The Truth About Water Wars

Catalyst / by Maywa Montenegro /

Seven experts debate the past and present existence of water wars, consider the difficulty of owning a fluid resource, and examine the hot spots for future conflict.

The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

Are Water Wars a Myth or an Imminent Threat to Global Security? Our Panel Responds:

It’s often been said that the next resource wars will be fought not over oil but over water.

In 2007 an 18-month study of Sudan by the UN Environment Program concluded that the conflict in Darfur had its roots in climate change and water shortages. According to the report, disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes—rainfall is down 30 percent over 40 years in some parts of the Sahel—had sparked dispute between herders and farmers and threatened to trigger a succession of new wars across Africa.

Months later, the British nonprofit International Alert released a study identifying 46 countries—home to 2.7 billion people—where water and climate stresses could ignite violent conflict by 2025, prompting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to say, “The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.”

Those remarks came just as David Zhang of Hong Kong University published a study linking water shortages to violence throughout history. Analyzing half a millennium’s worth of human conflict—more than 8,000 wars—Zhang concluded that climate change and resulting water shortages had been a far greater trigger than previously imagined. “We are on alert, because this gives us the indication that resource shortage is the main cause of war,” Zhang told the London Times.

Now, in UNESCO’s third major World Water Development Report, released in March at the World Water Forum in Istanbul, the threat is again plainly stated: “As climate change and adverse water impacts increase in politically charged areas, conflicts will likely intensify, requiring new and rapid adaptive security strategies.”

Not everyone, however, is convinced that “water wars” are all they’re chalked up to be. In a March 19 essay in Nature, Wendy Barnaby contends, “Countries do not go to war over water, they solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements.”

According to Barnaby, global trade in “virtual water”—the water embedded in food products—allows arid countries like those in the Middle East to meet their water requirements without resorting to conflict.

Barnaby cites the 1999 Nile Basin Initiative, a multilateral agreement among nine nations, including Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, as a prime example of countries opting to cooperate rather than compete over access to water. Even the much cited “water war” between West Bank Palestinians and Israelis, according to Barnaby, is little more than a myth:

“Power struggles and politics have led to overt and institutionalized conflict over water—but no armed conflict, as there is over borders and statehood. Instead, Palestinian and Israeli water professionals interact on a Joint Water Committee, established by the Oslo II Accords in 1995. It is not an equal partnership: Israel has de facto veto power on the committee. But they continue to meet and issue official expressions of cooperation even in the face of military action. Inequitable access to water resources is a result of the broader conflict and power dynamics: It does not itself cause war.”

As senior government officials convene later this year for World Water Week in Stockholm, how should they be approaching the issue of “water wars”? Are they an imminent threat or, as Barnaby suggests, a fabrication unsupported by the facts and perpetuated by the media?


All Is Not Quiet on the Waterfront

Mark Zeitoun is a senior lecturer in the School of International Development, University of East Anglia and author of Power and Water in the Middle East: The Hidden Politics of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Conflict.

Those who warn us of looming water wars usually base their arguments on an appeal to emotion, rather than on fact. Wendy Barnaby’s piece is a welcome counter to the mainstream media hype. But all is not quiet on the waterfront, and the need to establish objective and fair water-sharing principles is growing increasingly urgent.

Barnaby’s factual analysis of the relief-valve that food—and thus “virtual water”—imports provide is backed up by ample evidence, including from my own work. She may have added another reason for the lack of water wars: power asymmetry. One could hardly imagine Addis Ababa or Dhaka sending fighter jets to Cairo or New Delhi, no matter the extent to which these river-basin hegemons control the Nile or Ganges (and regardless of rising global food prices or sea levels). The “cost” of war would be much greater than the import of food or maintenance of flood defense, at least for the politicians in the capitals.

It matters little, however, if we are not likely to see bona fide water wars. After all, the absence of war does not mean the absence of conflict. Barnaby’s assertion that “countries do not go to war over water, they solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements” is a narrow take on an increasingly broad problem. Water conflicts are prevalent and causing suffering throughout the world.

Southern Iraqi farmers are being forced into overcrowded urban centers, as multiple dams on the Tigris River within Iraq, Syria, and Turkey reduce the river flows to the ebb and tide of Gulf seawater. Palestinian farmers eke out a living based on highly variable rain-fed farming, right beside the industrial farms of Israeli settlers who receive their irrigation water at state-subsidized rates. The inequitable allocation of transboundary waters in Israel’s favor has only been rendered worse by the once-heralded Joint Water Committee, according to an April 2009 World Bank report. The Ganges’ flood and drought cycles would not inundate thousands of farmers in downstream Bangladesh if adequate concern were given to the river beyond India’s sovereign borders.

Attempts to reconcile the mockery that such a fluid resource makes of our static political borders is well underway. The call to establish fair water-sharing principles is gaining momentum, with France committing to ratify the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention, and Spain and Tunis signalling their intent to do so.  Though the US, the UK, and many other governments are resisting efforts by the WWF and others to push them to ratify the Convention, increasing demographic and anticipated climate change pressures dilute their excuses for non-ratification. Fair water-sharing principles will help establish the multilateral action required to replace the destruction wrought by an imbalance of power. Water conflicts (not wars) are a clear and present danger for millions—and deserve our full collective diplomatic, scientific, and financial attention.


History Is Rife With Water Wars, But History Needn’t Dictate the Future

Tom Hatton directs the Water for a Healthy Country Flagship Research Program on behalf of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). The Flagship is Australia’s largest water R&D effort, employing 400 scientists across the nation.

There is an emerging historical perspective that relates climate change and water shortages to war, and I have no reason to doubt this analysis. But just as our historical rainfall record is no longer a reliable guide to the future, perhaps our social and political responses to environmental challenges in the 21st century may differ from those of the past. I have reason for optimism in this regard.

A number of institutions or institutional arrangements have emerged over the past 100 years that attempt to deal with multinational issues around water resources. Notable examples for international river basins include:

  • The Mekong River Committee (1957–1978) and later the Mekong River Commission, established in 1995 among Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
  • The 1922 Colorado River Commission and the 1945 Water Treaty between the US and Mexico. Convention for the Sustainable Management of Lake Tanganyika among four nations, 2003
  • A long history of negotiated agreements for the Nile dating back to at least 1925 (now working toward establishing a nine-country commission)

Even the drought-ridden states of Australia have managed to cooperatively manage their most important and stressed river basin through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Are these arrangements imperfect? Absolutely. Their struggles to establish fair, equitable, secure, and healthy water-sharing arrangements are far from over. Their memberships are often incomplete. Increased prospects of drought and flood, and increasing demand for water, add to the pressures on what is often already limited technical or institutional capacity. 

In my view, the very emergence of these institutional arrangements and a discourse on water sharing that increasingly employs the concepts of equity, fairness, market-based instruments, compensation, cultural values, and human rights, indicates a growing awareness that access to water is so fundamental to international relations and sustainability that governments will continue to—as we say in Australia—“grasp nettles” rather than guns. I am optimistic.


A Common Source of Grievance

Fred Pearce is an environmental journalist and author of numerous books, including When the River Runs Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the 21st Century.

People cause wars. Often bone-headed, illiberal, venal, and self-important people. In that sense, water no more causes wars than land or any other vital resource. The question is whether, like the others, water contributes to the reason people sometimes go to war. The answer is that it does. Ariel Sharon, in his memoirs, said the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors in 1967 was as much about water as anything—and it certainly led to Israel gaining control of the waters of the River Jordan, on which it depends heavily to this day.  The Jordan is today diverted into Israel’s National Water Carrier and little of it reaches the nation that bears its name.

Water, unlike land, is hard to “capture.” It flows. As Barnaby points out, countries have a lot of reasons for cooperating over water that flows between nations. And many do. She’s also right in acknowledging the importance of trade in thirsty products like food—often termed “virtual water.” There would have been many more wars in the Middle East in the past 30 years but for this trade, which keeps Egypt, Jordan, and others fed.

But that approach will not always work. There are serious potential conflicts around the world where upstream countries can withhold water from arid downstream countries that need or want it. India and Pakistan constantly bicker over the Indus. How long will a fully functioning Iraqi state settle for Turkey controlling the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates with large dams? Meanwhile Egypt’s insistence on its prior right to the majority of the flow of the Nile is an unresolved tension afflicting a quarter of a continent.

If wars arise over grievances, then water is a common source of grievances between nations. Israeli and Palestinian technocrats may cooperate over day-to-day water management, but that does not stop an absolute ban, imposed by Israel, on West Bank Palestinians sinking new wells to tap water beneath their feet. Water is a major grievance there. And as water shortages become more intense in much of the world over the coming decades, the potential for conflicts will grow.
It is dangerous to “blame” a resource like water for wars. It can too easily become an excuse for failing to resolve conflicts. To “blame” water for genocide in Sudan is obscene. But to go to the other extreme and deny water as a potential factor in wars is equally foolish.

Yes, management of water can become a meeting point for nations as well as a source of conflict. But many rivers and other sources of water that cross international boundaries are today not subject to treaties for sharing. That is dangerous. If we are to avoid water wars, there is an urgent need for more water diplomacy. 


War20: Three Reasons that Violence Could Erupt

Tobias Siegfried is an associate research scientist at the Earth Institute’s Columbia Water Center, and an adjunct assistant professor at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

On our planet freshwater resources are unevenly distributed, in space and time. Especially in the drylands, where demand chronically outstrips renewable supply, management is a challenge. And it will certainly remain one in the future, given increasing population pressure and large future climate uncertainty, as well as ongoing freshwater resources depletion and degradation due to misallocation. The truth is that conflicts over water resources abound even nowadays. So the relevant questions become: Under which circumstances can those conflicts, if at all, spill over into armed violence? Could water wars eventually emerge as a defining feature of the geography of conflict?

First, environments of absolute physical scarcity increase the propensity for conflict—even more so if alternative means of overcoming the freshwater supply-demand gap are limited or even entirely absent. This is true for many underdeveloped, semi-arid to arid regions, such as the Sahel and parts of Central Asia. These regions are likely to experience increasing water stress given our current understanding of climate change.

Second, man-made scarcity fosters competition and dispute. We see this in cases where a powerful elite controls the availability and access to freshwater—for example, in watersheds where upstream riparian states deprive downstream people of access to water in sufficient quantity and quality at the right time. If not adequately dealt with, increasing freshwater scarcity could induce large-scale population migration and trigger war, especially if displacement occurs across rigid territorial boundaries. 

Third and finally, water might become a leading cause of mass migration for another reason: out of overabundance. Average global temperature is projected to rise significantly over the next decades, bringing with it a rise in sea levels and an uptick in coastal hazards. This poses a great threat for low-lying areas such as the densely populated Bangladesh and Myanmar—where hundreds of millions of people live along the coasts.

If land can no longer be tilled and subsistence farming is no longer an option due to lack of water—or if land is simply washed away by rising tides—populations will experience problems at unprecedented scale. What is needed are accurate early-warning systems and effective response- and risk-management mechanisms. Ideally they should be well rooted in sound national institutions and supported by the larger international community.

At the same time, we should acknowledge that violent, armed conflicts are complex phenomena. Simple slogans and buzzwords based on reductionist reasoning are not paying justice to the complex societal and environmental challenges that our planet faces in the future. They will certainly not help the poorest of the poor, who have little coping strategies at their disposal to begin with. 


We Won’t Let Each Other Go Thirsty

Michael E. Campana is the director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds and a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. He maintains the blog WaterWired.

“I think water hits us at a profoundly different level than other resources. People are willing to do horrible things to each other. What they seem not willing to do is turn off each other’s water.” —Aaron Wolf

Water wars. How many times has some expert portrayed a future with nations waging war over that most precious of resources, water? There have even been suggestions of intra national water wars, as in Andrew Wice’s novel, To The Last Drop, in which Texas and New Mexico fight over water. As someone who spent 17 years in the Land of Enchantment, I do not find that premise too much of a stretch. With 263 international river basins and 273 international aquifers, it would seem that water wars are a virtual certainty.

If anything, however, history tells us that cooperation over water exceeds conflict. The Indus River Commission survived two major wars between India and Pakistan. During one of the wars, India continued to make payments to Pakistan as part of its treaty obligations. Since the mid-1950s Israel and Jordan held secret “picnic table” talks on managing the Jordan River even though they were technically at war from 1948 to 1994. The US, Mexico, and Canada have effective institutions to resolve water disputes before they escalate. My colleague Aaron Wolf found that in the 50 years since the late 1940s water cooperative events outnumbered conflictive events by 2.5 to 1. He noted that the only “water war” between nations on record occurred more than 4,500 years ago between the city-states of Lagash and Umma in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.

The aforementioned events afford some measure of optimism, but will the past predict the future? We face an uncertain and potentially calamitous future. World population is approaching 7 billion people. Climate change and its effect on water resources loom ominously. Watershed boundaries may change. Water supplies may increase in some areas and decrease in others. And since water does more than quench thirst—it grows food, maintains ecosystems and fisheries, dilutes waste, provides recreation, facilitates navigation and trade, and generates power—I can foresee situations where nations, or even states, cities, or provinces, wage war over water and the services it provides.

Can we take preventive measures? Definitely. Rapid changes in international basins in the absence of institutional capacity (e.g., treaties) tend to increase “hydrovulnerability,” the risk of dispute over a shared water resource. We must ensure that all involved have sufficient institutional capacity to enhance “hydroresilience,” the ability to absorb change without negative consequences. River basins receive most of the attention, but so should transnational aquifers. Make no mistake: Implementing these measures will be daunting.

Aaron Wolf is correct: Water does hit us at a profoundly different level. For that reason, I believe that, despite the perilous road ahead, in 100 years “Lagash and Umma” will be the answer to a trivia question.


But Who Will Export Tomorrow’s Virtual Water?

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. She is author of Last Oasis and Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?

The colloquial term “water wars” has come to encompass a spectrum of conflicts over water. In many ways, the preoccupation with whether an outright war (i.e., military conflict) between nations will erupt over water has overshadowed the larger threats to social stability and human well-being posed by mounting water stress worldwide.

Water is renewable, but finite. As demands increase against this finite supply, competition for water is intensifying not just between countries, but also within countries—between farms and cities, states and provinces, ethnic groups, and economic interests. The escalation of these tensions poses much greater threats of civil unrest, humanitarian crises, and loss of life than do international wars over water. The most destabilizing global water-related threat is rising food prices and increased hunger, and on this score, Ms. Barnaby’s assertion that countries will solve their water problems through trade is misguided.

Globally, less water will be available for food production in the years ahead, even as world population climbs by 1.2 billion by 2025 and as at least that many people strive to move toward water-intensive North American–style diets. Already, we are using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s food demands: at least 10 percent of global food production depends on the unsustainable use of water. In India, where this figure may be closer to 15 to 20 percent, millions of tubewells have already gone dry. In China, which has 20 percent of the world’s population but only 8 percent of its renewable fresh water, falling water tables, the overtapped Yellow River, and the reallocation of water from agriculture to urban-industrial uses will soon force the nation to enter the ranks of net grain importers. Indeed, China’s wheat harvest (the world’s largest) has declined some 8 percent since its 1997 peak. Meanwhile, this year about a quarter of the US grain harvest will be used not for food or feed, but to fuel automobiles.

So, who will export the “virtual water” in the form of grain that water-stressed countries will need to import in order to feed themselves? And, just as important, at what price? The food riots that erupted in Haiti, Senegal, Mauritania, Bangladesh, and some half dozen other countries as grain prices climbed in 2007 and 2008 are a harbinger of what is to come. Without action now to confront the water-food dilemma head on—most importantly, by adapting global agriculture to a warming, water-stressed world, and expanding affordable, small-farm irrigation to alleviate food insecurity—the real water wars will play out through the global grain trade, and the risks of civil unrest and state collapse will mount.


The Question Is Irrelevant

Peter Gleick is co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Water Security and the UN’s Expert Group on Policy Relevance of the World Water Assessment Program. He is editor of the biennial book The World’s Water and has recently begun blogging at Water By the Numbers.

“Water wars.” How euphoniously alliterative. The phrase makes for a great, eye-catching headline, but it also leads to debate and controversy. I think this debate is misleading and misguided. The argument should not be whether or not fresh water problems lead to “war”—academics have been arguing for centuries about the nature and causes of war, not to mention the very definition. Are there “wars” over water? The answer depends on what definitions of these things you choose. In the end, I think it’s irrelevant.

Far more important, and far easier to answer, is the question: Is there any connection between fresh water and conflict, including violent conflict? And the answer has to be an unambiguous “yes.” History going back 5,000 years is rife with examples where water has been a goal of violence, a target or tool of conflict, or a source of disputes and political strife. Our Water Conflict Chronology, at worldwater.org, lists hundreds of these examples.

And if there is a strong connection between water and conflicts, two new questions come up: Are the risks of these conflicts growing, and how can we reduce them? I think the answer to the first is, yes, the risks of water-related conflicts appears to be growing. Perhaps not between countries, where we have pretty well-developed mechanisms of diplomacy and negotiation that we use to reduce the risks of conflict. But I see more evidence of sub-national disputes and conflicts over economic development policies that change or affect who has access to safe and adequate fresh water. As a result, the debate about water and conflict needs to shift away from international relations theorists and international security academics and toward those who are concerned with a far broader set of issues around human security. From a practical point of view, this means we can stop arguing about whether the conflict in Darfur is “about” water—water is only one of many factors in that particular dispute—and instead work to reduce the role that water plays so that there is one less thing for the peacemakers to deal with.

And this leads to the second question: How can the risks of water-related conflicts be reduced? Here are three examples: (i) meet basic human needs for water as a way to ensure, if not absolute justice, at least some semblance of equity; (ii) develop effective peace-keeping operations at the United Nations that can intervene when resource disputes cannot be resolved locally; and (iii) give diplomats a better understanding of the connections between water and conflict so that the tools they apply in other conflict situations can be applied successfully to reduce water disputes. Let’s stop arguing about whether there are wars over water and work to reduce the very real risks of water-related conflicts.

Originally published May 14, 2009

Tags conflict development environment leadership policy water

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