THE BLOG
01/20/2016 09:41 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

Forget Star Wars ; Get Ready for Water Wars

Co-written by Stephen J. McConnell

Stephen J. McConnell is a Denver-based writer who recently finished a novel that explores a catastrophic environmental collapse and its implications.

A great war looms, one that will rise from the most desperate circumstance: our battle over water.

Today, we war because of a chasm of values and ideologies, national and religious differences. But quietly, a new conflict is budding in the shadows, one that many of us have not taken much notice of because it isn't given the attention it's due, especially by the "shallow pool" of candidates running for president of the United States.

If trends persist and a growing body of scientific evidence holds true, we may be at war, or at least find ourselves hurled into new geo-political conflicts, for something that most of us, at least in first-world countries, take for granted -- water. I say this not to be an alarmist, to spread fear for the sake of spreading it, because of an "agenda" or a desire to manufacture attention. I say this because conflicts to secure this precious resource are already brewing across the world. The water wars of today may not be pervasive and prevalent. But someday soon, they could be coming to a city near you, a situation that could lead to another kind of conflict, the slow death of progress and economic growth.

Unrelenting global population growth and the insatiable consumption of water by industry, agriculture, burgeoning cities, freewheeling suburban development, and just utter waste is placing severe strains on diminishing water supplies, setting the stage for water scarcity even in places where it is seemingly bountiful. We must also consider the relatively undefined "x factor" -- climate change. What that phenomenon means to our planet's hydrologic cycle is still being sorted out by scientists.

But the outlook, thus far, is dire. The issue is real: clear and present.

In the Middle East, ISIS has waged war over water, scurrying to control dams in the parched land of Syria and Iraq. In China and Laos, more dams are being erected to redirect water to drier regions, leaving downstream countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to wonder whether the great rivers of the continent will one day be reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches them. In Africa, countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are staking their water claims, signing treaties that will dictate the fate of the Nile and the farmland surrounding it.

And in the U.S., we have a history of waging war in the courtroom over water rights from coast to coast. But if current water shortage trends persist, we may be in for a far worse situation, beyond the courtroom, a bleak day of reckoning that will be utterly incompatible with the American promise of progress and prosperity for all. Analyzing U.S. Geological Survey data, a USA Today investigative series focusing on groundwater shortages found that once huge and flush acquirers, like the Ogallala Aquifer that lies beneath a wide swath of the Great Plains, are being dangerously drained to fuel the water needs of cities, industry, and new development.

The newspaper's investigation discovered that water levels have dropped in 64 percent of groundwater wells in a national database of more than 32,000 wells, figures that were compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey over two decades. According to the data, the average declines nationally were larger from 2011 to 2014. Farmers in Kansas now hear a meager splash of water when they drop a rock in their wells because the groundwater beneath their properties is so low.

Elsewhere, California is contending with a historic drought and record water shortages, which scientists believe is partly due to climate change. The state's crops (an important food supply for the nation) and economy has been decimated because of four consecutive years of severe drought. According to a University of California study, the state has been forced to swallow a $2.7 billion hit to its economy, including 21,000 lost jobs in the agricultural sector. In parts of the state with limited groundwater reserves, the impact has been much more severe while other parts of the state have had to increase their draws from underground reserves. In addition, one study found that climate change was a significant contributor to recent drought conditions and that "although natural variability dominates, anthropogenic warming has substantially increased the overall likelihood of extreme California droughts."

In Colorado, the state "faces the possibility of a significant water supply shortfall within the next few decades, even with aggressive conservation and new water projects," according to a recently released state water plan. The plan attempts to mitigate this potentially devastating trend that will, if projections hold true, cripple the growth of cities like Denver. Meanwhile, Colorado's population of about 5 million today is expected to double by 2050 -- with much of that growth occurring just east of the Rocky Mountains -- adding pressure to diminishing supplies.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted a litany of adverse water impacts because of climate change, evidence that was gathered from a recent and comprehensive review of scientific literature. That includes freshwater-related risks, a reduction in surface and groundwater resources in some regions, and intensified "competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry, and energy production, affecting regional water, energy, and food security." Because of increased greenhouse gas concentrations, another study revealed a "likely increase in the global severity of drought by the end of 21st century." That study predicts South America and Central and Western Europe will be particularly hard hit, "in which the frequency of drought increases by more than 20%."

Then, there's a recent NASA study that showed through satellite data how more than half of the planet's 37 largest aquifers are being depleted, taxed beyond their ability to effectively replenish. Other studies reveal that we will not have enough water to meet demand by 2040 -- "to quench the thirst of the world population and keep the current energy and power solutions going if we continue doing what we are doing today" -- and that 33 countries will face "extremely high water stress" in less than 25 years!

A bleak future looms, one that threatens our crops, our food supply and food security, our economic progress and prosperity, and perhaps even our survival. A growing body of scientific evidence reveals that a storm is brewing, one that could tip us into wars that make conflicts over values and ideologies utterly meaningless as we scavenge and stake claims on diminishing, nearly depleted resources to ensure our survival. We see the potential for this future today from historic droughts to sucking dry aquifers, strained and nearly depleted by our unrestrained march of progress.

As we quibble over nonsense in our national politics or get distracted by the latest box office hit, we ignore the larger issues, some of which are necessary for us to flourish. Perhaps we should begin quibbling over things that matter, rather than the inane. Water conservation is a global conversation we must have -- today. We must radically rethink our use of water and its role in our economies. We may also need to rehash the mishmash of complex laws, regulations, and court decisions governing water use in the U.S. so that we protect our resources, as well as use them judiciously. In light of climate change and extreme population growth, the one element all life on Earth needs to live -- clean freshwater -- may one day no longer be bountiful and ubiquitous. If we refuse to accept that stark truth, we will be in for a bleak reckoning that will be far worse than anything we have seen in human history.