Water conflict is a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or groups over an access to water resources. The United Nations recognizes that water disputes result from opposing interests of water users, public or private. A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, though rarely are traditional wars waged over water alone. 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. A comprehensive online database of water-related conflicts—the Water Conflict Chronology—has been developed by the Pacific Institute. 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. 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, 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. Recent humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Rwandan genocide or the war in Sudanese Darfur, have been linked back to water conflicts.
According to a 1999 report, corporations have started to sue governments in order to gain access to domestic water sources. For example, Sun Belt, a California company, was suing the government of Canada under NAFTA because British Columbia banned water exports several years before. The company claimed that B.C.'s law violated several NAFTA-based investor rights and therefore was claiming $220 million in compensation for lost profits.
Malaysia, which supplies about half of Singapore's water, threatened to cut off that supply in 1997 after Singapore criticized its government policies. In Africa, relations between Botswana and Namibia have been severely strained by Namibian plans to construct a pipeline to divert water from the shared Okavango River to eastern Namibia. There are potential water wars in the Middle East, where water resources are severely limited. The late King Hussein of Jordan once said the only thing he would go to war with Israel over was water because Israel controls Jordan's water supply.