The Most Overlooked Global Security Threat

By Catriona Heyworth, GLOBUS Correspondent

It is easy to think that the biggest 21st century security challenges will be prefixed by the word ‘cyber’, be it cyberwarfare, cyberterrorism or cybercrime. However, the effects of climate change and overpopulation have brought to the forefront critical questions about the sustainability of the global trajectory on which we find ourselves. Capitalism and the imperative of constant economic growth has led to a sustained pressure on our natural resources, including those most essential for our survival. We have always fought over resources, but one which has previously been taken for granted is becoming increasingly scarce and increasingly demanded: fresh water.


Water security has been a topic in security debates for decades, with predictions of major wars over water supplies in the near future. It has also been noted that climate change will greatly deplete water supplies. However, the link between water scarcity and major warfare seems to have significantly weakened, because, although there have been regional disputes over shared water supplies, the major conflicts that were predicted have not arisen. Over the last few years, the idea of water security has lowered on the perceived threat list due to a lack of large-scale conflicts. But the problem is not so simple. To analyse this more thoroughly, we must expand upon the traditional definition of security.

While security threats are usually thought of in terms of marching armies or hacking national grids and critical infrastructures, ‘human’ security threats are no less significant, and can be the catalyst for military or extremist action. Human security threats include, but are not limited to, environmental, social, economic and political security, and, as such, give a much broader view of what constitutes a security threat. Only looking at the traditional definition of security severely underplays the significance of the threats, which must be analysed holistically to give an appropriate risk assessment. Water scarcity in its extreme form can fundamentally threaten people’s ability to live if they cannot access clean water, and this is one of the causes of forced climate migration, but there are many further consequences.

Governments in marginal regions will face increasing tensions when water becomes increasingly scarce and challenges life in its most fundamental way. Because, at some point, it becomes very difficult for governments to counteract damage already done and reverse water scarcity. This has been seen with the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has been linked to the failure of the government to increase standards of living and economic development (including through irrigation projects) in the south. Conflict in Yemen and Syria have been exacerbated by water scarcity. Water scarcity contributed to the Arab Spring in the form of reduced food production and increasingly frequent droughts.

However, delving a bit deeper can unveil a whole range of ways that water has created human security threats. A well-versed example is when major rivers cross international borders: upstream countries have great economic incentives to build dams, overfish, and pollute the river with agricultural and manufacturing waste, at a cost to the country downriver. This is a version of the classic economic ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem, whereby a shared resource is overexerted because each individual has personal incentives to keep exploiting it – to the extent that the resource becomes unproductive. The typically proposed solution to this is for governments to intervene and manage the resource, however this is challenging when the resource is transnational. Another caveat to this problem is the fact that in the classical tragedy of the commons, there is a collective incentive for management of the resource such that it can continue to be used (for example, a shared field for grazing or lake for fishing). However, in the context of a transnational water boundary, the upriver country has no reason to want an international treaty to limit its exploitation of the river, because this can come at their economic losses. Upriver countries can build dams or pollute the river with no cost to themselves.

For example, 85% of the Nile source water is controlled by Ethiopia, who have proposed the building of a dam. Downstream, Egypt has warned this could threaten its sovereignty because its people rely on the Nile to sustain their livelihoods, with most of the population living along the Nile. The river Indus is another example of a transnational river tension. In 1960, the World Bank Group brokered the Indus Water Treaty between Pakistan and India to manage the Indus which flows between the border. However, as water and electricity needs continue to rise, the IWT is threatened and the long-term sustainability of the resource is called into question.

Climate change creates additional strains on fresh water resources, with the increased spread of desertification and more extreme weather conditions aggravating an already diminishing ability to provide the food required to sustain the increasing world population. This is already a process which has displaced millions, as the carrying capacity of the land is severely depleted. As processes of desertification spread, this becomes a global sustainability threat.

There are also significant threats to economic security, with water being a key resource in manufacturing, energy production (including fracking) and agriculture. So as water becomes scarcer, economic growth will slow in many key areas at an unprecedented scope, with potentially disproportionate unforeseen consequences. Environmentally marginal regions like sub-Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions are more vulnerable to such shocks, and, as such, this might have significant consequences for the development of these regions.

Water security is a problem that keeps developing, but as water is such a critical part of the world we live in and is fundamental to our survival, it must be protected at all costs. Labelling it a security threat and thus ‘securitizing’ water scarcity can help make it a priority on international political agendas, thus forcing governments to take proactive steps rather than having to de-escalate devastating consequences in the future. This must be tackled by intranational and international cooperation before it becomes a global crisis.


Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

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