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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Water Wars - The Green Line

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Water is the most precious resource known to man, but some countries are currently preparing to wield it as a weapon. Through the building of hydroelectric dams, the shrinking of water supplies, or plain geography, water is set to reshape the balance of power in many of the world's geopolitical flashpoints. So where are these flashpoints, who is set to gain the upper hand, and how will climate craft a new reality for these nations? To answer that, we sat down with a panel of geopolitical experts.

This is Part Three of our special five-part series focusing on The Geopolitics of Climate Change.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: A God-Damned Mess (3:00)

  • Ben Bowie orientates our discussion by pointing out the increasing severity of water shortages across the globe, affecting cities from Cape Town to California. These shortages are creating internal and international tensions as rivers reach historic lows.

  • Hydroelectricity dams are a key part of this problem; critical for power generation and able to work without the use of fossil fuels, these dams require significant water capture upstream that can then lead to downstream shortages. This has led to flashpoints around certain dams, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as a potential threat to Egypt's water supply.

  • We talk about why desalination is not a silver bullet for water shortages, due to a lack of scalability and the the ecological and economic impact it creates.

  • We discuss raising groundwater and the declining levels of water tables around the world in places like India and Chile, leading to increasing tensions between neighbours when large, lengthy tunnels are drilled for many kilometres to access water.

Part 2: Tactical Miles and Shrinking Denials (19:34)

  • Alex De Waal walks us through the growing tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile, noting the historical development over the forty years he has been covering the region. He notes that the extreme climate events have increased over that time.

  • Ethiopia's calculus was its need for rapid development and securing its interests. It has a significant amount of water resources; damning these sources would create electricity and allow for development.

  • Egypt's reliance on the Nile for irrigation and farming led to tensions developing quickly, centred around fears that Ethiopia may withhold water from Egypt in the event of a political dispute between the two nations.

  • We discuss the role of the White Nile, which is a critical source of water during the dry season and is being affected significantly by climate change, in these tensions.

  • We discuss the status of Ethiopian-Sudanese relations and the possibility of Egypt supporting proxy groups to destabilise Sudan and South Sudan as a method of affecting Ethiopia and disrupting the further development of dams.

Part 3: The Pariah on the Amu Darya (41:30)

  • Bruce Pannier introduces us to the water situations of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, currently experiencing melting glaciers and record temperatures, and the evolution of each countries relation with the other falling the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  • Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are now experiencing significant difficulties keeping hydroelectricity dams full enough to operate, in the wake of melting glaciers and declining precipitation, in order to generate vital electricity for their economies. This has also led to issues with providing sufficient water domestically for agricultural needs, threatening the food security of each nation.

  • Downstream,15 per cent of the Uzbek economy is based on cotton production, a very water intensive industry. As an integral part of the Uzbek national identity, the nation faces difficult choices as it faces more and more precarious water reserves.

  • Recently there was open fire from mortars and tanks on the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan border, seemingly sparked by nomadic herders in search of grazing land and water being pushed further into foreign territory.

  • We pivot to Turkmenistan and the potential of civil unrest due to dwindling water levels making it down the Amu Darya and decisions by the current government to divert water to non-essential projects.

Part 4: The Gangster of the Ganges (1:00:56)

  • Michael Kugelman takes us to the situation facing India, with increasing water crises leading to less water in the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, both originating in China, hampering the agricultural sector which remains one of the dominant employers within the Indian economy.

  • Pakistan is even more water insecure than India, heavily dependant on the Indus River, which also originates in China, for its water supply. This reliance is further complicated by the flow of the Indus through the disputed territory of Kashmir, a metaphorical jugular vein for Pakistan that may lead to an armed conflict.

  • Pakistan will need to make difficult decisions around water rationing and diversions of the Indus River to potentially isolate or share the burden of the difficulty of reduced water flow.

  • Perversely, flooding is increasing in the subcontinent, pushing the central government's emergency response abilities to their limits. Bangladesh's military has increased planning and training for climate emergencies such as floods and cyclones, leaving it perhaps better prepared for the future.

  • Water crises across India and Pakistan may lead to the exacerbation of internal separatist tensions between different ethnic, linguistic and religious divides.

Part 5: The Swan Song of the Mekong (1:16:55)

  • Gordon Flake finishes our tour with an introduction to the complicated geopolitics of the Mekong Delta, accounting for 20 per cent of the world's freshwater fish, running through several countries and originating in China.

  • There are currently 11 mega-dams built along the Mekong River, all taking water and all being used to power the local areas, mostly inside China and Laos. This is having a significant effect on downstream economies and environments, leading to growing issues.

  • The Lower Mekong Commission, which features Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, is not recognised by China, who instead prefer collaboration through the Chinese-based Mekong River Commission. Without Chinese participation, efforts to collaborate between the Mekong nations can not succeed.

  • The lack of cooperation is also visible in China releasing water upstream, creating flooding events downstream that could have been better managed with prior warning.

  • With China showing signs of being less responsive to regional concerns in recent years, the leveraging of the Mekong's water and fisheries may become vital to China's regional diplomacy.


Episode Guests:

Ben Bowie

  • Sustainable Development Expert at the Mission Climate Project

  • He specialises on the amplifying effect water has on conflicts and regional disputes across the globe

Alex De Waal

  • Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation

  • A leading expert on Ethiopia, Egypt and the Horn of Africa

  • Previously held a fellowship with the global equity initiative at Harvard

  • Served as Senior Advisor to the African Union's high level implementation panel for Sudan, where he took part in the negotiations that led to the independence of South Sudan

Bruce Pannier

  • Journalist and Correspondent specialising in Central Asia

  • His work has been published by Al Jazeera, The Economist, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

  • Host of the Majlis podcast for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Michael Kugelman

  • Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center

  • A leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States.

  • Columnist for Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel and regular contributor to New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Politico,, Bloomberg View, The Diplomat, Al Jazeera, and The National Interest, among others.

Gordon Flake

  • CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre

  • A world-leading authority on strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific

  • Worked with a wide range of national governments on defence issues and strategic planning


The Red Line's Water Security Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of water security and geopolitics.


The Water Paradox

Ed Barbier

Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge

Erica Gies

The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong

Brian Eyler


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This production was brought to you by The Red Line and Mission Climate Project.



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