Many Nations, Under Watered


For the second time in as many weeks, the continental US was under siege by a very unexpected threat: nature. Beginning on Sunday morning, hurricane Irma rolled through Florida and proceeded to devastate the state, sweeping from the Keys, through Miami, and further up into Georgia and South Carolina before finally fizzling out. As with her predecessor, hurricane Harvey, Irma’s greater than 100 mph winds were of secondary importance to the threat posed by trillions of gallons of water flooding the state. America consumes roughly 47 trillion gallons of water a year—about 176 gallons per day per person. Irma and Harvey combined dumped about 80 trillion gallons of water over the Southern US. Enough to fulfill all the water needs of the nation for over a year. For a water secure nation, it’s merely the makings of a bad joke. For the roughly 900 million people of sub-Saharan Africa surviving collectively on just over 1.5 trillion gallons of water per year, it’s a bitter irony.i The nations of the region are home to over 40% of the world’s water stressed population. Issues with infrastructure, climate, society and economics have all combined to create a much slower, but no less deadly, natural disaster. It would behoove western nations to get involved and address the looming crisis sooner rather than later.


Water scarcity is a subject that is easy to understand intellectually, but hard to come to grips with emotionally. The idea that nations can run out of water would seem absurd on its face when three quarters of the Earth’s surface is made of the stuff. But even if one knows that only 1% of Earth’s surface water is easily accessible and consumable, water’s renewability and necessity for functioning in daily life make the prospect of running out seem an impossibility. Here it helps to understand how water shortage is defined. International governing organizations like the UN and World Bank have a few basic terms: water secure, water stress and water scarce. Water security is having enough water to meet sustainable development goals and being able to protect this supply in the event of a natural disaster or spread of disease.ii Water stress is when nations lose this security. Water scarcity is the true lack of volumetric availability of water to meet the population’s needs. Nations facing water scarcity may also face environmental or sanitation hazards that further imperil the water supply (water stress) and may lose easy access to the infrastructure to provide water (water security) but their biggest issue is there simply isn’t enough water within their borders to supply the population.iii


Modern society has many uses for water: supporting agriculture and wildlife, bathing and sanitation, and general human consumption. South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation tracks the usage of the nation’s water and found that almost 60% of it is used for irrigation, linking the country’s food supply to its ability to maintain freshwater.iv This is roughly in line with the 70% of water used worldwide on nurturing plants, but Africa has to contend with an arid climate and much more frequent drought. 2016 saw Ethiopia face its worst drought in 30 years, leaving nearly 8 million people in a desperate situation requiring food aid.v This drought was brought on by particularly violent El Niño, a recurring climate pattern which, along with other

natural phenomenon such as the aforementioned hurricanes Harvey and Irma, traces back to climate change. The irony will become all the more bitter as climate change’s weather patterns lead to more water being leeched from Africa only to be dumped unceremoniously on nations in the Atlantic.

The problems don’t end with climate. Water in these nations is rarely properly treated. Waste from clothing and toiletry use seeps into the water supply, and can lead to the spread of infectious disease. One lagoon in South Africa where children regularly swim, has E. coli levels greater than 1 million cells per 100 meters—about 100 times the safe Retrieval is also a problem, with resources located sometimes miles away, and requiring women (who are often tasked with retrieval) to carry forty pounds of the liquid back with them daily.vii


Natural phenomena may be written off as unfortunate but inevitable parts of life in African nations, leaving politicians in water secure regions of the world appropriately solemn at the prospects, but ultimately guilt free about a relative lack of assistance. Water scarcity is not brought on by only natural disasters, however, but instead is both caused by and a cause of terrorism and warfare. Perhaps the clearest example of how water can be used as a weapon is the case of the Islamic State’s capturing of key dams and water distribution centers in Syria and Iraq. The terrorist group then made themselves indispensable to the population by necessity of possessing their water supply. Water was used to flood enemy camps and rivers were even contaminated with crude oil to strike a blow against their enemies gathered south of Tikrit in 2014.viii It’s not difficult to imagine the East African terrorist group Al-Shabaab employing similar methods against the Somalian government. Here the west not only has the capability to intervene, but also the incentive. Especially considering ISIS supporters planned to poison Kosovan waters only a year after their crude initiative in Iraq.

When it comes to contributing to conflict, water is even more efficient. One study found that for every standard deviation increase in dryness of a region, there was an 8.5% increase in the likelihood of rioting in the given month.ix Most sobering, though, is the fact that the Syrian Civil War, the largest scale conflict since 2010, was started over water. In February 2011, a rebellious young graffiti artist, frustrated with the Assad regime’s corrupt practices regarding allocation of water from his town’s reservoir, chose to scrawl antiestablishment messages around his hometown of Daraa. The government’s response was to round up schoolchildren and brutally torture them in captivity, leading to sustained riots that broke down when shots were fired into the crowd.x The rest is tragic history. Given the clear influence of water scarcity in current events, and with a trend towards more water based instability in the future, the water secure nations should act now to prevent even bigger humanitarian crises in the future. But what to do?


One solution is to move the problem down a level: turn water scarce nations into water stressed nations, perhaps by accessing the natural underground reservoirs of the nation or by increasing aid. Reservoirs are a double-edged sword, as they would allow nations a relatively easy way to meet the demands of the population, but they are the ace in the hole: use them up

and you’re back to square one with no back up plan. There’s also a nasty side effect on the geography—with water displaced, ground formations can deform and break down, leading to sinking cities. It may not be a risk worth taking when combined with the exhaustible nature of the reservoirs. On the other hand, with over 100 times the annual renewable resources of Africa being locked away below ground, it could give the region breathing room to develop sustainable practices and industries for their renewable supply, and a way to build around any infrastructure lost to accessibility.xi

Another tactic would be to increase desalination and water treatment facilities. The upfront costs are sure to be staggering, but more clean water means more streamlined supply channels as the marginal cost of supplying the water decreases. This in turn would reduce the lengths women especially must go to for a few gallons. The millions of work hours saved on going for water can be used to boost the region’s economy. Western nations can certainly gain from a scenario in which they supply engineering firms with lucrative contracts to construct desalination plants which are then turned over to national governments who then gain support from the boost to the economy. Certainly, there might be better (more democratic) or worse (dictatorial) partners, but the current goal should be ensuring the survival of as many people as possible rather than ideological shifts.

Beyond infrastructure and aid spending, the most powerful tactic would be to make sure water stays secure. The US is already training Africans from various nations, including Somalia and Nigeria, to combat terrorism, so it’s a simple leap to include tactics based around preventing attacks on the water supply.xii The biggest issue here, however, is undoubtedly going to be the threat of corruption among governments. Just as with North Korea or Iran, however, incentives can be built into aid programs to prevent bad behavior. Of course, incentives can’t be merely to stop aid at any hint of corrupt practices, as this would spite the government at the expense of citizens, but certainly sanctioning corrupt leaders and their cronies would give other leaders in the region pause before deciding to hold water hostage.

With 2017 quickly ending, the fears over water scarcity have only just begun to reach into the mainstream western consciousness. It’s still too early to see much of an effect from global warming anywhere, but certainly in the area of water scarcity. Nonetheless the next few decades will be crucial for preventing widespread famine and thirst, particularly in sub Saharan Africa. While the west has paid little attention to Africa over the decades, with their prominent natural resources like, the Lithium and Rare Earth Elements used in electronics becoming more valuable by the day there is no time like the present to formulate a coherent plan for dealing with water scarcity from now until 2100. Without help, it’s doubtful Africa can weather the storm.

Thumbnail photo


Almer, C., Laurent-Lucchetti, J. and Oechslin, M. (2017). Water scarcity and rioting: Disaggregated evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

Balch, O. (2016). Africa droughts prompt calls to start pumping untapped groundwater. [online] the Guardian. Available at: business/2016/aug/18/africa-drought-untapped-groundwater-aquifers-water-stress-ngo- partnership-ethiopia [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Fergusson, J. (2015). The World Will Soon be at War Over Water. [online] Newsweek. Available at: 324328.html [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Global Water Partnership. (2017). The Water Challenge. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017]. (n.d.). Water and sanitation | South African Government. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Hallett, V. (2017). Millions Of Women Take A Long Walk With A 40-Pound Water Can. [online] Available at: take-a-long-walk-with-a-40-pound-water-can [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Keeton, C. (2017). SA rivers in deep water. [online] Times Live. Available at: [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Margreth Bakilana, A. (2015). 7 facts about population in Sub-Saharan Africa. [online] AfricaCan End Poverty. Available at: population-in-sub-saharan-africa [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Okeowo, A. (2017). The Enduring American Military Mission in Africa. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: american-military-mission-in-africa [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Schemm, P. (2017). Ethiopia is facing a killer drought. But it’s going almost unnoticed.. [online] Washington Post. Available at: iller-drought-but-its-going-almost-unnoticed/ [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

Schulte, P. (2017). Defining Water Scarcity, Water Stress, and Water Risk: It’s Not Just Semantics - Pacific Institute. [online] Pacific Institute. Available at: [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

von Hein, M. (2016). 'Islamic State' using water as a weapon | Middle East | DW | 03.03.2016. [online] DW.COM. Available at: weapon/a-19093081 [Accessed 12 Sep. 2017].

i See point 1 of Margreth Bakilana (2015)

ii GWPs estimations are in line with World Bank and UN.

iii See Schulte (2014)

iv From DWS website

v See Schemm (2017)

vi See Keeton (2017)

vii See Hallett (2016)

viii From von Hein (2016)

ix Refer to pages 15-16 of Almer, Laurent-Lucchetti and Oechslin (2017)

x See Fergusson (2015)

xi From Balch (2016)

xii See Okeowo (2017) 

GlobalBrian MasseyComment