‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’: how the mismanagement of fresh water can act as a threat multiplier within the International Community – Robert Reynolds

As the old maritime mantra in the title clearly reminds us all, the majority of the earth’s surface is covered in bodies of water that remain undrinkable without the heavy industrial input of processes like desalinisation. This has in turn made ‘…securing a reliable supply of clean water one of the most important issues throughout human history’ (The World Economic Forum, 2015: 46), irrespective of the culture or its geographic location.

Since 2012, The World Economic Forum’s research has shown that the concerns relating to the different stresses on the worlds fresh water supplies has consistently appeared in the top five global risks in terms of both likelihood and impact to the international community (The World Economic Forum, 2015). Information cited in the most recent report from the think tank shows a decrease in the availability of fresh water as the most preeminent concern for not only the immediate future but, also the next decade as well. The concern about the accessibility to fresh water was placed above other recognisable media headline topics, including infectious diseases, weapons of mass destruction, interstate conflict and the failure of climate change adaptation. However, according to The World Economic Forum (2015) and the qualitative research that was conducted, the different global causes and effects of these diverse concerns do not occur in strict isolation from one another. The investigation by the body postulated that they are in fact interrelated happenings, with the fresh water theme displaying a moderate to strong interconnectedness with the spread of infectious diseases, profound social instability, large-scale involuntary migration and interstate conflict.

Furthermore, The World Bank has previously suggested that the likelihood of ‘rapidly deteriorating water availability [that] cuts across existing tensions and weak institutions’ (The World Bank, 2011: 35) could drive conflict and increase the threat of violence in weak and fragile states. Alternatively, ratified ‘water treaties have shown signs of success in reducing the risks of violence’ (The World Bank, 2011: 230), especially in areas that suffer from intense resource competition and limited water availability. Yet, in the strictest sense, the access to fresh water is not a direct threat to the security of people or property, however, it can be considered a credible threat multiplier that reinforces and mobilises conventional security threat mediums (Reisinger, 2015), as well as potentially acting as ‘a threat catalyst for [future] conflict’ (Reisinger, 2015: 22).

The absolute importance of water to individuals and nation states is beyond reproach, as it holds a direct primacy as the common denominator in the water-food-energy formula, which is why on several occasions in recent history competition for the resource has negatively influenced interstate relations and led to some severe diplomatic censure (Reisinger, 2015). Specifically, ‘…In 2013, Egyptian President Morsi threatened Ethiopia with war if it continued construction of a dam’ (Reisinger, 2015: 16) that would alter the flow of the Nile, and ‘the border tensions in Kashmir are in no small way a function of water security’ (Reisinger, 2015: 18). Certain elements of the Pakistan administration have even previously went as far as to threaten India with retaliatory nuclear strikes if the upper riparian state alters the flow of the Indus River.

As it stands currently within the global foreign policy climate, major armed conflicts between different states or intrastate actors over freshwater resources ‘[is] extremely rare’ (Gleditsch, 2007: 189). However, previous history has shown that violence over the commodity is not unheard of, and modern ‘empirical research has found some evidence linking water resources to international conflict’ (Stuart and Brown, 2007: 238). Furthermore, if the neo-Malthusian theory about resource consumption is proven correct, and both the national and international policies concerning the ownership and usage of freshwater sources remains unchanged. Then ‘we should expect the competition for resources to get ever fiercer, eventually to the point that it may break the norms of nonviolent behaviour, perhaps even within and between democracies’ (Gleditsch, 2007: 189).

To help avoid these violent and detrimental neo-Malthusian predictions concerning resource scarcity and its potential linkage to future armed conflict, this position paper highlights the importance of maintaining constructive dialogue and cooperation between riparian actors at a local, regional and international level. There is also an urgent requirement to legitimise the necessary international water management and cooperation efforts through the ratification of the UN 1997 Convention of the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, something that China still strongly refutes as an infringement towards its national sovereignty (Reisinger, 2015). Finally, future concepts like the water management research project conducted in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia, which was described in The World Economic Forum (2015), is an excellent example of pre-emptive cornucopian innovation for a shared national resource such as freshwater. The research has provided working models that can successfully track the availability of freshwater supplies using transparent online information, and this in turn has subsequently ‘buil[t] trust in the data [that] is critical for effective policy’ in a multi-stakeholder environment (The World Economic Forum, 2015:46).


The largest issue arrayed against the development and implementation of effective freshwater policy and management systems for local, regional and international community blocs is the severe lack of understanding about the environmental ‘processes that are still well beyond the control of man’ (Gleditsch, 2007: 187). Furthermore, not only is the scientific data that relates to water scarcity and the ‘neo-Malthusian scenario[s] of river conflict’ (Gleditsch, 2007: 182) limited, it is, much like climate change, also full of conjecture and conflicting research conclusions. This ultimately hampers the development of effective frameworks that can or should be universally endorsed by all states worldwide to help improve human security.

However, from a more pragmatic, political perspective, the ratification of treaties concerning transnational resources will always be a difficult bureaucratic undertaking, especially when one party within the process may be much more negatively affected by the changes that are under discussion. The challenge of successfully accommodating all actors during a diplomatic process remains one of the most difficult endeavours for development researchers and practitioners alike. However, with that understood, the seriousness of access to sustainable freshwater in the future cannot be overstated, with the failure in dialogue between opposing riparian claims leading to the potential for armed conflict, particularly as the stresses (be it manmade or natural) increase.


Gleditsch, N. (2007) ‘Environmental Change, Security, and Conflict’ in C. A. Crocker, F. O. Hampson, and P. Aall (eds) Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 177-195.

Reisinger, A. (2015) ‘Enhancing Global Security through Fresh Water Security’ A Journal of National Security Studies United States Naval War College Spring (2015): 15-24.

Stewart, F. and Brown, G. (2007) ‘Motivations For Conflict’ in C. A. Crocker, F. O. Hampson, and P. Aall (eds) Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 219-241.

The World Economic Forum (2015) Global Risks 2015: 10th Edition, Insight Report, Geneva: World Economic Forum.

The World Bank (2011) World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development, Washington D.C.: The World Bank.

1 thought on “‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’: how the mismanagement of fresh water can act as a threat multiplier within the International Community – Robert Reynolds

  1. mpmoon

    Hi Robert
    If you are involved in work concerning access to fresh water in developing worlds, I would HIGHLY recommend you contact the Janicki Bioenergy company in Sedro-Wooley, Washington. http://janickibioenergy.com/

    This group, in combination with the Gates Foundation, has created a means of taking human waste and converting it into clean drinking water, electricity and (sterile ash. Here is a video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVzppWSIFU0



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