Water conflict


Water conflict is a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or groups over the rights to access water resources.[1][2] The United Nations recognizes that water disputes result from opposing interests of water users, public or private.[3] A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, though rarely are traditional wars waged over water alone.[4] Instead, water has historically been a source of tension and a factor in conflicts that start for other reasons. However, water conflicts arise for several reasons, including territorial disputes, a fight for resources, and strategic advantage.[5] A comprehensive online database of water-related conflicts—the Water Conflict Chronology—has been developed by the Pacific Institute.[6] This database lists violence over water going back nearly 6,000 years.

These conflicts occur over both freshwater and saltwater, and both between and within nations. However, conflicts occur mostly over freshwater; because freshwater resources are necessary, yet scarce, they are the center of water disputes arising out of need for potable water, irrigation and energy generation.[7] As freshwater is a vital, yet unevenly distributed natural resource, its availability often impacts the living and economic conditions of a country or region. The lack of cost-effective water supply options in areas like the Middle East,[8] among other elements of water crises can put severe pressures on all water users, whether corporate, government, or individual, leading to tension, and possibly aggression.[9] Recent humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Rwandan genocide or the war in Sudanese Darfur, have been linked back to water conflicts.[1]


Transboundary waters are waters in which two or more different states border the same body of water. In order to ensure that water conflict does not occur, transboundary water arrangements or agreements are made.[10] According to the UN, these cooperations are supposed to be equitable and sustainable in that each state does not abuse the water, but rather use the water to their best benefits while protecting and reserving it.[11]

Over the past 25 years, politicians, academics and journalists have frequently predicted that disputes over water would be a source of future wars. Commonly cited quotes include: that of former Egyptian Foreign Minister and former Secretary-General of the United Nations Boutros Ghali, who forecast, "The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics"; his successor at the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who in 2001 said, "Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future," and the former Vice President of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, who said the wars of the next century will be over water unless significant changes in governance occurred. The water wars hypothesis had its roots in earlier research carried out on a small number of transboundary rivers such as the Indus, Jordan and Nile. These particular rivers became the focus because they had experienced water-related disputes. Specific events cited as evidence include Israel's bombing of Syria's attempts to divert the Jordan's headwaters, and military threats by Egypt against any country building dams in the upstream waters of the Nile. However, while some links made between conflict and water were valid, they did not necessarily represent the norm.[citation needed]

Competition for water has widely increased, and it has become more difficult to conciliate the necessities for water supply for human consumption, food production, ecosystems and other uses. Water administration is frequently involved in contradictory and complex problems. Approximately 10% of the worldwide annual runoff is used for human necessities. Several areas of the world are flooded, while others have such low precipitations that human life is almost impossible. As population and development increase, raising water demand, the possibility of problems inside a certain country or region increases, as it happens with others outside the region.[citation needed]

The only known example of an actual inter-state conflict over water took place between 2500 and 2350 BC between the Sumerian states of Lagash and Umma.[12] Water stress has most often led to conflicts at local and regional levels.[13] Tensions arise most often within national borders, in the downstream areas of distressed river basins. Areas such as the lower regions of China's Yellow River or the Chao Phraya River in Thailand, for example, have already been experiencing water stress for several years. Water stress can also exacerbate conflicts and political tensions which are not directly caused by water. Gradual reductions over time in the quality and/or quantity of fresh water can add to the instability of a region by depleting the health of a population, obstructing economic development, and exacerbating larger conflicts.[14]

Water resources that span international boundaries are more likely to be a source of collaboration and cooperation than war. Scientists working at the International Water Management Institute have been investigating the evidence behind water war predictions. Their findings show that, while it is true there has been conflict related to water in a handful of international basins, in the rest of the world's approximately 300 shared basins the record has been largely positive. This is exemplified by the hundreds of treaties in place guiding equitable water use between nations sharing water resources. The institutions created by these agreements can, in fact, be one of the most important factors in ensuring cooperation rather than conflict.[15]


According to the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment,[16] water is a vital element for human life, and human activities are closely connected to availability and quality of water. Unfortunately, water is a limited resource and in the future access "might get worse with climate change, although scientists' projections of future rainfall are notoriously cloudy" writes Roger Harrabin.[17] Moreover, "it is now commonly said that future wars in the Middle East are more likely to be fought over water than over oil," said Lester R. Brown at a previous Stockholm Water Conference.[18]

Water conflicts occur because the demand for water resources and potable water can exceed supply, or because control over access and allocation of water may be disputed. Elements of a water crisis may put pressures on affected parties to obtain more of a shared water resource, causing diplomatic tension or outright conflict.

It is believed that the climate crisis and the growing global population are the two factors that together could act as major trigger to water conflict.[19]

Indeed, 11% of the global population, or 783 million people, are still without access to improved sources of drinking water [20] which provides the catalyst for potential for water disputes. Besides life, water is necessary for proper sanitation, commercial services, and the production of commercial goods. Thus numerous types of parties can become implicated in a water dispute. For example, corporate entities may pollute water resources shared by a community, or governments may argue over who gets access to a river used as an international or inter-state boundary.

The broad spectrum of water disputes makes them difficult to address. Local and international law, commercial interests, environmental concerns, and human right questions make water disputes complicated to solve—combined with the sheer number of potential parties, a single dispute can leave a large list of demands to be met by courts and lawmakers.

Economic and trade issues

Water's viability as a commercial resource, which includes fishing, agriculture, manufacturing, recreation and tourism, among other possibilities, can create dispute even when access to potable water is not necessarily an issue. As a resource, some consider water to be as valuable as oil, needed by nearly every industry, and needed nearly every day.[21] Water shortages can completely cripple an industry just as it can cripple a population, and affect developed countries just as they affect countries with less-developed water infrastructure. Water-based industries are more visible in water disputes, but commerce at all levels can be damaged by a lack of water.

International commercial disputes between nations can be addressed through the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has water-specific groups like a Fisheries Center that provide a unified judicial protocol for commercial conflict resolution. Still, water conflict occurring domestically, as well as conflict that may not be entirely commercial in nature may not be suitable for arbitration by the WTO.


Historically, fisheries have been the main sources of question, as nations expanded and claimed portions of oceans and seas as territory for 'domestic' commercial fishing. Certain lucrative areas, such as the Bering Sea, have a history of dispute; in 1886 Great Britain and the United States clashed over sealing fisheries,[22] and today Russia surrounds a pocket of international water known as the Bering Sea Donut Hole. Conflict over fishing routes and access to the hole was resolved in 1995 by a convention referred to colloquially as the Donut Hole Agreement.[23]


Corporate interest often crosses opposing commercial interest, as well as environmental concerns, leading to another form of dispute. In the 1960s, Lake Erie, and to a lesser extent, the other Great Lakes were polluted to the point of massive fish death. Local communities suffered greatly from dismal water quality until the United States Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.[24]

Water pollution poses a significant health risk, especially in heavily industrialized, heavily populated areas like China. In response to a worsening situation in which entire cities lacked safe drinking water, China passed a revised Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law.[25] The possibility of polluted water making its way across international boundaries, as well as unrecognized water pollution within a poorer country brings up questions of human rights, allowing for international input on water pollution. There is no single framework for dealing with pollution disputes local to a nation.



According to Aaron Wolf, et al.[26] there were 1831 water conflicts over transboundary basins from 1950 to 2000. They categorized these events as following:

  • No water-related events on the extremes
  • Most interactions are cooperative
  • Most interactions are mild
  • Water acts as irritant
  • Water acts as unifier
  • Nations cooperate over a wide variety of issues
  • Nations conflict over quantity and infrastructure

Pacific Institute

A comprehensive chronology of water-related conflicts is maintained by the Pacific Institute in their Water Conflict Chronology, which includes an open-source data set, an interactive map, and full information on citations.[27] These historical examples go back over 4,500 years. In this dataset, water conflicts are categorized as follows:

  • Control of Water resources (state and non-state actors): where water supplies or access to water is at the root of tensions.
  • Military Tool (state actors): where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation or state as a weapon during a military action.
  • Political Tool (state and non-state actors): where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation, state, or non-state actor for a political goal.
  • Terrorism (non-state actors): where water resources, or water systems, are either targets or tools of violence or coercion by non-state actors.
  • Military Target (state actors): where water resource systems are targets of military actions by nations or states.
  • Development Disputes (state and non-state actors): where water resources or water systems are a major source of contention and dispute in the context of economic and social development.

Transboundary Water Interaction Nexus

Naho Mirumachi and John Anthony Allan (2007) proposed the Transboundary Water Interaction Nexus (TWIN) approach as a two-dimensional method to approaching water conflict and cooperation.[28] This model neglects the conventional linear continuum of conflict and cooperation and instead sees the two as coexisting and not mutually exclusive. They postulate that not all cooperation is good, and not all conflict is bad.[29] The TWINS approach can also serve as a useful final step after separate. analyses on cooperative methods and conflict intensity measures.[30] The model is split into two parts—the horizontal scale (measures cooperation intensity) and the vertical scale (measures conflict intensity).


International organizations play the largest role in mediating water disputes and improving water management. From scientific efforts to quantify water pollution, to the World Trade Organization's efforts to resolve trade disputes between nations, the varying types of water disputes can be addressed through current framework. Yet water conflicts that go unresolved become more dangerous as water becomes more scarce and global population increases.[31]

United Nations

The UN UNESCO-IHP Groundwater Portal aims to help improve understanding of water resources and foster effective water management. But by far the most active UN program in water dispute resolution is its Potential Conflict to Co-operation Potential (PCCP), which is in its third phase, training water professionals in the Middle East and organizing educational efforts elsewhere.[32] Its target groups include diplomats, lawmakers, civil society, and students of water studies; by expanding knowledge of water disputes, it hopes to encourage cooperation between nations in dealing with conflicts.

UNESCO has published a map of trans-boundary aquifers.[33] Academic work focusing on water disputes has yet to yield a consistent method for mediating international disputes, let alone local ones. But UNESCO faces optimistic prospects for the future as water conflicts become more public, and as increasing severity sobers obstinate interests.

World Trade Organization

The World Trade Organization (WTO) can arbitrate water disputes presented by its member states when the disputes are commercial in nature. The WTO has certain groups, such as its Fisheries Center, that work to monitor and rule on relevant cases, although it is by no means the authority on conflict over water resources.

Because water is so central to agricultural trade, water disputes may be subtly implicated in WTO cases in the form of virtual water,[34][35] water used in the production of goods and services but not directly traded between countries. Countries with greater access to water supplies may fare better from an economic standpoint than those facing crisis, which creates the potential for conflict. Outraged by agriculture subsidies that displace domestic produce, countries facing water shortages bring their case to the WTO.

The WTO plays more of a role in agriculturally based disputes that are relevant to conflict over specific sources of water. Still, it provides an important framework that shapes the way water will play into future economic disputes. One school of thought entertains the notion of war over water, the ultimate progression of an unresolved water dispute—scarce water resources combined with the pressure of exponentially increasing population may outstrip the ability of the WTO to maintain civility in trade issues.[36]


The Indus River Commission and the 1960 Indus Water Treaty have survived two wars between India and Pakistan despite the two countries' mutual hostility, proving a successful mechanism in resolving conflicts by providing a framework for consultation, inspection and exchange of data. The Mekong Committee has functioned since 1957 and outlived the Vietnam War of 1955–1975. In contrast, regional instability results when countries lack institutions to co-operate in regional collaboration, like Egypt's plan for a high dam on the Nile. However, as of 2019 no global institution supervises the management of trans-boundary water sources, and international co-operation has happened through ad hoc collaboration between agencies, like the Mekong Committee which formed due to an alliance between UNICEF and the US Bureau of Reclamation. Formation of strong international institutions seems[original research?] to provide a way forward – they encourage early intervention and management,[citation needed] avoiding costly dispute-resolution processes.

One common feature of almost all resolved disputes is that the negotiations had a "need-based" instead of a "right–based" paradigm. Irrigable lands, population, and technicalities of projects define "needs". The success of a need-based paradigm is reflected in the only water agreement ever negotiated in the Jordan River Basin, which focuses in needs not on rights of riparians. In the Indian subcontinent, the irrigation requirements of Bangladesh determine water allocations of the Ganges River.[citation needed] A need-based, regional approach focuses on satisfying individuals with their need of water, ensuring that minimum quantitative needs are met. It removes the conflict that arises when countries view the treaty from a national-interest point-of-view and move away from a zero-sum approach to a positive-sum, integrative approach that equitably allocates water and its benefits.[citation needed] This means that both equity and efficiency of water use systems become significant, particularly under water scarcity. The combination of these two performance factors should occur in the context of sustainability making continuous cooperation among all the stakeholders in a learning mode highly desirable.[37]


Notable conflicts

Ethiopia's move to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam's reservoir could reduce Nile flows by as much as 25% and damage Egyptian farmlands.[38]

Water conflicts can occur on the intrastate and interstate levels. Interstate conflicts occur between two or more neighboring countries that share a transboundary water source, such as a river, sea, or groundwater basin. For example, the Middle East has only 1% of the world's freshwater shared among 5% of the world's population.[39] Intrastate conflicts take place between two or more parties in the same country. An example would be the conflicts between farmers and industry (agricultural vs industrial use of water).

According to UNESCO, the current interstate conflicts occur mainly in the Middle East (disputes stemming from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq; and the Jordan River conflict among Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the State of Palestine), in Africa (Nile River-related conflicts among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan),[2] as well as in Central Asia (the Aral Sea conflict among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). At a local level, a remarkable example is the 2000 Cochabamba protests in Bolivia, depicted in the 2010 Spanish film Even the Rain by Icíar Bollaín.

In 1948, India and Pakistan had a dispute over the sharing of water rights to the Indus River and its tributaries.[40][41] An agreement was reached after five weeks and the dispute was followed by the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960.[40][41]

In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said that if Egypt were to ever go to war again it would be over water. Separately, amidst Egypt–Ethiopia relations, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said: "I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story."[42] Conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam escalated in 2020.[43] Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed warned that "No force can stop Ethiopia from building a dam. If there is need to go to war, we could get millions readied."[44]

Following Russia's annexation of Crimea, Ukraine blocked the North Crimean Canal, which provided 85% of Crimea's drinking water.[45] Vasily Stashuk, Ukraine's top irrigation official at the time, said it would bring a humanitarian "catastrophe".[46]

As of 2020, China has built 11 dams on the Mekong river, which flows from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. Experts fear that China's ability to control the Mekong's flow gives it leverage over downstream nations who rely on China's goodwill.[47] In 2018, water levels in the Mekong River fell to their lowest in more than 100 years, even during the annual monsoon season.[48] The Jinghong Dam, as of January 2020 the nearest Chinese dam upstream of the Thai border, has caused huge fluctuations in river levels, affecting people's livelihoods downstream by disrupting the river's natural cycle.[49]

In late April 2021, a conflict over water escalated into the most serious border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since independence in 1991.[50]

Recent research into water conflicts

Some research from the International Water Management Institute and Oregon State University has found that water conflicts among nations are less likely than is cooperation, with hundreds of treaties and agreements in place. Water conflicts tend to arise as an outcome of other social issues.[51] Conversely, the Pacific Institute has shown that while interstate (i.e., nation to nation) water conflicts are increasingly less likely, there appears to be a growing risk of sub-national conflicts among water users, regions, ethnic groups, and competing economic interests. Data from the Water Conflict Chronology show these intrastate conflicts to be a larger and growing component of all water disputes, and that the traditional international mechanisms for addressing them, such as bilateral or multilateral treaties, are not as effective.[52] Some analysts estimate that due to an increase in human consumption of water resources, water conflicts will become increasingly common in the near future.[53][54]

The Blue Peace framework developed by Strategic Foresight Group in partnership with the governments of Switzerland and Sweden offers a unique policy structure which promotes sustainable management of water resources combined with cooperation for peace. By making the most of shared water-resources through cooperation rather than mere allocation between countries, the chances for peace can increase.[55][need quotation to verify] The Blue Peace approach has proven effective in (for example) the Middle East[56][57] and the Nile basin.[56][58]

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the book Share: Managing water across boundaries. One chapter covers the functions of trans-boundary institutions and how they can be designed to promote cooperation, overcome initial disputes and find ways of coping with the uncertainty created by climate change. It also covers how the effectiveness of such institutions can be monitored.[59]

See also

Further reading

  • Barnaby, Wendy (2009) "Do nations go to war over water?" Nature, vol.458, pp. 282–283, doi:10.1038/458282a
  • Dombrowsky Ines. Conflict, Cooperation and Institutions in International Water Management: an economic analysis. Edward Elgar editions, Great Britain, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84720-341-0
  • Gleick, Peter (1993) "Water and conflict." International Security Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 79–112 (Summer 1993).
  • Gleick, P.H. and Heberger, M. "Water Brief 4. Water Conflict Chronology". In P.H. Gleick (editor), The World's Water, Volume 7. Island Press, Washington D.C., pp. 175–214. 2012, ISBN 978-1-59726-999-5 (paper)
  • Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (Department of Political Science, University of Heidelberg). Conflict Barometer 2007: Crises – Wars – Coups d'État – Negotiations – Mediations – Peace Settlements, 16th Annual Conflict Analysis, 2007
  • Murakami Masahiro. Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies. United Nations University Press, 1995, ISBN 92-808-0858-3
  • Nickum, E. James and Easter, K. William (editors). Metropolitan Water Use Conflicts in Asia and the Pacific. Westview Press, USA, 1994, ISBN 0-8133-8779-5
  • Rahaman, M. M. (Editor) Special Issue: Water Wars in 21st Century along International Rivers Basins: Speculation or Reality?, International Journal of Sustainable Society, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2, 193 pages. 2012
  • Share: managing Water across Boundaries. Edited by Sadoff et al., 2008, IUCN.
  • The World's Water of Pacific Institute publish:
    • The Water Conflict Chronology and Database (2015)
    • The World's Water, Island Press, a biennial book, Vol. 8, 2014
  • UNESCO. Water Management and Early Civilizations: From Cooperation to Conflict (2003) [60]
  • UNESCO. Urban water conflicts: An analysis of the origins and nature of water-related unrest and conflicts in the urban context. Published by the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2006


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