Glacial Melting Redraws Italian-Swiss Border, Hints at Future Water Wars

Once the shape of nations was guided by war, as losers ceded land to winners.

That is no longer true, and today Italy and Switzerland are negotiating a new border in the Alps to accommodate the world’s newest victor; global warming.

The territory in question is the Monte Rosa massif, a portion of the Italian-Swiss Alps whose watershed, determined by nine glaciers, sets the invisible line between Switzerland and Italy, as it has since 1861.

The biggest, manmade change to this imaginary line came in 1970, when a stream diversion was allowed to permit construction of the Lugano-Como motorway, with the two countries exchanging territory to facilitate development.

Now, thanks to climate change and the shrinking of these glaciers, the watershed has shifted – up to 100 meters in places – and the two nations are preparing yet another accord.

This agreement, according to General Carlo Colella of Italy’s Military Geographic Institute, has been four years in the making, and its approval by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his cabinet next month marks the beginning of an era in which the only winner is likely to be global warming. Italy has already concluded similar arrangements with Austria on its northwestern border, and is pursuing another accord with France on its eastern border.

The accords, and the nations participating, are an uneasy recognition of how rapidly climate change is changing the face of the earth. In the agreement between Italy and Austria, experts have already been given the power to change the accord as climate change alters and erases the courses of rivers. But what happens when the glaciers, the only source of water to such landlocked countries as Switzerland, Austria and tiny Liechtenstein, are almost gone? Who will win those water wars, and who will be left to perish?

Alpine glaciers have been shrinking since the 1980s. Between 2007 and 2008, 82 out of 88 glaciers shrank by about 25 meters in length, with the Gorner Glacier (on the aforementioned Monte Rosa massif) shrinking by a whopping 290 meters. Temperatures are also rising, by 0.5 degree Celsius from 1982 to 2000, and by 1.2 degrees between 2000 and 2008.

According to a recent United Nation’s Environmental Report, Alpine ice cover has diminished by two-thirds since the 1950s, with much of the loss occurring after 1980. If the loss continues, these glaciers could disappear by 2050, according to Roland Psenner of the University of Innsbruck. And that’s a conservative estimate, Psenner adds, noting that a worst-case scenario could see most glaciers vanishing by 2037. 

In a warming world, it’s a given that skiing at Chamonix, Val d’Isere and Megève might end, but how many have considered the impact of drinking water costing €5.00 ($6.63) per liter? 


Only a tiny fraction of the water people use is for drinking. Most of it goes to growing our food.

“As a global average, people typically drink one cubic metre of water each per year, and use 100 cubic metres per year for washing and cleaning. Each of us also accounts for 1,000 cubic metres per year to grow the food we eat.”

Paraphrasing that article: Fresh water isn’t going to disappear, It’s just going to go to different places. While that’s still going to suck, what’s going to happen is that the places that net less fresh water are going to grow less food, or less water intensive food, and import more from places with more water. It’ll work itself out through the market rather than through war.

If glaciers melt, that source of fresh water WILL literally disappear as the water is used up for drinking and growing crops. Glaciers are not self-replenishing. Additionally, while no modern wars have been fought exclusively over water (or even had water listed as a causative factor), the potential exists.

You should read that article. Let me know if you can’t find someone with access and I can post it somewhere. It’s a boring conclusion. It’s a non-story and isn’t going to get any headlines in mainstream news, but it seems reasonable to me.

“The relationship of food trade to water sustainability is often not obvious, and often remains invisible: no political leader will gain any popularity by acknowledging that their country makes up the water budget only by importing food.”

“Water management will need to adapt. But the mechanisms of trade, international agreements and economic development that currently ease water shortages will persist. Researchers, such as Aaron Wolf at Oregon State University, Corvallis, and Nils Petter Gleditsch at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, point out that predictions of armed conflict come from the media and from popular, non-peer-reviewed work.”

“it is still important that the popular myth of water wars somehow be dispelled once and for all. This will not only stop unsettling and incorrect predictions of international conflict over water. It will also discourage a certain public resignation that climate change will bring war, and focus attention instead on what politicians can do to avoid it: most importantly, improve the conditions of trade for developing countries to strengthen their economies. And it would help to convince water engineers and managers, who still tend to see water shortages in terms of local supply and demand, that the solutions to water scarcity and security lie outside the water sector in the water/food/trade/economic development nexus. It would be great if we could unclog our stream of thought about the misleading notions of ‘water wars’.”

There is no border dispute.


“In this case, the reason for the border alteration is that in several places the line between Italy and Switzerland is set at the watershed. Because of global warming, the glaciers have shrunk, so the watershed has shifted, in some places by as much as ten metres. After years of work by Italy’s Military Geographic Institute Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet has approved a change in the frontier.”

10 METRES! Hardly worth going to war over and hardly grounds for a water dispute.

The use of the word “dispute” is solely yours; I never suggested it was a dispute. As a matter of fact, I said exactly what you said, in different words. And, while a ten meter change in the border is not likely to cause war, a lack of water as glaciers melt is likely to creat significant tensions between larger and smaller countries.

Glacier ice is the largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth, and second only to oceans as the largest reservoir of total water. So we must take necessary steps to conserve it.