News Feature | April 19, 2016

World Leaders Describe Threat Of Drought, An 'Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Novel'

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Classified U.S. cables reviewed by Nathan Halverson at the Center for Investigative Reporting and published by Mother Jones show that the consequences of water shortages could be dire.

The cables were made public several years ago by WikiLeaks. “Many of the cables read like diary entries from an apocalyptic sci-fi novel,” the report said.

Messages from U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche in Yemen demonstrate the dire conditions.

"Water shortages have led desperate people to take desperate measures with equally desperate consequences," he wrote when water riots erupted in the country in 2009.

Seche sent a message to the State Department about the minister of water in Yemen, who "described Yemen's water shortage as the 'biggest threat to social stability in the near future.' [The minister] noted that 70 percent of unofficial roadblocks stood up by angry citizens are due to water shortages, which are increasingly a cause of violent conflict," according to the news report.

Seche said the rich are able to dig deeper as aquifers run dry but poorer populations have few options.

"The effects of water scarcity will leave the rich and powerful largely unaffected," Seche wrote in the classified 2009 cable. "These examples illustrate how the rich always have a creative way of getting water, which not only is unavailable to the poor, but also cuts into the unreplenishable resources."

An embassy official in Switzerland cabled Washington with similar concerns. The official had spoken to leaders at Nestle, the world’s largest food company, about water security concerns: "Nestle thinks one-third of the world's population will be affected by freshwater scarcity by 2025, with the situation only becoming more dire thereafter and potentially catastrophic by 2050."

Conflicts in the Middle East may bode poorly for the state of water security around the world.

“The water-fueled conflicts in the Middle East paint a dark picture of a future that many governments now worry could spread around the world as freshwater supplies become increasingly scarce. The CIA, the State Department, and similar agencies in other countries are monitoring the situation,” the news report said.

As nations face problems ranging from pollution to scarcity, the politics of water resources have become complicated. But it may be reassuring to know that water politics have been fraught for ages.

The Pacific Institute, a think tank, has created a 5,000-year timeline of water conflicts, including religious accounts. It shows that water politics have been messy since the beginning.

Many analysts have predicted that pressure on water resources could spark wars in the coming years.

Back in 1985, Boutros Boutros Ghali said, "The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics," according to BBC News.

Kofi Annan said in 2001: “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,” per an announcement by United Nations University, an academic and research arm of the U.N.

Ban Ki Moon said in 2007: “The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict."

To read more about the consequences of drought and potential solutions visit Water Online’s Water Scarcity Solutions Center.

Image credit: "NASA Goddard Space Flight Center," © 2010 The Water Planet, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: