Varun Sivaram

Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

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Climate Change Could Enhance Risk of Conflict

by Guest blogger for Varun Sivaram
January 26, 2017

A Syrian man carries a water container as he is accompanied by a woman at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi (Reuters/Umit Bektas) A Syrian man carries a water container as he is accompanied by a woman at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi (Reuters/Umit Bektas)


This is a guest post by Joshua Busby, Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the CFR discussion paper, Water and U.S. National Security.

It’s official – scientists have confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third consecutive year to reach that alarming milestone. Climate change drove more than just high temperatures in 2016, however. Droughts from California to southern Africa and floods from Louisiana to China disrupted agriculture, uprooted thousands of people, and slowed economies around the world. While shared interests have historically led countries to cooperatively manage water resources, the future could look dramatically different. Climate change and population growth could combine to make disputes over water more likely, including in regions where the United States has critical security interests.

In a new CFR discussion paper, Water and U.S. National Security, I argue that Washington has paid too little attention to this growing threat. Responsibility for anticipating and managing water risk is spread out over multiple agencies, with imperfect coordination among them and insufficient funding to ensure an effective response. The government has also not fully utilized the many non-governmental capabilities available through U.S. and international civil society, universities, and the private sector to anticipate and address water-related problems.

With timely and cost-effective interventions now, the United States can minimize the risks for the future. As the incoming administration shapes its national security team, it should ensure that water has an appropriately prominent place in its planning. Improved data sources and methods, including satellite data collected by U.S. government assets, now make it possible to identify fragile states and river basins where water problems are most likely. The administration should seek more support for data collection, analysis, and early warning efforts. It should also make use of public-private partnerships to increase water supplies and water conservation, and to waterproof at-risk infrastructure. Finally, Washington should build and strengthen legal and political institutions governing water resources within and among countries. These institutions are essential to minimizing the risk of conflict. Investments in them now will pay dividends – in better water management, more stable relationships, and more prosperous countries – in the future.

To read the full discussion paper, click here.

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