Climate change has and will continue to have both direct and indirect effects around the world. Changes in water will be one of the most visible direct effects, whether it is too little water, such as during prolonged droughts; too much, such as flooding caused by sea-level rise, rivers, or tropical storms; or misaligned timing, such as when seasonal rains are early or late. Across numerous societies, the climate change-water interaction will be disruptive, but through mitigation and adaptation actions, this interaction can at least be ameliorated. However, these disruptions will also have significant security implications locally, regionally, and globally depending on their intensity, spatial extent, and longevity, and due to their disproportionate effects on different segments of societies. This deteriorating security environment is very likely to increase the vulnerability of affected populations, enhance inequities, and interfere with mitigation and adaptation actions, which will prolong instability. Thus, any security analysis must integrate the effects of climate change on water, and its attendant effects on the vulnerability of populations, to capture a true picture of the security environment. Resources like the newly-released World Water Development Report (WWDR), titled “Water and Climate Change,” should therefore be taken very seriously by the security community.
The WWDR was released in March 2020 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in collaboration with U.N. Water and others. Its’ focus is on climate change, water, and sustainable development, three areas that assist in meeting multiple goals within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (see also here), the Paris Agreement, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (see also here). Water serves as a connector between these three global agreements. The report’s individual chapters focus on water-related challenges and opportunities in specific topics including infrastructure, health, agriculture, energy and industry, regional overviews, e.g., sub-Sharan Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Pacific, and climate finance.
Security analysts can build on the report’s contents to better understand the security implications of the climate change-water nexus given that water permeates multiple critical systems, such as health (physical and mental), agriculture (food production and distribution), and emergency response (local and third party) mentioned in the report. Disruption to one or more of these systems creates opportunities to exploit existing community weaknesses potentially further stressing these communities.
Taking the water-as-connecter-theme and adding security considerations to it, one area where the global need is already great as mentioned in the WWDR, is insufficient drinking water and sanitation services for billions of people. Climate change, particularly long-term drought, will worsen existing conditions, increasing the number of people without these services. Families and communities will then find it increasingly difficult to survive. Political conflict or minimal rule of law when coupled with the lack of water can increase social instability. This may then increase the forced displacements of peoples, which can have destabilizing effects.
Larger geographic scale instability may affect local, regional, or global strategic objectives of others, e.g., the U.S., China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India. Layered on top of these water issues, the movements of people may also be in response to natural disasters, e.g., typhoons, monsoons, further exacerbating poor living conditions, potentially widening regional instability, and increasing state fragility. These deteriorating conditions may provide opportunities for non-state actors to exploit vulnerable populations, and further erode security conditions.
This year’s WWDR contains important information on how climate change and water interact with one another with consequences for billions of people. In the absence of major climate change mitigation and adaptation actions, water insecurity will increase for many. Water insecurity can be scaled from local to global affecting more and more people as the geographic scope increases.
Security analysts should use reports such as the WWDR as a critical resource for improving security analysis, including improved analysis on the effects of climate change on security. This will, in turn, improve security policy.
Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.
* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis