The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Impact Global Security

The Water, Peace and Security Partnership can help address these threats

By Susanne Schmeier, IHE Delft; Charles Iceland, WRI; and Liz Saccoccia, WRI; with contributions from Karen Meijer, Deltares; Camille Marquette, International Alert; Alberto Pallecchi, WRI; Laura Birkman, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies; and Chris Baker, Wetlands International


A perfect storm of poverty, growing natural resource scarcity, and pandemic may lead to the collapse of already fragile states, but also severely impact many others. The current coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic adds yet another threat-multiplying factor to the explosive mix of conflict and instability drivers that many individual countries and the world as a whole are facing. Direct impacts on health – approximately 877,000 have contracted the virus and 44,000 have died worldwide as of this writing – coupled with devastating economic impacts will likely lead to increasing instability, internal displacement, government delegitimization, an increase in illicit activities, and further proliferation of extremist ideologies across the developing world – and beyond. Moreover, countering these challenges will become increasingly difficult as a result of reduced human, technical, and financial capacity in all affected countries, including those in Europe providing significant amounts of overseas development assistance (ODA). The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership can help respond to this crisis. WPS, with its focus on conflict early warning, prevention, and mitigation and its expertise on the linkages among water, food, and energy risks can contribute a number of tools and approaches as well as dialogue support to help assess the impacts of coronavirus and other risk drivers on security and help design adequate and effective response mechanisms.

Economic impacts of the crisis will prevent developing country governments from providing key services and supporting those most in need. As we write this blog, the coronavirus has spread widely over Asia, Europe and the US and is moving on to other parts of the world, with over 800,000 cases confirmed worldwide (Figure 1). We expect this crisis to put downward pressure on government revenues and upward pressure on government expenses, greatly squeezing budgets and governments‘ ability to sustain basic service delivery (health, water, electricity, education, waste, irrigation, etc.). This will in turn undermine trust in governments and further delegitimize governments that were already facing internal challenges. Ballooning budget deficits in developing countries could lead to large currency devaluations, ramping up inflation and the cost of imported food. In order to mitigate instability and conflict, ODA must help the most vulnerable countries sustain service delivery and support the poorest segments of society. WPS tools can track relevant natural resource, economic, and disaster-related data, and thereby help prioritize the flow of ODA for maximum impact, helping the most vulnerable countries continue to provide basic services to their people. 

coronavirus cases

Figure 1. COVID-19 cases, deaths, and recoveries as of 29 March 2020, courtesy of Gennadii Donchyts.  Data Source: Johns Hopkins CSSE.

Water availability and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services are essential for fighting disease but often lacking in developing countries. Handwashing and other basic hygiene measures constitute some of the most important factors in preventing the spread of coronavirus. The WHO has therefore emphasized the importance of WASH in limiting the spread of the epidemic. But many people across the developing world lack access to basic WASH services (Figure 2). People in countries such as Zimbabwe, where access to WASH services is limited, and people in countries such as India, where water is often too scarce to provide basic WASH services, run much greater risks of contracting the coronavirus or any future diseases. ODA must therefore continue to prioritize WASH services and the protection and  management of water resources that make these services possible.

drinking water

Figure 2. Access to improved drinking water (2015). Source: WRI/JMP/PBL.

Cross-referencing scarcity and instability. The WPS Global Tool allows users to cross-reference conflict and protest events with a number of possible conflict drivers, such as water scarcity (Figure 3). This tool can also cross-reference conflict and protest events with many other risk drivers. In Figure 4, for example, we have cross-referenced conflict and protest events with number of hospital beds (per 1,000 people) in each country. In both examples, the scarce resource is hypothesized to increase the risk of political destabilization. WPS also has Regional and Local Tools that can be used to confirm (or disprove) initial hypotheses developed using the Global Tool and provide much more on-the-ground detail, including guidance for future action.


Figure 3. Protest events (including relating to COVID-19) in areas of high drought risks. Source: WPS Tool.

hospital beds and conflict

Figure 4. Recent conflicts/number of hospital beds. Source: World Bank/WRI/ACLED.

Iraq – where water and public health problems came together in an explosive brew. In mid-2018, thousands of inhabitants of the city of Basra fell ill after ingesting contaminated water. Fed up over lack of public services (including water and electricity), lack of employment opportunities, and rampant corruption, people took the streets in violent protest. Water contamination stems from both the general absence of wastewater treatment in Iraq and reduced river flows in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which has allowed saltwater from the Persian Gulf to flow up these rivers, ruining freshwater and productive land resources. This has forced people to leave their homes and abandon their livelihoods. As this crisis continues (the latest casualty has been the Iraqi prime minister, who tendered his resignation late last year), coronavirus is beginning to hit Iraq (Iraq currently has over 600 confirmed cases), adding more fuel to the flames and further destabilizing the country.

Iran teeters as water scarcity, coronavirus, and domestic and international politics take their toll. Iran has been heavily hit by coronavirus, with over 35,000 cases confirmed. There have also been growing protests over interrupted urban water supply and depletion of water resources throughout the countryside. These protests have repeatedly turned violent over the past few years. Combined with deteriorating economic conditions and ideological confrontations between reformers and hardliners, the coronavirus crisis might prove a tipping point for the country.

Afghanistan – a country without sufficient capacity to address coronavirus. Conflict and post-conflict countries are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of coronavirus. Thousands of Afghan refugees are moving back to Afghanistan from Iran, many because their economic opportunities in Iran have come to a halt due to the pandemic. Many Afghans also feel there would be no healthcare available to them should they fall sick. Afghanistan is particularly ill-prepared for a pandemic: the healthcare system is dysfunctional, 35% of the population lacks access to safe drinking water and over 60% lacks access to sanitation (Figure 5). In addition, the last couple of weeks have shown the government unable to enforce social distancing or travel restrictions on the population. At the same time, the region along the Iranian border (namely the provinces of Herat and Nimroz) is plagued by numerous other risks, including chronic water scarcity affecting health and livelihoods, tensions with Iran that have recently spiked over the near-completion of a dam on the Helmand River, and a persistent Taliban influence in the region.


Figure 5. Access to sanitation (2015). Source: WRI/JMP/PBL

WPS is making long-term plans for tailor-made capacity development programs and dialogue activities that can help local actors in Afghanistan and other countries better manage scarce water resources. As the pandemic takes hold, however, there are shorter-term decisions that WPS can help support – decisions about “life support” to sustain public service delivery during the course of the pandemic. These are decisions that will be made by large donors. WPS can add analytical capacity right now to help these donors identify priority geographies, priority sectors, and priority institutions that most need their support.

South Africa, the region’s most advanced economy, is under assault along multiple fronts. Over 1,100 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in South Africa, making it the leading edge of infection on the continent. President Ramaphosa has warned of the consequences of the crisis, including its potential economic impacts. The country’s healthcare system, which is coping with HIV/AIDS and other diseases already, is unlikely up to the challenge, however. The coronavirus crisis strikes South Africa amidst a continual crisis in the water sector, growing public outrage with widespread government corruption, and a year-long economic downturn.

The Sahel: coronavirus, extreme poverty, inter-ethnic tensions, and religious extremism. The virus is also spreading in the Sahel, with over 200 cases confirmed in Burkina Faso, 100 in Nigeria, and increasing numbers in Mali, Niger and other countries of the region. Extremely limited economic opportunities, made worse by increasingly scarce water and land resources, are likely to further deteriorate as governments begin implementing social distancing measures and as the rest of the world descends into recession. Reductions in external support (i.e., ODA) would further wreak havoc on the region, which is already under assault by ideological extremism, inter-ethnic warfare, and the proliferation of criminal groups. A summit planned by the G5 Sahel states aimed at addressing the deteriorating security situation in the region was recently cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis. Similar developments are likely to occur in other regions of the world as the coronavirus crisis worsens.

Mali’s Inner Niger Delta and WPS “zoom-in” tools. WPS has employed a variety of “zoom-in” tools to better understand natural resource, conflict, and migration dynamics in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta region (Figure 6). And based on this enhanced understanding, WPS will now move on to identifying appropriate interventions together with key local stakeholders. These same local-level tools that can help us understand and address natural resource-related challenges can also help understand and respond to the coronavirus challenge.

Mali dashboard

Figure 6. WPS zoom-in tool dashboard for Inner Niger Delta in Mali. 

The coronavirus crisis and food insecurity. So far, links between the coronavirus pandemic and food insecurity are more theoretical than real, as global food production (in particular grain production) remains robust.  There are, however, some concerns. First is the possibility of panic food buying as regions become locked down. This happened earlier this year in China and caused a price increase of over 20%. A second problem, which we’ve seen so far in the case of Vietnam, Kazakhstan, and Russia, are export bans by governments in an effort to ensure food supplies for domestic consumers. A third set of problems has to do with supply interruptions, bottlenecks, and other logistical problems in the food supply chain, as a result of the virus and efforts to keep its spread in check. The UN FAO has warned of possible impacts of the coronavirus crisis on global food security, highlighting Africa’s particular vulnerability as a large importer of food. Subsistence farming could also be affected. It is therefore important to monitor global and local food production, food security (Figure 7) and food prices (Figure 8). It is also important to bear in mind that in times of increasing food insecurity, communities tend to intensify their local natural resources use, often leading to a degradation of those resources (e.g. through overfishing).

food insecurity

Figure 7. Food insecurity status as of 1 February 2020. Source: USAID et al.

The WPS Global Tool includes many food security-related datasets, while the WPS local zoom-in tools make use of data on crop productivity, crop failure, and other factors determining local food security.  Other WPS partner initiatives – such as Resource Watch, Aqueduct, and WaPOR – also provide food security-relevant data and information. WPS support in capacity development and dialogue activities can help to identify pathways out of such downward spirals.

Food price spikes

Figure 8. Food price spikes over the past three months – cereals and tubers. Source: World Food Programme

The coronavirus crisis and migration. The coronavirus crisis will likely have negative consequences for refugees, internally displaced persons, and other migrants worldwide. Africa’s forcibly displaced population now numbers over 25 million people. Countries that have until now been generously hosting large refugee communities (such as Uganda) will increasingly struggle. Displaced individuals and communities will suffer even worse from the economic effects of the crisis than others. In India, millions of migrant laborers were left to fend for themselves as coronavirus lockdown measures went into immediate effect throughout the country. The situation left hundreds of thousands, if not millions, scrambling to return home to their villages. Others remained stuck in cities without food, water, or basic health services. WPS has investigated natural resource risks in the context of internal displacement in Iraq (Figure 9) and demonstrated that improved water management can help reduce salinity levels that were considered a major driver of displacement.  WPS can use its tools and research findings to help donor countries identify ODA migration and forced displacement priorities in a coronavirus/post-coronavirus world.

Iraq tool

Figure 9. WPS zoom-in tool dashboard for southern Iraq.

The coronavirus crisis and humanitarian and peace operations. International humanitarian and peace operations – especially in Africa and the Middle East – are also affected. Travel restrictions by many countries have impacted humanitarian and peacekeeping operations already and will continue to do so as the crisis evolves. Economic pressures will also likely reduce financial resources for such operations in the near future. WPS tools can help donor countries identify and support countries with the greatest need for humanitarian and peace operations.

The coronavirus crisis and degraded ecosystems. Degraded ecosystems have been identified as an important origin of disease. As human activities encroach on sensitive ecosystems such as primary forests or wetlands, new diseases emerge and cross the species barrier, creating threats to human health. Human health thus becomes intractably linked to ecosystem health. UN Environment has therefore called for protecting ecosystems as a means of fighting the development and spread of zoonotic diseases – from Ebola to West Nile Virus and from bird flu to Zika – that have wreaked havoc in various regions in the world. COVID-19 is just the latest of these diseases to emerge. WPS and its partners track many indicators of ecosystem health – from water availability, to forest protection and preservation, to ecosystem restoration – and can bring this data, knowledge and capacity to bear in developing holistic solutions to complex problems.

In conclusion. WPS, with its focus on conflict early warning, prevention, and mitigation and its expertise on the linkages among water, food, and energy risks can contribute a number of tools and approaches as well as dialogue support to help assess the impacts of coronavirus and other risk drivers on security and help design adequate and effective response mechanisms. WPS tools can track relevant natural resource, economic, and disaster-related data, and thereby help prioritize the flow of ODA for maximum impact, helping the most vulnerable countries continue to provide basic services to their people.