Water conflict: Data shows how climate-change protests are expanding

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Global protest data shows how issues related to climate change and access to water are prompting public unrest around the world, especially in arid regions such as Mexico.

Protests around issues like the lack of essential resources such as water are becoming an increasingly common sight. With our climate warming, meaning more frequent and more severe droughts and extreme weather events on the rise, fewer people are prepared to tolerate missteps by their local or federal leaders. More and more are taking their anger and frustrations to the streets. 

When in May last year, in the city of Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora, around 50 people gathered to protest, demanding improved water services, few officials took any notice. 

Perceived in isolation, these mostly peaceful demonstrations represent just single data points. Few enough to barely generate enough attention to attract local news coverage. However, when these protests are reviewed thoroughly and analysed in bulk on their frequency, the picture suggests water and climate change-related protest events have become more and more common. 

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-governmental organisation specialising in disaggregated conflict data collection, analysis and crisis mapping, looks for protests all over the world, often involving social media reports and local news coverage. ACLED's data also records the exact location and summarises what each protest wanted to change. It allows for additional analysis in niche areas such as climate change and water issues. 

In Mexico, not all protests went unnoticed and some received considerable attention. When last November groups of farmers gathered and demonstrated in the civic centre to demand the closure of a brewery and a guarantee that they are provided with water for their crops in Mexicali, Baja California, protesters timed it right. Mexico’s President was just visiting. International newspapers including The Guardian picked up the story

Five years earlier, similar frustrations erupted when plans were announced in 2016 announced to build a plant by brewery giant Modelo —  the producer of brands including Corona. The business was accused of using so much water from wells that the region was suffering major water shortages. Ramping up the water-heavy industry in Mexico like brewing and fracking increasingly left the public angry and dry-mouthed. 

Not only Mexico, but across the rest of the planet, water and climate change-related protests seem to be on the increase.

ACLED doesn't systematically code connections to climate change and environmental issues, a representative told E&T via email. However, notes for each protest event allows keyword searches and the ability to filter data using terms like 'water' or 'water shortage'. 

Filtered protest data may serve as a warning that water problems, often linked to more extreme droughts, mismanagement by the government and climate change, indeed move up on citizens' agendas as issues affecting locals become more irksome. 

2021 presents a stark example of how bad the climate can get in Mexico. This year, the nation experienced one of its most widespread and intense droughts 'in decades', NASA confirms (see satellite images of Villa Victoria reservoir below).

Villa Victoria reservoir, Mexico (Google Maps locationfalse colour Sentinel 2 satellite images, development from Jan 2019 — May 2021)

Climate change impact on Mexico’s water system, resulting in droughts and other associated perils are well studied. 

The government was among the first and most eager to promise to reduce carbon emissions. Cities such as Mexico City are badly affected. Researchers estimate that natural water availability for the city could fall by 10 to 17 per cent by 2050 as temperatures climb, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.

Mexico was among the first to pledge emission-reduction targets. In 2009, the country adopted a long-term, economy-wide strategy aimed at reducing its emission levels by 30 per cent by 2020 and by 50 per cent in 2050, compared to 2000 levels. However as water-related protests show, locals might need more than promises to reduce emissions. 

Researchers recognise that climate change in Mexico is increasingly taking a toll on its people, food and agriculture. While 2016 research found climate change in Mexico causes less rain, it also lowers yields for grains and has unexpected effects on food security. 

Corn farmers suffered significant shocks in the past, especially in the south of the country — where the oldest corn strains on Earth are grown using traditional methods without irrigation and  changing rain patterns and temperatures are already noticeable. The number of water protests mirrors this and coincides with where most of the trouble centers.

Global data analysis

Non-violent but also violent events can originate from water and climate-linked issues. However, researchers found that water scarcity alone is seldomly the cause of armed conflict.

The pandemic crisis however might have encouraged citizens to act more violently. Covid-19 increased hand-washing and sanitation habits, which spurred water demand. For Mexico City, this put pressure on the Cutzamala reservoir which provides a quarter of the greater city’s water needs.

Now a city with more limited water supply, streets turned more violent. “In streets there was only enough tap water for half the houses, causing conflicts in an already violent area,” one Mexico City resident told Reuters.

Unsurprisingly, most water-related protests were recorded in regions where water shortages are a major problem, including poorer and arid regions, like South American economies including Chile, Mexico and Venezuela. 

In the region of Northern Africa, where ACLED collects data as far back as 1997, the past decade saw a huge increase in water-related non-violent protests (see below). North Africa is cited by experts as highly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change because of its strong exposure to increases in temperature, changes in freshwater availability, and population growth.

In the Middle East, where water was frequently a source of protest and non-violent conflicts, protest records notably increased (see below). Even though few events saw fatalities, there were instances where people got hurt.

When residents of the villages of Katak and Arjanak, near Shahr-e Kord in the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, clashed in 2016 over water issues after one villager's sheep drank from a stream in the other village, two people were injured and two killed.

Whether climate protests are peaceful or not also seems to matter. One America academic study published in 2020 about the relationship between public support and protest established that peaceful protest and civil disobedience clearly raised public support compared with a control condition. Violent protests did not.

Such findings may matter in light of the explosion in climate change-related protests witnessed in Europe in recent years.  

Across Europe, the leading group organising protests were the Fridays For Future movement. ACLED recorded around 1,000 protest events in 2020, more than three times as much as in 2019. Other groups such as and Sunrise movements, as well as Greenpeace, and Extinction Rebellion expanded their presence, increasingly taking matters over climate-related issues to the streets. 

Last year, ACLED announced it would expand the reach of its real-time coverage to all of Europe. This might speed up researchers' access to new data on climate-change-related strikes and protests.

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