Gimme The Water

Longtime readers will be aware that I sometimes try my hand at writing fiction. I spare all of you my efforts in that regard because the bulk of it is simply awful. So awful that upon finishing some work and returning to it later I declare it unreadable and delete it immediately lest anyone actually blame me for it.

I have been professionally swamped and socially busy lately so writing cultural-legal-political commentary here has been enough of a challenge. Nevertheless I’ve happened on an idea that I enjoy enough to have revisited and find myself with a deep and abiding desire to return to it and enough quality to count as “merely bad.” My idea is set about two centuries in the future and therefore requires some consideration of what kind of history happens between now and the future. It’s not necessary for purposes of fiction that I pick a future timeline that will or even could actually come true, but I think it is necessary that it be plausible enough that a reader be willing to at least sustain a suspension of disbelief.

Future technologies play a role in my story, as do clashes of religious belief systems and geopolitics. I’m more worried about the plausibility of my future geopolitical timeline than I am about future technology. For instance, when looking at the future history underlying Star Trek, it’s easier for me to accept the idea of warp engines allowing faster-than-light space travel and transporter cells than the idea that nation-states on Earth would have dissolved into “factions” and the spiritually inspiring visit of Vulcans would have caused humans around the world to set aside their regional small-arms warfare between these “factions” and cooperatively knit into a global government.

Neither Star Trek‘s future politics nor its future technologies are realistic from a contemporary skeptic’s point of view, but the idea of miraculous future technology is easier to swallow than the idea of miraculous political behavior. At least for me. So when I try my hand at this, I’m not nearly as concerned that my science-fiction technology will seem silly or implausible as I am that the future history be silly or implausible. That’s where you come in, my friends — I’m asking you to tell me whether I’m so completely out of the range of what you would be willing to accept that you’d put down my book without finishing it, and if so what I might alter to support your ability to say to yourself, “It probably won’t be like this, but I could see how it could be.”

By the middle of the twenty-first century, reliable sources of fresh water will be at least as important as oil, and because water is so logistically difficult to move in useful quantities it necessarily requires seizure of resources geographically near the aggressor who finds it economically feasible to risk war in exchange for the possibility of gaining that resource. The idea of water as an object of future war is hardly original to me so I’m not worried about the plausibility of this.

For instance, Turkey controls most of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, upon which Iraq depends for its survival. It seems at least within the range of plausibility that Iraq would engage in aggression to Turkey to secure the free flow of those rivers.

Similarly, Egypt has already made indications that it considers the free flow of Nile water a national security issue of sufficient importance that it would use its military to keep it secure. Conveniently for me, there are a number of nations further upstream from the Nile against whom Egypt might plausibly follow through on that threat.

And China controls at least some of the headwaters of the three major rivers of the Subcontinent, is actually already engaged in an effort to divert some of those waters to its thirsty arid northern industrial regions, and has a strong working alliance with Pakistan, which as an author I need only intensify a small amount before India could begin to plausibly consider aggression there.

My challenge is linking all of these things together into a chain of rival alliances forming between nations of sufficient complexity and geographic proximity, but also of a reasonable level of plausibility, that the igniting of a water war in one area would, in a manner similar to the tripwire network of alliances leading up to World War I, draw most of the world’s major powers into conflict with one another. Right now I’ve been sort of ambiguous about how it might be set up and I suppose for narrative purposes I don’t need to spell it all out in my writing — but I do want to have a more solid idea of that timeline at least for myself, so I can feel confident that I’m within the range of suspension of disbelief.

So if I work in to the exposition the idea that such a network of alliances got tripped and a series of regional wars got linked together into a global conflict, and leave it at that, is that enough for you?

There’s more. I’m presuming that the various global powers all find that they are more evenly matched than recent real-world conflicts will have shown. Much more like the first two world wars, my third world war will find the United States and Europe allied but seriously challenged in terms of logistics, manpower, and military strength by its rivals and will only overcome those challenges through technological innovation driven by the need to win the war. The use of nuclear fission weapons in my imagined World War 3 — in some cases seriously compromising the original object of aggression, access to fresh water — will both equalize the strength of the combatants and impel the need for resolution. I’m pretty confident that this would be acceptable to most readers.

Recall that the war I’m imagining will have been ignited by regional rivalries to claim access to sources of potable water. Use of nuclear weapons in the war will badly frighten pretty much everyone when it’s all over and make at least some of the lands from which that water is derived unusable. And as happened in the wake of world wars before (the Napoleonic Wars leading to the Concert of Europe, WWI leading to the League of Nations, and WWII leading to the UN) there will be a desire on the part of nearly all the nation-states to devise a means of using diplomacy to prevent a war like this from occurring again.

Now here’s where it gets dicey for me. Because the root cause of the war will have been sources of water, which are inherently regionalized, the diplomatic preventative will not be the creation of a single supernational diplomatic regime to resolve conflicts. Instead, the various belligerents will recognize the need to form superstates imposed atop existing national governments, initially for the limited purpose of fairly controlling access to and use of water among the various nation-states participating therein. These will form the foundation of newly-expanded political entities, which in some cases envelop and change the former alliances as new unified nation-states evolve out of the former regional rivals.

I don’t think this is implausible, because I see precedent for it in Europe. The UK, Germany, and France were great rivals and were periodically belligerent to one another for hundreds of years. Then they formed the core of a supernational entity for the common economic management of coal. That supernational entity led the way to the formation of the European Union, a more comprehensive political and economic binding together of former enemies. The idea that the EU will in turn lead to the creation of a single nation goes back at least to Winston Churchill’s vision of a “United States of Europe” and while getting there today still looks difficult, it is not implausible to imagine that one day, the Europeans will get there.

So I think that the formation of such superstates need not be confined to Europe, if I project far enough out in my future history and make World War 3 horrific enough to cause peoples to step back and, if only for a decade or so, put regional political or ethnic rivalries in perspective. Inevitably, another resource will become both important and scarce for these new superstates, and this will lead to further conflict.

And I’m sure that this will draw some criticism: what I see driving World War 4 will be competition for access to geosynchronous orbital space, which I expect will become of significant economic importance as technology advances. Right now there is an abundance of points from which space can be continually accessed, but already there is a need for orbital traffic control because of the many satellites orbiting the earth within a relatively small band of altitude. It isn’t hard to imagine a nation claiming that it has a zone of control of orbital space above its geographic borders just as today nations claim sovereignty over a zone of the seas near their geographic borders.

So I’m thinking World War 4 starts about a century after World War 3 resolves. It starts in near space rather than on the surface of the Earth, as the superstates variously probe or protect their orbital borders after good near earth orbit positions all become occupied and thus that valuable resource becomes scarce and therefore worth fighting over. As before, the war spreads from the initial spark of that contest for resources, and resolves after a ghastly cost in life and destruction, once again by way of a technological innovation that gives one side an advantage that the formerly-evenly-matched other side cannot overcome.

After World War 4 concludes, that’s when my story is set. And remember, I’m not shooting for a “Wow, that’s a really insightful prediction,” so much as “I can accept that as plausible enough to not distract me from the main story.” Are you buying it or are you rolling your eyes by now?

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Seems plausible enough to me. I am curious why you are skeptical about nations putting aside their various differences in the event of a cataclysmic historic event like unmistakable contact with an alien civilization, but would find them able to stably do so after a water-based world war. However, assuming the structure of the superstates is explained to sufficient degree that one buys their ability to keep, say, India and Pakistan from fighting over water all over again, then I would not find this distractingly implausible.

    Does this mean we get to read the final result? And I also find my attempts at fiction unreadable when I revisit them.

  2. Water: It seems to me that “fresh water” is similar to other forms of natural resources which could be shared between nations–or, rather, not shared. You could probably gauge the plausibility of your premise by looking at how nations share other things which aren’t easily identified as being within a particular border–oil, fisheries, stuff like that.

    Orbit: The problem with this is that the geosynchronous orbit slot isn’t actually that crowded. It’s crowded if you put up a bunch of low-technology satellites with poor attitude control, with no provisions for orbit maintenance and no debris-mitigation plan. It’s less crowded if you use modern vehicles that stay where they’re put and don’t throw junk all over the place (i.e. use momentum wheels instead of lanyard de-spin devices.)

    The real issue is RF interference; multiple satellites broadcasting on the same frequency. And that’s a problem we’re having today, and it’s not one that anything involving GEO real-estate is going to solve. We’re more likely to go to packetised digital radio, which would go quite far towards sorting things out.

    Right now we’re basically using 1960s-era technology to do satellite transmissions. We literally use vacuum-tube amplifiers! (They’re called ‘travelling wave tube amplifiers’, or TWTAs, but they’re really gussied-up tube amps.) Now, we have good reasons for this–digital stuff has problems in hard-radiation environments, and you need digital stuff to do digital transmission, and the GEO orbit is up above the Van Allen belts and you have a lot of hard radiation up there, so the tube amps are preferable because they don’t reboot when a cosmic ray hits them. Most of the satellites don’t do signal processing at all; they’re “bent pipe” vehicles, they just get the signal, amplify it, and spew it back out.

    So, again, better technology would solve the problem–smaller routers and processors that could be shielded without incurring a big weight penalty.

  3. It’s somewhat plausible, at least.

    The availability of desalinization puts a fairly solid floor on the price of water, though. It’s not inconceivable that it would spark a war anyway, and wars do have a way of escalating themselves.

    More philosophically, I’m not sure I buy the “competition for a single resource leads to world war” thing. Is there any reason not to have multiple sources of tension leading up to WWIII? Water may be a major source of tension, but ethnic and religious rivalries, competion over fossil fuels, uranium, or other mineral resources, could all play a role. You sort-of imply it already is your plan, with the India/Pakistan rivalry is one of the possible flashpoints you mention. There are certainly any number of reasons to favor regional power blocs. Not only controlling watersheds, as you say, but also for military reasons (NATO is even older than the ECSC).

    Likewise, WWIV could be about space territory or orbital territory generally, rather than GEO specifically. GEO is more crowded, certainly, and less space is available. But geostationary orbit jurisdiction is fairly straightforward, since a given orbit corresponds more or less directly with a physical location on earth. Other orbits won’t be confined to the region directly above a single territory. A bunch of satellites at rest with respect to the earth and each other are also make it relatively easy to run traffic control. The fun happens when you try to coordinate orbits of different inclinations and eccentricities.

    • “The fun happens when you try to coordinate orbits of different inclinations and eccentricities.”

      Yeah; and, besides, it’s entirely possible to achieve total coverage of a geographic area without being at GEO. You just need more satellites. Sirius Radio, for example, is not a GEO system.

      • The Soviet Union (as I recall from an old Atlantic article) didn’t use geostationary satellites because so much of it is so far north. Instead, they used a series of satellites in polar orbit, as a result of which Soviet TV had regular glitches in reception as the signal was switched from one to the next.

    • There’s two ways to look at that. One is to continue the geometric progression of population expansion proceeding over the scope of human history. That would put global population at about 12 billion at the start of the twenty-third century when I’m ending World War IV and starting the action in my story. But my reading into global water issues tells me that unless there are significant advances in agricultural and water conservation technology, global population will top out somewhere between 9 to 10 billion because we simply won’t have enough sustainable fresh water for people to drink and grow crops from — and that’s having most of the major rivers of the world tapped dry (contemporary example: America and Mexico’s Colorado River). So I’m leaning to having population topped out at about 10 billion, thinned out a bit by war. In response to above inquiries about whether it will be available, I could be persuaded make an ftp of it available for critique for blogbuddies when I’m done with the first draft; I’m stalled out at about 20,000 words right now and I’m shooting for about three times that much for my first draft — and with my computer in the shop (using The Wife’s now) progress is stalled out for about a week.

      • Hey, the best part of Red Dawn was this little exchange:

        Jed Eckert: …Well, who *is* on our side?
        Col. Andy Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen.
        Darryl Bates: Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen.
        Col. Andy Tanner: There *were*.

      • We are no longer expanding (strictly) geometrically; world-wide fertility has been falling on average. The current (midrange) UN projection has the world hitting 8.9 billion in 2050, and leveling out at just under 10 billion by 2100.

        This is, of course, without any major calamity, including a world war. It should be noted also that the projection figures have been consistently revised downward throughout our lifetimes.

  4. I’m late to the party, sorry.

    I find the overall premise believable in relation to most other science fiction. I’m okay with the single resource being the focual, though believe/agree that things like national rivalries, religion, ethnic hatred ect will do quite a bit to help add O2 to the Fuel which is the water shortage.

    I also believe the war over space, though I find it a little distracting if it’s not something that’s going to come up. If the novel is based mostly on the earth, then having this war in space that happened a while ago is going to feel a little “out there” to me and I’m curious as to how that pans out. I’m even curious about some story possibilities that take place during the war for the orbits, and how things like the UNNA Space Corps (United Nations of North America) impacted life on Terra Firma.

  5. The problem isn’t so much an arbitrary resource such as water. It’s the kinks in the hose which lead to a lack of “water pressure”. Consider the problems of uranium and oil: I lived in Niger and Nigeria for most of my childhood, before uranium mining began in Niger and oil drilling began in Nigeria. Oil has been the curse of Nigeria. I remember river hippopotamus in the Niger Delta. Now it’s a flaming, oil-soaked hell. The uranium mines in Niger have led to massive corruption: none of the benefits flowed down to the local people.

    Anyone who’s driven I-10 from Phoenix to Los Angeles has seen the water pipes going through the mountains. Southern California, having used up most of the Oglalla Aquifer, is now in negotiations with Canada for a water pipeline. The American Southwest is surreal: I’d water my garden and dive into the pool in Phoenix — where the hell does this water come from? The Romans built aqueducts, the Chinese built canals and now they’re piping water from south to north: where there’s demand, supply will find a way to get there.

    It’s not the commodity, well, let me revise that, it’s always the commodity, but more importantly it’s the struggle to get that commodity to where it’s going to be consumed. There’s the story.

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