Hello, readers! My name is Maddie Smith and I am a senior at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. I am majoring in chemistry and minoring in environmental studies and Hispanic studies, and am passionate about social and environmental justice issues. I am so excited for the opportunity to attend COP 22 in Marrakech, Morocco and to spend the next few months blogging about climate change and social justice!
This past semester my analytical chemistry professor showed my class the following graphic:
Virtual water balance per country and direction of gross virtual water flows related to trade in agricultural and industrial products over the period 1996–2005.
The figure shows the water that goes into producing agricultural and industrial products and which countries import or export this “virtual water”. Green means a country is a net exporter of products that use lots of water, and red means it is a net importer. Countries such as the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia are the biggest exporters, while Mexico, much of Europe, and parts of the Middle East and Africa are net importers. The paper this figure is from looks at worldwide water footprints (WFs) in terms of production and consumption.
A 2012 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report estimates that by 2025 nearly 1/2 billion people “could see increased water resources stress as a result of climate change.” It is predicted that rainfall will increase in certain places, such as parts of Asia, and severely decrease in the Middle East and parts of Africa, places on the map that are already net virtual water importers. In short: areas with abundant rainfall now will receive more in the future, areas prone to droughts now will only suffer from more stressed water resources in the future, especially as global population continues to grow. As water becomes scarcer in these countries, conflicts will become more frequent. History shows us this has already happened and is even happening today.
Riots broke out in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000 because Bechtel, a multinational American corporation made a deal with the Bolivian government to privatize the municipal water supply. The company needed to fund the construction of a dam, so rates were raised so much that the poor of the city could not afford water anymore. For many families the monthly water bill increased to $20 in a city where the minimum wage for one month’s worth of work was less than $100. The poorest people in the city would have had to choose between having water or food. Because of the riots, Bechtel left Bolivia and the government reversed the legislation that had allowed for privatization of the city’s water. The future of countries with scarce water resources could include water privatization and/or an increase in rates as less water is available for a growing population. In such a scenario it is certain that the poor will always lose.
I initially became interested in water politics due to climate change this past year when Dr. Vandana Shiva came to speak at my university. She is an expert and activist on issues regarding food, indigenous rights, environmental effects of globalization, and corporate imperialism. During the talk she mentioned the rise of ISIS in Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria, and argued that the conditions under which these groups gained power were related to droughts in these countries. In 2015, presidential candidate Martin O’Malley made the same connection between ISIS and climate change. Obviously, climate change cannot solely be to blame for ISIS’ reign of terror in Syria and Iraq. However, O’Malley and Dr. Shiva argue that a severe drought from 2006-2009 displaced rural farmers into Syria’s cities, exacerbating the country’s problems. When Bashar al-Assad’s government continued to fail to fix things civil war erupted, and ISIS emerged from the chaos. Politifact rates O’Malley’s claim of a connection between the rise of ISIS and the mega-drought caused by climate change mostly true. The authors of a scientific paper titled “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria” agree that O’Malley’s argument simply takes one more reasonable step past the conclusions of their study.
We can all agree that the situations in Syria and Nigeria are horrible. It is just as terrifying that climate change is already playing a role in shaping conflicts around the world. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 22.5 million people worldwide have already been displaced by climate or weather related events since 2008. As climate change continues to cause extreme weather events and stressed water resources, it is likely the number of climate refugees will increase substantially.