Human survival depends on access to water. It sustains living bodies and nourishes the land. Wars have been waged over water, often called “blue gold,” for centuries. Not surprisingly then, prolonged drought renders societies volatile.

When drought strikes a particular part of the world — especially in developing nations — agricultural production decreases, incomes drop, food becomes hard to come by and prices rise. All of this amplifies the potential for rioting. Climate change will exacerbate drought in already arid regions, especially in the summer — and likely lead to more violence.

“It is thus plausible that water riots will contribute to full-blown civil conflicts, which of course has implications for international security — that is, terrorism,” said Jérémy Lucchetti, a professor of economics at the University of Geneva and author of a recent study documenting the relationship between drought and riots.

“We can expect an increase in violence linked to water scarcity if no policies aimed at mitigating the effect of climate change are implemented,” he added. That could mean cultivating drought-resistant crops, investing in irrigation or developing tools to help soil retain water.

Cattle farmer on arid land, Tanzania. Source: Pixabay

Lucchetti cited several cases — taken from the Pacific Institute and Human Rights Watch — of water riots in African nations in recent years.

  • Tanzania, 2012: Violence broke out between farmers and herders in the southeastern Rufiji valley, a region hit hard by drought. “A farmer was killed in a conflict with a herdsman over access to water in the southern regions of Lindi and Mtwara,” Lucchetti said. “Five more people died and many more were injured in subsequent violence. According to local sources, violence worsened during the prolonged drought.”
  • Kenya, 2103: Fighting between Borana herders and Burji farmers killed at least 56 people. The conflict was rooted in historic clan rivalries that have exacerbated by competition for water and land in the arid region, Lucchetti explained. “Clashes between the two communities date back to the 1960s and are related to disputes over the use of political power to take control of water and fertile land,” he said.
  • Nigeria, 2014: Riots between farmers and herders killed more than 1,000 people. “At the root of this violence is the issue of access to land and water resources,” Lucchetti said.

To be sure, the situation is especially fragile in places like sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, China and elsewhere, while developed nations such as the United States have been spared. But this could change, he said.

“Water scarcity is creating… tensions as well in industrialized countries, even if their more developed infrastructures and institutions allow them to buffer the link between water scarcity and extensive riots,” Lucchetti said.

The research, which appears in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, is believed to be the first to establish what scientists have long assumed — a valid link between drought and riots. However, while drought is a significant influence, it isn’t the only one, Lucchetti stressed. “In order of importance, it is political, economic and social causes that create tension,” he said. “Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning.”

This map shows the drought index across sub-Saharan Africa on September 30, 2017. Red areas are enduring severe drought. Source: African Flood and Drought Monitor

The scientists, collaborators from the University of Geneva, the University of Lucerne and Heidelberg University, studied almost 1,800 riots that unfolded over two decades in sub-Saharan Africa, observing a systematic connection between the sudden loss of water and the outbreak of unrest.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to unusually dry weather conditions: as much as 95 percent of the crops that are cultivated are rain-fed, while only 5 percent of all cultivated land is suitable for irrigation,” Lucchetti said. “Moreover, according to the UN World Water Development Report, 340 million people lack access to clean drinking water. Unusually dry weather conditions can therefore quickly increase the competition for access to water and hence induce conflict.”

Until now, most data on water scarcity and riots has been too aggregated to establish a link, even when examining the average annual amount of rainfall for each country along with the rise of violence, the researchers said. Part of the problem was that the data did not include the quantity of water actually required by the populations, nor was it easy to study the riots, which tend to be local in nature, and usually shorter and more explosive than civil conflicts. Each conflict required examination in more detail, according to the region, climate and populations, the scientists said.

The researchers analyzed conditions in 43 sub-Saharan countries with a minimum of one million inhabitants, using a drought indicator devised by hydrologists, which measures precipitation in a given month over a region and subtracts the amount of water lost through evaporation. They then cross-referenced these data with those from the Social Conflict Analysis Database, which lists the specifics of 1,800 incidents of rioting between 1990 and 2011.

Children carry water on their bicycles, Uganda. Source: Pixabay

In some cases, a region might see both drought and conflict, but one didn’t cause the other, Lucchetti said. “Rebel groups, for instance, that take up position outside a capital in a desert area may cause riots without there being a direct link with a drought in the region.”

Researchers found that drought increases the overall probability of rioting by 10 percent in a given month, whether that drought afflicts a desert or a grassland, and regardless of whether it is close to a city. “But if you cross-reference other geographical and social factors, this percentage rises dramatically,” Lucchetti said. “In fact, three key elements play a leading role in the likelihood of drought-related riots.”

  • Population density: More densely populated regions need more water. Water shortages in populated areas cause the risk of a riot to jump by 50 percent.
  • Proximity to lakes and rivers: In regions were there are no lakes or rivers, drought increases the risk of conflict by 100 percent.
  • Ethnic tensions: Where different ethnic groups share the same source of water, drought drives up the risk of conflict by 100 percent.

Scientists also found that drought-related conflicts often occur in the same month as the onset of a water shortage. “We now have to use this data to examine in detail what mechanisms could be put in place by political institutions to avoid riots, such as setting up redistribution systems in areas affected by drought,” Lucchetti said.

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.