abrupt migrations and social conflict.

The right wing in this country may not believe in climate change, but the Defense Department it has championed does. In October, Defense Secretary (and former Nebraska Senator) Chuck Hagel released an updated Pentagon study that designated climate change an immediate ‘national security threat’ that will increase global poverty, infectious diseases, food and water shortages, terrorism and mass migrations of peoples, while spawning fortress states meant to shut other people out and fascist-like regimes to keep order. Clearly water is not a fungible resource as are the fossil fuels replaceable by renewables. Desalination is extremely expensive, and even the Saudis had to abandon their great project to pull icebergs from the Arctic to provide freshwater to their country. (There are also those who fear that military installations, built near the sea, will drown with the rising oceans—especially those in the Low Countries in Europe and low elevation cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States.) Because Nebraska will have one of the world’s largest supplies of usable groundwater and, therefore, capacity for crop production, it will be under intense pressure to draw up its groundwater to send it across the Great Plains and also to produce massive amounts of food for profit or ‘aid’ to feed the world.

It is easy enough to be ‘Chicken Little’ and say the sky is falling. However, people who care about peace can do things to counter these terrors, to protect peace, and even use the threat of disaster to persuade others of our need to solve problems amiably and jurisprudentially.

  • As Nebraska has been able to largely work through its water problems with Kansas and Colorado because of our court system (and as the Israelis and Palestinians and India and Pakistan have solved their water problems through treaties), we can work to solve future issues in the water/peace arena through a world system of regional courts accountable to the World Court in The Hague.
  • We can do something about population growth—the threat of 9.7 billion people on the planet—through population control and food planning for changed environments: we can move away from shallow-rooted crops like corn and soybeans and toward crops that have deeper roots or lose less water from transpiration (the millets, the sorghums and the dryland grasses). We can practice rotational grazing on the grasses and use underground drip irrigation for food production.
  • We can employ tools like those suggested in the USAID water-and-conflict toolkit, employing these tools with our own neighbors in this country and with people in other countries that we trade with.
  • In a specific river basin or ecosystem area, we can work as a nation to create collaboration to solve problems within the river basin and across national lines through work among cooperative groups of farmers.

We are not now doing these things on any significant scale. We have failed. We are failing because of a lack of vision. Like Lakota vision questers, we need to cry out, “Vision, vision, vision.” When the Book of Proverbs says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” we may think of the future. But we should rather discern that these words apply to us, to our world, right now. 

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