Water in Crisis Investigative Series Part III: 

By Brianna Cunliffe, P.E.N. chief investigative reporter

December, 2020

In one of the most volatile regions of the world, the Gaza strip, the key driver of recent conflict is not ancient religious or ethnic enmity, not state aggression, and not terrorism. It’s water. 

In the dry lands of Palestine, and surrounding Jordan, life-sustaining agriculture relies on a precious and fast-dwindling supply of water — much of which is groundwater controlled by Israel.

For over 50 years, Palestinians’ access to that water has been denied or severely restricted and policed, resulting in rising tensions and human suffering as scarcity takes its toll on both hygiene and agriculture. Irrigated lands have declined drastically in recent years, and experts predict within the decade, there will be nothing left of the region’s once-thriving farmlands. 

Army forces destroy water pipelines, and farmers and villagers alike are driven to desperation by a lifeblood drying up before their very eyes. 

This is just one example of the many ways in which water insecurity drives conflict across the globe.

The conflicts between separatist Ukranian and Russian forces are exacerbated by crippled infrastructure and water insecurity, with abandoned mines contaminating villages’ already scarce supply — an increasing life-threatening cost in the time of a pandemic. Proper sanitation is literally a matter of life or death.

Even as Iraq pushes for increased dams to combat growing  water insecurity and claim these precious resources for its own, it’s drawn further into conflict with neighboring Iran, which also lays claim to the cross-border rivers so essential to life in both nations. 

As a global police force with an interest in international stability, the United States must be greatly concerned with these patterns. It must act to alleviate the key driver of water insecurity in the first place: climate change. 

“Climate change is an accelerant of instability, and instability undermines U.S. national security interests,” said Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, USMC (Ret.), a 30 year Marine veteran and President of the American Security Project (ASP). 

Globally, 37 acute conflicts, many unresolved, have already been driven by water insecurity. That number will only climb and climb, failing urgent action — and it only accounts for those directly driven by water, ignoring the conflicts and tensions on the rise because of other consequences of the climate crisis, migration key among them. 

Displaced, destitute, robbed of their nomadic or agricultural livelihoods by drought, flood, fire, or disaster, millions of people are already on the move. In the coming years, we will see a massive redistribution of human population driven by climate change. The United States is already beginning to experience its consequences. 

“We are already seeing climate refugees coming to Colorado to escape worse conditions elsewhere, even though the situation here is very grim too,”  said Steve Child, Pitkin County, Colorado County Commissioner, Army veteran Specialist 5.

Colorado and the American West faced its own climate reckoning this year, as wildfires claimed more acres, lives, and dollars than in any previous year on record. The fact that land ravaged by fire is considered a safe haven is testament to just how serious conditions on the ground are in places driving these exoduses. Climate refugees are often motivated by nothing short of starvation. Even imminent disasters like wildfires pale in comparison to remaining in their now-destitute homes. 

At the border, where they have journeyed to seek their new life, the situation is tense. As the United States halts processes for asylum-seeking and limits non-essential travel, many migrants are effectively stuck in limbo, most without the proper resources to keep themselves and their families safe from COVID-19. Forced to wait indefinitely in Mexico, conditions are what has been called a humanitarian crisis. The situation also heightens tension between the United States and its southern neighbor, on the brink of a transition of power much-anticipated on the international stage. 

 The issue of refugees fleeing drought and inhospitable conditions is one of many climate-driven challenges President-Elect Biden is set to face as he prepares to take office. Foreign leaders are already seeking to forge ahead with the new administration to create the sort of bold action necessary to contain this spiraling crisis. 

The President of Costa Rica, in a call with the President-Elect, urged him to lead the way on multilateral action, warning that the combined consequences of the climate crisis and the ongoing pandemic are sure to “intensify migratory phenomena in the region,” driving more struggling refugees for the U.S. border. 

This is especially true for the ‘Northern Triangle’ formed by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It’s one of the largest consistent sources of migrants to the United States as residents flee failing farmland, violence, and poverty in search of a better life. They bring political tension and concerns about homeland security with them, straining the resources at the border and creating dilemmas for U.S. policymakers that further complicate already-fraught debates about immigration. 

Acting to halt the worsening impacts of the climate crisis, many elected officials say, could be the single most important way the United States can advance the cause of national security in the long term. 

“We have a moral obligation to the world to lead in the transition to clean, renewable energy,” said Tim Goodrich, Torrance Councilmember (CA), Air Force Veteran. “I served proudly and had three deployments. I don’t want to see our people sent overseas to war zones because conflicts worldwide are destined to increase with the climate crisis. We need to rid the world of fossil fuel dependency, so people will be able to live in peace.”

The desperation ordinary people are driven to by scarce resources on a warming planet constantly undermines the cause of peace and justice. The United States has a unique opportunity within the next four years to act decisively to turn the tide on the climate crisis, both for its own security and for the good of all human life on the planet. Will it, at last, act?