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Early-warning tools aim to prevent 'water wars,' curb droughts

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Image: The banks of the Magdalena river, the longest and most important riv
The banks of Colombia's Magdalena River are exposed due to a lack of rain in 2016. -
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John Vizcaino
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LONDON — In a year of extreme heat and water-related tensions, researchers are trying to develop an early-warning system to prevent the devastating consequences of droughts that exacerbate geopolitical tensions.

The Water, Peace and Security partnership aims to find better methods to monitor risks and trigger early interventions. Such technology is necessary as climate change amplifies water shortages plaguing countries across the globe.

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The U.S. Department of Defense has warned that water scarcity is a global security threat because it drives instability that can lead to wider terrorism and violence.

The partnership — formed earlier this year by academics in Europe and the U.S. — aims to pinpoint locations where water crises and other overlapping vulnerabilities could stir conflicts.

"The idea is to identify hotspots early enough so policy action can be taken before something escalates into violence," said Susanne Schmeier, a lecturer in water law and diplomacy at IHE Delft and coordinator of the partnership.

Scheimer cautioned against labeling events as "water wars," explaining that there's no evidence to suggest water scarcity directly triggers war. But it can compound tensions in regions wracked with political instability or poverty. Water scarcity has been attributed to playing a role in Syria's civil war and the spread of militant groups such as Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin.

The warning system being developed uses a range of data including hydrological information and satellite imaging to monitor and calculate risks to water access around the globe. To determine the risk for conflicts, it tracks media reports in more than 100 languages by flagging a list of keywords in real time.

The data has limitations. Satellite imaging runs into challenges with cloud cover or certain topographical characteristics, said Karen Meijer, a researcher at the Dutch institute Deltares that develops tools to monitor water resources.

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The figures needed may not exist or be outdated, since the system largely relies on publicly available "open" data, Meijer said. Governments withholding data about reservoirs andother infrastructure may also prove to be a challenge.

The warning-system tool is being trained to consider the many combinations of conflict-triggering factors from weak governments to local disputes to identify potential flashpoints.

The findings it generates will not be as thorough as a scientific study for regions flagged as potential hotspots, Meijer said, but it will help those in power to make informed decisions.

"International policy action is quite often driven by short-term considerations," Schmeier said.

Building more wells in response to a looming drought appears logical, she said, as an example. But those wells could have negative impacts, fueling animosity by seemingly prioritizing one community over others or dangerously depleting the resource — interconnected issues that the warning system aims to expose.

Drought forecasting has become increasingly accurate for periods of six months into the future for many regions. It played an important role in mitigating the effects of drought in Ethiopia and Kenya in 2015, according to Micha Werner, associate professor in hydraulic engineering at IHE Delft. But forecasts were less effective in Somalia which didn't have similar capacities to take action.

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Droughts can cost countries billions of dollars, so even a 10 percent reduction on the impact is beneficial, he said. "But you need the political will to do that."

Forecasters have warned that the coming year could be particularly bad for Australia, southern Africa and much of northern South America, thanks to predictions of a weak El Nino weather system for 2019.

Colombia's Environment Minister Ricardo Lozano has called for action, warning that the phenomenon could cause rainfall deficits of up to 80 percent there in the first three months of next year. He warned that could result in more forest fires, failed crops, and water shortages that may force rationing.

El Nino has already delayed the rainy season for eastern Africa and resulted in a shortfall of rain in southern countries including Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. It follows persistent dry conditions that contributed to Cape Town's "Day Zero" scare.

The phenomenon could result in inconsistent rainfall for the Horn of Africa, bringing downpours and floods or extend dry conditions. To prepare for the worst, Henry Karemeri Ndungu, climate change specialist for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Kenya, said the organization maintains a stockpile of supplies and evacuation facilities.

In southern Africa, the Red Cross and its partners are also monitoring and preparing for food shortages caused by drought.

"The mantra is prevention is better than cure," Ndungu said.