As a consequence of our growing numbers and needs, any meaningful chance of sustainable human presence on this planet now depends upon geopolitical stability. The factors that determine geopolitical stability have changed over time and continue to do so. In the 19th century, stable control of territory and the populations within were the principal determinants of whether peace or conflict prevailed. In the 20th century, however, reliable control of oil supply replaced occupied land as the dominant geopolitical determinant of peace, stability, and economic growth. While oil may remain important in some regions, the main determinant of peace and stability in changing global climate circumstances is water security. The quality and availability of water have become key elements and drivers of the global security agenda. Water security is as critical to food and energy security as it is to climate stability and is therefore central to societal stability and national sovereignty.1

Emerging issues related to a growing global water crisis are tied directly to widespread environmental degradation and the accelerated decline of natural Earth-system function globally. The hydrological system is driven by solar energy, which is why climate change is having such an impact on the timing, duration, intensity, and type of precipitation around the world. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, and snow and ice reflect solar energy back to space, so changes in these also drive climate change.2 Issues of water security also have roots, however, in the failure of adequate governance; the breakdown of the rule of law; and, in the erosion of established national security principles. Women and children mostly, but not exclusively, in poor regions of the world, disproportionately bear the consequences of these failures. Globalization of international governance further distances vulnerable women from opportunities to advance their own dignity and equity. Such people continue to be left out of decisions which are often made far beyond their borders yet relate to the economic future of the places in which they live. Fundamentally, there is also a difference when a gendered lens is applied to water use. Men are typically involved in the management and commercial use of water, while women are typically involved in the day-to-day use of water in the domestic realm.

It is interesting to examine the differences between the United States and Europe in matters related to constitutional rights. The United States often promotes the rights of individuals above the rights of the collective. In Europe, decision processes are more likely to focus on bringing benefits to the most, not the least. American corporations have insisted on the notion that individual rights trump collective rights, and that their legal status as individuals should pertain in their dealings around the world. These, and other multinational corporations, have gone to great lengths to embed these individual rights in international trade agreements. In this way corporate interests have been allowed to supersede the interests of millions of people—women and children, disproportionately—who bear the consequences of, but never benefit from, actions that often lead to further threats to water security and climate stability where they live. This is a human rights violation on a global scale. In contrast, in Indigenous communities the right of the collective clearly supersedes the rights of the individual, and yet, their collective rights to water have often been threatened by other political and economic considerations. Further, in some countries, collective rights significantly disadvantage women. In patriarchal societies in particular, women are unlikely to own property, have direct access to money, or to compete in the water marketplace where water is commodified. This can create tensions between women’s priorities to satisfy domestic water needs, and access to resources to be able to meet these needs. While in many cultures, the male has a responsibility to provide for their family, a rights approach may not accurately portray a woman’s water reality.

Surface temperature trends captured in February 2016.

Another of the many ways disadvantaged women and children are further discriminated against is through government orchestration of land theft. In the wake of decades of efforts to reverse the effects of colonialism on human rights, new forms continue to emerge. Wealthy, but water-stressed countries have started quietly—and in some cases, secretly—buying up millions of hectares of agricultural land in other countries in order to assure future food security for themselves. Subsistence farmers, which in many cases are predominantly women, are displaced. The numbers of refugees from such places continues to grow. Meanwhile, speculators, terrorists, and criminals are lining up around the world to exploit global food and water scarcity. If current trends persist, conflict over water and food is likely to be widespread. Women and children will not escape this conflict; nor will they escape greater extremes in climate variability.

While the link between recurring extreme weather events and the challenges of maintaining critical physical and social infrastructure in developing countries has been noted by organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank,3-5 the extent to which climate disruption has begun not just to slow, but to reverse economic development, was not recognized as a global economic threat until recently. It is now recognized that no country, rich or poor, will be spared impacts associated with hydro-climatic change. Unfortunately, these impacts will not be distributed evenly within any affected country. We are not all in this together. With respect to hydro-climatic change, the actions of some are making life difficult, if not impossible, for others. Between 2008 and 2012, more than 140 million people were displaced because of natural disasters. In 2013 alone, natural disasters forced 22 million people from their homes, five million more than crossed borders because of conflict. The world is beginning to take notice of environmental refugees.

As of January 2016, 4,840,555 Syrian refugees (50 percent women and 25 percent children) streamed out of war zones, in part, created by drought—with conflicts involving water growing. Currently, the number of people on the move as a result of such conflicts stands at 1.5 times the number on the move at the beginning of World War II. In addition, an estimated 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced within their homeland.6

What we have not understood, until now, is the extent to which the fundamental stability of our political structures and global economy are predicated on relative hydrologic predictability. As a result of the loss of relative hydrologic stability, political stability, and economic stability, a number of regions in the world are now at risk. We are only now beginning to understand how complex this issue has become, and how much of a further impact this will have on women and children.

Water scarcity and resulting food crises are now directly affecting national and regional security. The terrible violence rocking Syria and the spill-over effects into Europe in 2015 did not start as a war; it started as five years of drought that contributed to the sparking of a war. During that war, all established rules related to warfare and water suddenly changed. The conventional wisdom of the latter part of the 20th century, established by water experts Peter Gleick and Aaron Wolf, that nations are more likely to cooperate than to go to war over water, evidently does not extend to non-state terrorist organizations. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) immediately fought for control of dams and water supplies.7

A researcher at the National Water and Sewage Corporation in Uganda evaluates alternative wastewater treatment and management solutions.

In Iraq, the water infrastructure of the country had already been largely destroyed by the American-led invasion in 2003. In Syria, 35 percent of all water treatment plants have been damaged by the war. By controlling strategic assets like water, as a non-state actor ISIS has proven that it can, with limited funds, resources, and logistical support, significantly increase its military capacity in a conflict. ISIS is using control of water as a vehicle of extortion, a financial asset, and a weapon of war. Government troops fight back by cutting off water to areas under control of ISIS, further hurting innocent civilians, thereby exacerbating the conflict. Military groups in Syria have already gone so far as to destroy pipelines to refugee camps, directly contributing to typhoid outbreaks and other disease threats. ISIS also demonstrated it was not above using chlorine from water treatment plants as a weapon of chemical warfare.8

At the time of this writing, ISIS had control over areas it did not occupy, but which were dependent upon the water and electricity sources over which they had control. According to the Strategic Foresight Group, while ISIS had control of the Mosul Dam, it controlled 40 percent of Iraq’s wheat-growing capacity. Because it controlled the water necessary for oil production in Northern Iraq, ISIS was able to make USD$1 million per day from these operations alone. Moreover, the use of water as a weapon of war decreases flow in transboundary rivers, deteriorates water quality, and dries up water bodies, leading to land and soil degradation. As ISIS is demonstrating, targeting and using water resources as a weapon can cripple food supply, destroy local economies, and disrupt water security and climate stability to such an extent that, irrespective of military strength, the long-term adverse effects are such that there could be little of meaningful consequence to rule over even if you win such a conflict.9

The impacts can, and do, spill over into other countries, as evidenced by the Syrian exodus of refugees, most of whom are women and children. On a much less dramatic, but still human, scale in North America, water insecurity is manifest through toxic levels of lead in drinking water supplies in Flint, Michigan, drinking water woes in Toledo, Ohio, and the imminent ecological deterioration of approximately 24,500 km2 of water in Manitoba, Canada, which, if it continues on its current trajectory, may no longer be able to support subsistence, commercial, or recreational fisheries and related economic activities in coming decades unless action is taken immediately to reduce current rates of excess nutrient in-flows.10 In 2013, the Global Nature Fund declared Lake Winnipeg the most threatened lake in the world.11 Another form of water insecurity is the Band-Aid solution of drinking water advisories and large-scale bottled water relief supplies for Indigenous communities in Canada. While not precipitating a mass exodus, people (women) face a choice of staying, and possibly exposing their families to unnecessary risks, or uprooting their families in search of a better life.

Women Are All In This Together: Reforming from the Inside Out

The problems are not going away. In fact, they are likely to get worse before getting better. Over the past decade, it has been generally held that, perhaps miraculously, the world population was somehow going to level off and stabilize around nine billion people, providing defined goal posts for sustainable development and a defined burden on existing off of our finite water resources. However, the goal posts have moved, as should have been anticipated. As women continue to exercise their rights of the UN Charter (life, liberty, and security of person),12 this positions water at a meeting point through which women may be able to realize many of their rights—including the right to personhood—within which are embedded the rights to education, health, and being heard.

Several large-scale movements are currently underway to redress water insecurity. One is in the Lake Winnipeg Basin in Manitoba, Canada. Recognizing the complex and confounding reasons and sources of pollution that have driven the Lake to the brink of extinction, concerned individuals have created a new approach to restoring the lake’s functionality. There have been two instrumental changes that have led to this transformation in approach. The first is that, building upon dialogues emerging from the ecologically aware in civil society (a traditionally female-driven space that is more open to realizing the priorities, sensitivities, and skills of women), the economic implications (and liabilities) of a looming ecological disaster helped to move decision-making out of the realm of the private sector and government (a traditionally male space) and into a shared realm. This transition means that the water dialogue embraces social and economic considerations in promoting the environmental restoration and protection of Lake Winnipeg. As water crosses sectors, societies, and social groups, the resulting broader engagement and ownership of the issues and solutions emerges from the fact that they make demands of everyone, are relevant to everyone, and draw on the innovative capacity of everyone. The second instrumental change has involved moving beyond environmental messages which only resonate with those who are committed to protecting and promoting the environment, to messages that resonate with others. Examples include messages around property values being tied to the quality and visual aesthetics of the lake. As a result, actions such as not using fertilizers on lawns at cottages, using rain barrels, and ensuring that septic systems are maintained are receiving greater uptake.13 The executive director of the program, Colleen Sklar, has been instrumental in carrying this charge. This woman has demonstrated the tenacity and broad thinking to maintain momentum, link complementing initiatives, and drive others to join her in action.

A water sculpture in the humid tropical biome at the Eden Project in the U.K.

The water crisis that came to light in 2015 in Flint, Michigan exemplifies the difficult situation that exists in the United States, and in Canada as well, with respect to the deterioration of aging water infrastructure. When the cash-strapped municipality of Flint fell into emergency receivership, it decided to save money by taking its drinking water from the Flint River, rather than an established water source that treated water in a manner that prevented lead from leaching from pipes into the water supply. A state of emergency was declared eighteen months later, when elevated levels of lead were found in the city’s drinking water. Though no safe lead level has been formally identified, the harmful effects of lead, especially on pregnant woman and in children, are well understood. In the aftermath, all levels of government—local, state, and federal, including the US Environmental Protection Agency—were accused of ignoring, denying, or employing public relations tactics to cover up their role in exposing 6,000 to 12,000 children to high lead levels in their drinking water. The impact was not evenly distributed among the populace. According to the 2010 US census, eight percent of the population of Flint are under the age of five,14 almost 60 percent are of black or African American heritage,15 and more than 40 percent live in poverty. Of these, the largest population group living in poverty is 25-to-34-year-old females (i.e., women of child-bearing age), and the largest ethnic group living in poverty is Black or African American.16 It was these people who would have been hard pressed to afford alternative water sources, had they even known there was a serious problem with their water supply.

Beyond the emergency response of bottled water and water filters, work is underway to replace lead piping in the distribution line. This is supported by public health education and outreach, free child screening for lead poisoning, food programs in schools to provide access to fruits and vegetables that reduce lead uptake, and pre-made formula through nutrition programs. Longer-term solutions, while not concrete, will work to improve the quality of life for Flint residents. In the interim, task forces and an interagency co-ordination mechanism should provide essential sustainability that goes beyond the immediate emergency status. It is noteworthy that key roles to redress the poor decision making and consequent health burdens, borne by Flint’s children, are held by women: the new water plant supervisor, JoLisa McDay, and Mayor Karen Weaver, who campaigned on the issue of water quality.

Final Thoughts

Water security, food security, and climate security are inseparable in terms of human well-being, equity, and social justice; one is implicit in the others. Water, food, and climate security are critical elements of sustainability. Without stable water and climate regimes, sustainability will forever remain a moving target. We have to be ready for anything and we should expect that the people who will be hit hardest will be vulnerable women and their children. We must also remember that women are resourceful, powerful in the collective, and occupy different spaces than men because of their socially constructed gender roles and responsibilities. Priority areas for increasing gender diversity to harness women’s knowledge, values, and experiences include education and community engagement, fiscal policies and insurance, infrastructure management and utilities, and science and governance.17

Can we manage water differently, and, in so doing, make the world a better and fairer place for women? Yes. We must. What it will take, however, is public and government commitment, strong political will, and persistent and creative leadership. By managing water as if equity of access and distribution matter as much as quality, the road becomes open for reconciliation to correct the mistakes of the past, and for collaboration on a better, more secure, more just, and ultimately, far more sustainable future, not just for women, but for everyone.

Is there any reason we can’t start down that road—own that river—together, now?

These innovative and transformative approaches, which build upon the knowledge and skills of women to protect, restore, and mitigate water security, have to become the norm and not the exception.

In the end, the entire human population on Earth is one. We are not simply tribes and nations [a.k.a. men and women] that operate in competing spheres. If we are to solve the crisis in the nexus, we will have to act in concert as one overall system, and learn to co-operate and support each other in ways that we have never thought of before. For better or worse, we are all in this together.  -The Climate Nexus18


  1. Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [online] (2013).
  2. Adoption of the Paris Agreement. United Nations [online] (2015).
  3. Hutton, G & Varughese, M. The Costs of Meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal Targets on Drinking Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene. Water and Sanitation Program [online] (2016).
  4. Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations [online] (2016).
  5. Schuster-Wallace, CJ & Sandford, R. Water in the World We Want. United Nations University [online] (2015).
  6. Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal. UNHCR [online] (2016).
  7. Strategic Foresight Group. Water and Violence: Crisis of Survival in the Middle East (Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai, India, 2014): 9.
  8. Strategic Foresight Group. Water and Violence: Crisis of Survival in the Middle East (Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai, India, 2014): 9.
  9. Strategic Foresight Group. Water and Violence: Crisis of Survival in the Middle East. (Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai, India, 2014): 16.
  10. Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium Science Committee Report (May 2016).
  11. Lake Winnipeg named world’s most threatened lake this year. Global Nature Fund [online] (2013).
  12. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations [online] (2016).
  13. Do What Matters: Lake Friendly Practices + Actions at the Cottage. Lake Friendly [online] (2016).!do-what-matters-at-your-cottage/c4hq.
  14. Quick Facts: Flint City, Michigan. United States Census Bureau [online] (2016).,00.
  15. Rastogi S, Johnson TD, Hoeffel, ME & Drewery, MP Jr. The Black Population: 2010. United States Census Bureau [online] (2011).
  16. Data USA: Flint, MI. Data USA [online] (2016).
  17. O’Rioroan, J & Sandford, RW. The Climate Nexus: Water, Food, Energy and Biodiversity in a Changing World (Rocky Mountain Books, Victoria, British Columbia, 2015).
  18. O’Rioroan, J & Sandford, RW. The Climate Nexus: Water, Food, Energy and Biodiversity in a Changing World (Rocky Mountain Books, Victoria, British Columbia, 2015).

Robert Sandford

Bob is the EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. In this capacity Bob was the co-author with Corinne Schuster-Wallace...


Corinne Schuster-Wallace

Corinne has worked at the water-health nexus for over a decade and spent the last eight years working in an international, transdisciplinary context developing evidence for informed decision-making, creating...

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