Will World War Three Be Fought Over Water?

22:56 minutes

a brown cornfield with drooping stalks
Drought-damaged cornfield. Credit: Shutterstock

Yemen is gripped by civil war—and some experts say it could be the first of many “water wars” to come, as the planet grows hotter and drier. In This Is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-Offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes Are Converging on America, Jeff Nesbit writes of the Yemeni conflict and many other geopolitical consequences of a warming world, including the precarious future of the Indus River, under the control of China, India and Pakistan, and why Saudi Arabia’s biggest dairy company is buying farmland in the Arizona desert. You can read an excerpt of Nesbit’s new book here.

[Perched on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island is an otherworldly experiment.]

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Segment Guests

Jeff Nesbit

Jeff Nesbit is author of This is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-Offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes are Converging on America (Thomas Dunne Books, 2018). He’s also executive director of Climate Nexus, and former director of public affairs for the National Science Foundation. He’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Four years ago, Saudi Arabia’s biggest dairy company, called Almarai, started buying up land in the Arizona desert. Why would they do that? Saudi Arabia was running out of water.

And the company needed alfalfa, a highly water intensive crop, to feed their cows. And the area where they farm has less restricted access to the Colorado River and the state’s water, less restricted than places like Phoenix or Tucson, meaning it’s a great place to make hay and then ship it overseas back to Saudi Arabia. Is this just a little foreshadowing about the future of water and about how big a commodity H2O will become in a hotter and drier world?

And some places are already looking at solutions like turning waste water into drinking water. And here’s our question for our listeners. Does your city already recycle wastewater and put it back in your tap? How does it taste? Was there an ick factor?

And was it a political fight to get it done? Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us @SciFri.

And the reason I’m bringing all of this up is because my next guest writes about the future of water, of water and other climate related conflicts, in his new book, This Is The Way The World Ends, How Droughts and Die Offs, Heat Waves, and Hurricanes, are Converging on America. Jeff Nesbit is the author, executive director of Climate Nexus, a nonprofit that focuses on climate change communications. He’s the former director of public relations at the National Science Foundation, where I knew him way back in the day.


IRA FLATOW: Nice to see you.

JEFF NESBIT: Good to see you.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about, first about other countries coming here to use US water resources. Is that right about Saudi Arabia?

JEFF NESBIT: It is absolutely right. And some of the folks in Arizona didn’t take so kindly to it. There was a very contentious local town hall not too long ago where they had four sheriff’s deputies planted outside the hall as they were trying to explain. But the story in Saudi Arabia goes back even further. Saudi Arabia made a pretty colossally bad bet where they began to drain the water aquifer to try to grow wheat.

They paid farmers to grow wheat and they essentially drained the water aquifer that has some of their fresh water that had been in place for thousands of years. So then you combine that with climate change sitting on top like the 800 pound gorilla. They’ve essentially run out of water. So they’ve had to go elsewhere to get crops that are water intensive so they can feed their people. So they came to Arizona.

IRA FLATOW: So we were basically shipping our water as we grow it overseas.

JEFF NESBIT: Correct. And they call it a virtual water network, the Saudis, in cables that Wikileaks has released. China’s doing the same thing. They bought up America’s largest pork producer in order to do the same thing. So both Saudi Arabia and China are going around the world to try to solve their natural resource problems.

IRA FLATOW: And I think we’re going to see more and more of this as water becomes more scarce everywhere.

JEFF NESBIT: Absolutely. And that’s actually the point of this book, is that water is more scarce in lots of places on earth. We’re lucky in the United States. We live in a temperate zone. We’re lucky that some of the worst impacts of climate change aren’t here yet. They’re definitely here in other parts of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa, some countries simply don’t have any food at all. And Northern Africa is suffering in the Sahara region.

IRA FLATOW: And in your book, you say, quote, “Yemen is the first casualty of what will almost certainly be the water wars of the future.”

JEFF NESBIT: Yemen is a fascinating story. People have already written about what happened in Syria when the farmers moved off their farms to the cities and it triggered the civil unrest. They’ve looked at Egypt where the food riots led to the Arab Spring. Yemen is a more stark example.

Diplomats knew that country was running out of water. 14 or 16 aquifers were drained, no water. And they were predicting, to the water minister and others, you’re going to have riots in the streets. You need to deal with this.

They didn’t. And that’s exactly, two years later, civil unrest and then the collapse of the government. So that’s what a water war looks like.

IRA FLATOW: And you say the future is here now, and meaning disruption.

JEFF NESBIT: It is absolutely. And this is– I’ll tell you, this is one of the reasons why national security analysts have looked at climate change as an imminent national security threat, because when you have wars over water, you have wars over food insecurity. And I’ll tell you, half the people in the world right now are eating food that’s imported into their country because there isn’t enough land, arable land or others, to grow it right now. So it’s here now in other parts of the world.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s what I hear you saying. And again, the title of your book, This Is the Way the World Ends. That comes from, not with a bang, but with a whimper.


IRA FLATOW: So it’s a little drip, drip, drip under the radar.

JEFF NESBIT: Yes, until it’s no longer, until it’s, you know, and then people fight– I mean, a good example that sort of went unnoticed is India and Pakistan almost went to war over water less than a year ago in Kashmir when India threatened to shut off access to the Indus River and threatened to start a war over that. If India should make that decision, Pakistan would suffer downstream. If China then would make a similar decision it would harm both India and Pakistan. So these drip, drip, drips of water as they run out of water can lead to catastrophes essentially.

IRA FLATOW: Are we going to be talking about the future, water futures, like we talk about oil futures or commodity futures?

JEFF NESBIT: Not only are we, I can tell you with certainty. I’ve met with a billionaire who is already planning to treat water as a commodity, where they will sell water to places like northern China and Saudi Arabia and others. We’re absolutely there already in some parts of the world.

IRA FLATOW: So you mean somebody’s hoarding the water.

JEFF NESBIT: They’re not holding–

IRA FLATOW: Like a cartel of water.

JEFF NESBIT: Got to love a good cartel.

IRA FLATOW: We have a cartel of maple syrup. Why not have a cartel–

JEFF NESBIT: Why not, exactly. I don’t know how– I don’t know that we’ll be talking about barrels of water just yet. But clearly people are looking at this as a business.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Jeff, Jeff Nesbit, author of This is the Way the World Ends, How Droughts and Die Offs, Heat Waves, and Hurricanes are Converging on America. Let’s see if we can get a phone call or two in. Let’s go to Ken in Tucson. Hi, Ken.

KEN: Hi, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

KEN: Yeah, so I was just going to say, even though we’re in a desert here, we have not politically had luck getting either recycled water or even a [INAUDIBLE] into our water system. We still use the aquifer. They tried it back in the 90s and it destroyed the water system. And the recycle water, it is used for golf courses but it’s not used for anything else.


IRA FLATOW: Thanks for the call.

JEFF NESBIT: So I would encour– that’s very interesting to hear. Tucson and others might want to go talk to Mayor Garcetti in Los Angeles because they actually are. They have figured this out, how to reclaim water. A significant portion of Los Angeles’s water is starting to come from reclaimed water.

They have a plan. It’s a pretty extensive plan for doing that. And honestly, other cities need to start figuring this out.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I was it the American Waterworks Association, speaking there a while back. And I went to the exhibit area. And there are people there who collared me and say, we are recycling water. We now can supply cities on larger and larger scale. We’re experimenting with it. And I said to him, can the people tell the difference? And he said, they certainly can. When they drink our recycled water they notice it’s much tastier than their old water. So I mean, there’s good news about it.

JEFF NESBIT: There is. I think Los Angeles Angeles’s plans are the next step. I mean, I’ve also talked to their water district leadership. They think about climate change every single day in Los Angeles right now. They’re planning for that right now.

And they have plans. I think a third– I don’t remember the exact numbers. But it’s a very significant portion of their water is going to come from reclaimed water.

IRA FLATOW: You tell a really interesting story. And let me just to lead into this by saying, you know, don’t people listen to scientists anymore?

JEFF NESBIT: They should be, man.

IRA FLATOW: Or ever listen to this about what this drip, drip, drip is. But you really uncovered a great mythology about Albert Einstein and FDR. Tell us that story you tell in the book.

JEFF NESBIT: So it’s actually the way I open the book. There’s this myth– and Ira, you probably know the truth I’m sure. But there’s this myth that Albert Einstein writes a letter, the famous Albert Einstein, writes a letter to FDR, warns that the Nazis are about to– you know, that scientists are about to unlock the atom and develop a nuclear bomb. And that that triggered the process–


JEFF NESBIT: Bingo. It’s simply not true.

IRA FLATOW: Not true.

JEFF NESBIT: He had to write a second letter, and then a third letter, and then a fourth letter. And after the second letter, I think, first or second letter, they fobbed him off on a lieutenant and a little commission and threw $60,000 at Enrico Fermi to try to test the theory. Because basically FDR had a war to prosecute. He didn’t want to listen to Albert Einstein or the scientists at all. And it was only when Britain got serious at looking at it that FDR finally said, oh, maybe we better pay attention to this. But so–

IRA FLATOW: Then the Manhattan Project.

JEFF NESBIT: And then the Manhattan Project was born. So, you know–

IRA FLATOW: I didn’t know that story. I was just with you thinking you know, there was that one letter that did it. But you’re saying that’s the parallel we have today.

JEFF NESBIT: It is. Science– there are thousands of Albert Einstein climate scientists yelling as loudly as they possibly can, please pay attention. The wolf is at the door right now. We can’t wait for 30, 40, 50 years to see how this all plays out.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255 is our number. You also point out in your book that the large international companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola and Pepsi are understanding this problem.

JEFF NESBIT: Correct the Nestle chapter in this book is fascinating. Nestle has analyzed the water scarcity issues in every single country.

IRA FLATOW: They’re the biggest food company in the world.

JEFF NESBIT: Biggest food company in the world, rely seriously on water for food that they make. They’ve analyzed water scarcity problems in every country on Earth. And they’ve told diplomats quietly that this may be the biggest imminent crisis in the world, is water scarcity issues, in lots and lots of countries.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s see, a lot of folks from Arizona and the places where they need all this water calling. Let me see if I can get a phone call in from Brandon in, let’s go to Georgia– Augusta, Georgia! Hi, Brandon.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

BRANDON: My comment is, you asked how water recycling would taste. And the fact is that a majority of Americans are already drinking recycled water, just the fact that they’re drawing their waters from rivers.

IRA FLATOW: They’re just–

BRANDON: They’re downstream from other cities.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good point.

JEFF NESBIT: It is a good point and he’s right, actually. I mean, we sort of– like, I’m drinking a cup of water here. I take for granted that it’s clean and–

IRA FLATOW: New York City water.

JEFF NESBIT: Yeah, it’s New York City Water.

IRA FLATOW: It’s nothing like it.

JEFF NESBIT: But he is right. But in other parts of the world– and I’ll pick on China again. They have a severe pollution problem and the river, it’s potentially in some places too polluted, too costly to clean up the pollution. But here in the United States your caller is exactly right. Much of our clean water comes from rivers, where they have to clean the chemicals and make sure that it comes to us clean. But there’s a difference between that sort of normal process and actually reclaiming water as it runs off.

IRA FLATOW: Well, here’s a Tweet came in from Ben who says, we wouldn’t have to recycle so much water if we stopped raising animals for food. Animal agriculture is the problem. We need to stop encouraging it.

JEFF NESBIT: So there’s absolutely some scientific and– well, I’ll just say flat yes, there is some truth there. Using land to basically produce meat as a diet takes up a lot of land. And we could make some progress with natural solutions on the land, like growing more trees, growing more plants, in some of those places. It would make an impact. That’s about 15% of the climate problem. It’s a very complicated question. But there’s– he’s correct about that.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about climate change. The shipping giant, Maersk, just sent a big container ship through the Arctic for the first time. And aside from oil exploration that’s been going on there, the Arctic is the world’s next big economic zone, right? It’s free of ice in the summer?

JEFF NESBIT: It is. And I tell you, and I talk about this in the book as well. Russia’s clearly paying attention to this. They have six, seven, eight ice cutters. They’re preparing to deal with an arctic region where you can ship through the Arctic. And it’s like nature is building the equivalent of the Panama Canal through the Arctic right now, as we’re seeing it. And nobody expected that for 40, 50 years. It is happening right now. And some countries are paying attention, like Russia. Others, like the United States, simply aren’t. We still don’t have a modernized cutter, even one, up there.

IRA FLATOW: We haven’t run it through the Pentagon, that’s why. We need the DARPA project or something like that.


IRA FLATOW: That will get the attention. The budget–

JEFF NESBIT: It would actually. The one ice cutter was a Coast Guard ice cutter. I spent years of my life at the National Science Foundation trying to convince Congress to do that.

IRA FLATOW: I rest my case. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And the Russians actually planted a flag on the– didn’t they put a little flag on the Arctic seabed about 10 years ago?

JEFF NESBIT: They did.

IRA FLATOW: And these Scandinavian countries know this.

JEFF NESBIT: They do. They all know that.

IRA FLATOW: They all know this is the next big area.

JEFF NESBIT: They all. And then the scientists know it as well. The scientists have documented what are called regime shifts in the Arctic and what that means. And it’s happening right now. There’s one sort of like grasslands become another entire ecosystem. It’s all happening right before our eyes.

IRA FLATOW: It was in a story I read today, I think it was in Washington Post. I’m not quite sure where. The Trump administration came out with the report last month that predicts the planet’s going to warm another seven degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, and much worse than we thought. But they’re using the report to justify freezing fuel efficiency standards by basically saying, hey, you know, it’s going to happen.

JEFF NESBIT: It is. That–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you know.

JEFF NESBIT: That’s actually a– it’s shocking that that was in that report and that’s the justification. What they’re doing is they’re basically saying, it’s a fatalistic approach. And two, they’re simply saying well, the United States can’t make a dent in this problem, that they’re now acknowledging even as they’re trying to freeze these auto– and freeze the clean car standards.

What is– well, I’ll just say it bluntly, what’s wrong about that, what’s wrong headed about that, is that America has to be a leader on this fight. And when America leads, everybody else follows on this particular issue. So just throwing up your hands and saying we can’t make a dent in it doesn’t make any sense. But more importantly, I think what they’ve acknowledged– and when this gets to court, and it will get to court– this probably is the linchpin for why they’ll lose.

IRA FLATOW: You think so?

JEFF NESBIT: Or one of the linchpins for why they’ll– that combined with the fact that nobody wants cities in America to get dirtier again.

IRA FLATOW: Or be underwater.

JEFF NESBIT: Or to be underwater.

IRA FLATOW: Florida would be underwater–


IRA FLATOW: –if we raise seven degrees Fahrenheit.

JEFF NESBIT: There are lots of places that would be underwater then, yes.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the one message you want people to take away from this book?

JEFF NESBIT: That climate change impacts are here right now. That it’s not a distant threat in space and time. It is here right now, including even in America. We need to recognize that and that there are things that we collectively can do.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. And can individuals really?

JEFF NESBIT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Do something.

JEFF NESBIT: I’ll just give you one–

IRA FLATOW: Give me an example.

JEFF NESBIT: Yes, I’ll give you an example. Even a simple thing like, science is now emerging that says if everybody starts to build green backyards and green their local part of the world, collectively that adds up to a large carbon sink. So that’s just one example. It’s the kind of thing that’s in the book, you know, Project Drawdown. But there are things like that that individuals can do that will have a meaningful impact collectively.

They can also vote. And there are two ways to vote. You can vote for governments that act or don’t act. But you can also vote as a consumer. So if there are big companies that are looking at meaningful sustainability practices, find out who they are and vote for them as a consumer. So vote with your political vote and vote with your pocketbook.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to have you stay through the break. Just hang around a little bit longer. Jeff Nesbit is the author of This is the Way the World Ends, How Droughts and Die Offs, Heat Waves, and Hurricanes are Converging on America. And I tell you that when I read the first half of the book, I was ready to give up, you know?

JEFF NESBIT: Don’t give up.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you go to the second half of the book, you’re a little more optimistic. But you go through all these things.

JEFF NESBIT: It’s like a physician. You present the problem and then you give the treatment plan.

IRA FLATOW: But you remain optimistic?


IRA FLATOW: You remain optimistic that if we– we have enough time to right the ship?

JEFF NESBIT: I do. Not a whole lot of time, but yes. And we are going to right this ship.

IRA FLATOW: Well, there you have it. Stay with us. We’re going to have Jeff Nesbit stay with us through the break. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @SciFri. 844-SCI-TALK if you prefer on the telephone. We’ll be right back after this break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about climate change and conflict and water shortages as the new national, international problem with Jeff Nesbit, is author of This is the Way the World Ends. And our number 844-724-8255. I said we’d take some phone calls. We have a lot of interesting ones. Let’s go to South Bend, Indiana. Gabrielle, hi, welcome to Science Friday.

GABBRIELLE: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I love your show.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, go ahead.

GABBRIELLE: Yeah, so I live in a city that used to have a municipal energy office. And the director of that office not only was recommending a waste energy project but a water recycling project. And it wasn’t the community that was pushing it back. It was actually the response from the administration a couple of years ago was to eliminate the energy office. So it’s not from the community that the pushback is coming from. At least in our case it was, there was some sort of push back. And so the office was eliminated and those two ideas just died on the vine when that office was let go.

IRA FLATOW: Jeff, you were talking about the ballot box being–

JEFF NESBIT: Yeah, and honestly that’s really unfortunate. My organization is partially responsible for a new movement called the We Are Still In movement that includes hundreds of mayors. And I think there are lots of mayors who are figuring this out. But what is unfortunate about what your caller just talked about is that there’s lots of money to be made in both energy efficiency and water reclamation. If mayors are smart, they can figure out just as companies are, there’s money to be made in sustainability. I also want to shout out to a fellow Hoosier because I grew up right down the road in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s shout out to Denver. Let’s go to Keith in Denver, Colorado. Hi Keith, welcome.

KEITH: Hi. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Yeah, I’m an employee with–

IRA FLATOW: Whoop. Did we drop you?

KEITH: –a re– I’m sorry?

IRA FLATOW: Say again, because your phone is coming in and out. Start over.

KEITH: OK. I’m an employee for Denver Water. And we have our own reuse plant where we recycle water coming off the water treatment plant. And so that goes out to areas for irrigation, the city golf courses, city parks, et cetera. Whereas prior to that occurring, that was treated water that was going out there for irrigation.

So there’s cost saving measures there where we’re not wasting treated water, potable water, to put on courses and recreation areas. Couple of other different things they’re doing now is even in line turbines on some of our high flow conduits to produce electricity outside of our hydroelectric plants that have been in place for years.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting.

JEFF NESBIT: So he’s– and I applaud what Denver Water and others are doing. There’s a compact of all the states all the way down through Mexico that are all talking to each other about the Colorado River Basin. They’re getting very smart about it. They’re looking at appropriate uses. And they’ve all agreed effectively, if the water tables get too low in the Colorado River, that those upstream won’t drain the water and everybody will conserve along the way.

It’s really heartening. And this is one of the reasons why I’m so optimistic. It’s heartening to see that people are getting this now. They’re looking at potential water scarcity issues right now.

The Colorado River Basin states and compacts are leading the way in that regard. I will say others are as well. Israel, for instance, is starting to export its water desalinization technology, even to Arab countries. So Saudi Arabia may be getting its fresh water from technology that Israel companies have developed.

IRA FLATOW: Is desalinization at the point where it can be done efficiently and in large scale?

JEFF NESBIT: It can be done. It can be done, let’s put it that way. Efficiently at large scale, I think that’s still an open question. It’s still awfully expensive. But for countries like Saudi Arabia, they may not have a choice. In terms of drinking water, they’re going to have to do this. Saudi Arabia can now afford it because they transfer their oil wealth. But countries like Yemen, no, they can’t. They’re out of luck.

IRA FLATOW: But you still remain optimistic.

JEFF NESBIT: I do. And here’s–

IRA FLATOW: Can– yeah, go ahead.

JEFF NESBIT: Yes. And here’s why I’m optimistic. Look, the National Science Foundation where I used to work, Google was born within 10 years. I mean, the tech industry was born within 10 to 15 years. Upended other big industries and companies. Upended the media industry in a very short period of time.

We’re seeing two trends right now. We’re seeing potentially the end of the internal combustion engine and we’re seeing that the rise of distributed solar power everywhere. Both of those things, in my opinion, will accelerate very, very quickly in the next 10 years. We need them to accelerate that quickly.

And if they do, and if there’s money in the system that changes the energy system, we can get this done. And then you combine that with my faith in scientists to look at carbon capture and even carbon drawdown out of the air, over time I believe we can solve this problem. It’s a very wicked dilemma, but I have faith in scientists’ ability to study this and come up with answers, and people’s ability to make money from new energy systems and new transportation systems.

IRA FLATOW: You can read more about this in Jeff Nesbit’s new book, This is the Way the World Ends, How Droughts and Die Offs, Heat Waves, and Hurricanes are Converging on America. We only got to half of those things. But there’s a lot in this, but it’s a great book, Jeff.

JEFF NESBIT: Well, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And you’re also executive director of Climate Nexus, a nonprofit that focuses on climate change communications. Thanks for joining us today.

JEFF NESBIT: Thanks for having me.

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