When the Wells Run Dry: How water scarcity will impact life as we know it

By: Erin Fisher

Americans, and citizens of most developed nations, are raised around limitless amounts of water. Water is referenced as an infinitely renewable resource in most classrooms, leading most to overlook the importance of our auspicious water resources. The results can be seen in our individual wasteful habits regarding water, which are often reinforced by government policies and programs. New water cannot be created, and existing water cannot be destroyed. The distribution of water that the planet is accustomed to, however, is changing drastically. Due to climate change, a future of water scarcity may be our new reality; unlike natural disasters with immediate visible impacts, water scarcity occurs over lengths of time, and the effects are not all felt at once.

The changing climate, provoked by the increasing global temperature, is altering the water cycle, and, ultimately, global weather patterns. NASA observations tell us that as global temperatures are increasing at the fastest rates in millions of years, water vapor concentrations, clouds, precipitation patterns and stream flow patterns are directly affected. Higher temperatures lead to increased evaporation, which trigger increasingly frequent and intense droughts. As a result, water will become scarce where it’s abundant and disappear altogether where it is already in short supply.

What does this mean for the future? It does not simply mean that we will all go thirsty. Water scarcity will cause famine and food shortages to violence and wars over remaining water supplies. Water is life, which can only mean that drought is death.



Agriculture in much of the world is based off of weather patterns that have been predictable and unchanging for centuries. In all parts of the world, typical seasonal rain patterns are changing, leading to food shortages and inflation in some countries and famine and death in others.

The World Health Organization lists Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Uganda as high risk countries for famine that are already experiencing severe acute malnutrition. Located near the equator, these countries have naturally arid climates. Normally, though, annual rainy seasons ensure there is enough vegetation to feed livestock that people rely on for survival. But as a result of climate change, the new normal is now one of prolonged and extreme drought.

The concern isn’t just over a few erratic rain patterns; Climatologists have linked this rapid succession to increased severe weather disruptions like El Ninos and La Ninas, which are naturally occurring climate phenomenons that disrupt normal precipitation, wind and temperature patterns. Many scientists infer that rising global and ocean temperatures cause these storms to be stronger and more frequent, pushing millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to starvation. Recent research tells us these regions have dried faster in the 20th century than at any time over the last 2,000 years, and four severe droughts have already ravaged the countries of Africa’s horn in the last two decades alone.

Because droughts aren’t as stimulating as other natural disasters; the public’s knowledge of these deadly droughts, and their reactionary measures, are diminutive. Even if global resources could be found to supply for the current drought and its impacts, securing a future is even more complicated. Global and federal agencies can only look to strengthen nations’ “climate resilience” by engineering costly sustainable development, like irrigation schemes, plant nurseries, and health centers. But, those seeing the harsh realities of water scarcity know that the solution is not that easy to produce.


It is known that water is necessary for all human life, but it is often overlooked that water is necessary for all human activity. When the first societies arose, they were called “river valley civilizations” and thrived only off of their ability to collect and control water resources. Constant availability of these water resources led to agriculture, and agricultural surplus led to the need for rules, class systems, government and, ultimately, life as we know it today. But if water is removed, it in turn impacts all other facets of society.

When society degrades, conflict becomes inevitable. Ismail Serageldin warned in 1995, “The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water”. The current situations in Syria and Yemen may prove to be just the beginning of wars over water resources if a future without climate change mitigation persists. The Middle East is often known for two things, its deserts and its conflicts. Yet, the connection between these conflicts, and the aridity of the regions in which they take place, often go unreported or overlooked. The root of many middle-eastern conflicts is water. Syria is one of the first clear examples of a large-scale armed conflict where resource scarcity, linked to climate change and natural resource mismanagement, played a key role. And while water scarcity is the root of many conflicts, it can also be used as a political tool far more deadly than any weapon. “Water Terrorism” is the term often used to describe territorial disputes over headwaters where humans reliance on water for survival is exploited.

As water supplies continue to be placed under extreme stress due to climate change and population growth, more conflicts will arise. Where rainfall declines, the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year. Over the course of history, people have fought and died in wars over trivial pursuits. Rather than life or death for the individual soldier, as wars have always been, wars over water will be about life and death for entire nations.


Close to Home

It may be hard to fully grasp how water scarcity will affect the average U.S. citizen. Currently, the United States is experiencing more extreme flooding, wildfires and drought than most have seen in their lifetimes. At the surface, water scarcity in the United States has already contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, millions of acres of damaged land and billions of dollars in property and agricultural loss. For the future of the individual, this may mean dramatic inflation nationwide: increased food prices, food shortages and increased fuel and energy prices.

Drought does not distinguish between rich and poor countries. “The effects of climate change are varied and opportunistic, but one thing is consistent: They are like sparks in the tinder”. Because the United States has a variety of biomes nationwide, the impacts of global warming has on water scarcity will be felt in virtually all corners of the map. It is important to remember that water scarcity is just one result of a slew of interlinked climate change impacts.

While many governments may offer solutions to drought or water infrastructure, this is only addressing a fraction of the problem. As exemplified across the globe, climate change exposes and exploits existing vulnerabilities. Proactive measures must be taken to address these vulnerabilities and those unforeseen, as the water cycle and global weather patterns change with the rising global temperature. The United States may have more resources to cope with water scarcity in the present, but these resources, like our water supply, could eventually run out. Without swift and serious action, a future of water scarcity may be the new reality.

Image via PublicDomainPictures.net.

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