Water wars are conflicts fought over the access to or ownership of water supplies. These conflicts arise over both freshwater and saltwater and occur between countries, states or locally within borders. However, predominately they transpire because of disputes over territory, strategic advantage, or a battle for freshwater resources. Water extends across geopolitical boundaries, which makes determining ownership difficult and often times contentious. Arguments and animosity can arise over access to a common water supply that is shared by different groups or nations, especially if there is more demand from one group over another. Water is a limited resource and the global demand for it is remarkably increasing as the population grows and affluence spreads. Furthermore, the decrease in regional and seasonal availability and quality of water due to climate change and environmental degradation produces more competition which fuels conflicts. However, it is often more so mismanagement and governance of water resources that is to blame for conflict than the lack of water as such.
Many different types of water conflicts emerge throughout history, though they seldom happen over water alone. Historically water has been a source of tension and a factor in conflicts that start for other reasons. The Pacific Institute developed a comprehensive online database of water-related conflicts—the Water Conflict Chronology— which lists violence over water starting as far back as 3000 BC. Additionally the World Water Reserve outlines a similar historical timeline of water conflict events. (https://worldwaterreserve.com/water-crisis/causes-of-water-conflict/)
Currently, there are myriad examples of water conflicts happening all over the globe. This is not only an issue happening in poor countries, it is happening all across the spectrum. The burgeoning conflict over the Colorado river in western United States is just one example. Although, surely not an exhaustive list, adelphi, an independent think tank and public policy consultancy on climate, environment and development compiled a list of 10 Violent Water Conflicts: (https://www.newclimateforpeace.org/blog/editor%E2%80%99s-pick-10-violent-water-conflicts).
1. Dispute over water in the Nile Basin
The Nile basin features significant conflict over access to and rights over the Nile water resources among its eleven riparian countries. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), founded by 9 out of 10 riparian countries in 1999 with backing from major donor institutions, has achieved some successes in its attempts to strengthen cooperation. Yet, since 2007, diverging interests between upstream and downstream countries have brought negotiations to a standstill, pitting Egypt (and, to a lesser extent, Sudan) against upstream riparians, especially Ethiopia. In 2015, trilateral negotiations between these countries over a major dam under construction in Ethiopia led to a framework agreement that may, in time, prepare the ground for a broader agreement.
2. Water shortages and public discontent in Yemen
As a consequence of severe mismanagement, Yemen’s water availability is declining dramatically. The impacts on the people are unequally distributed, and corruption and nepotism are at the core of this imbalance. This has increasingly frustrated the disadvantaged, with water scarcity playing a role in fuelling the political and security crisis in Yemen.
3. Turkey, Syria and Iraq: conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris
The Euphrates-Tigris Basin is shared between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, with Iran comprising parts of the Tigris basin. Since the 1960s, unilateral irrigation plans altering the flows of the rivers, coupled with political tensions between the countries, have strained relations in the basin. Disputes have prevented the three governments from effectively co-managing the basin’s rivers. Although cooperation efforts were renewed in the 2000s, these have yet to result in a formal agreement on managing the basin waters.
4. Transboundary water disputes between Afghanistan and Iran
Afghanistan’s efforts to harness the waters of the Helmand River and the Harirud to support post-conflict reconstruction and development have alarmed Iran. The Iranian government perceives Afghanistan’s agricultural expansion and dam construction activities as threats to water security in its eastern and northeastern provinces. With a largely ineffective water treaty in place, cooperative initiatives have not yet achieved a breakthrough. Afghanistan’s reluctance to engage in water negotiations, coupled with Iran’s alleged “paradoxical” activities of support vs. disruption, have further complicated the resolution of transboundary water disputes between the two countries.
5. Dam projects and disputes in the Mekong River Basin
The Mekong basin is witnessing an enormous expansion of dam-building for hydropower generation, especially in China and Laos. This has led to diplomatic tensions as countries downstream of the dams fear the negative impacts they may bring about, from greater flooding to seasonal lack of water. The Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) effectiveness in resolving these tensions has so far been limited due to its lack of enforcement powers and China’s reluctance to join as a full member. Instead of joining the MRC, China is trying to engage with downstream riparians by proposing alternative institutional mechanisms and offering assistance for dam construction downstream in the Lower Mekong basin. However, without more formalized cooperation, especially between the lower riparians and China, contemporary dam-building activities might continue to act as a destabilizing force in the Mekong River Basin.
6. Dispute over water in the Cauvery Basin in India
The long-standing conflict over water from the Cauvery River between the Indian states Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has recently resurfaced in the context of drier climate conditions. The implications are not only legal battles, but also violent protests following decisions to alter water distribution between the two states.
7. Droughts, livestock prices and armed conflict in Somalia
Frequent droughts in Somalia put significant pressures on pastoral livelihoods. Droughts cause herders to sell more of their livestock than they would under normal conditions, resulting in plummeting livestock prices and deteriorating rural incomes. Widespread poverty and lack of economic alternatives, in turn, provide incentives for illicit activities and for joining armed groups such as Al Shabaab, which offer cash revenues and other benefits to their fighters. Especially the record drought of 2011 is believed to have swelled the ranks of the militant Islamist group.
8. Turkey-Armenia: Water cooperation despite tensions
The Turkish-Armenian case is a prominent example of how two co-riparians can put their tensions aside, work together in their mutual interest, and share transboundary waters equitably.
9. Security implications of growing water scarcity in Egypt
Egypt is currently using more water than its internal renewable resources - mainly based on Nile fresh water inflows - supply. Water stress in Egypt is expected to further increase in the future as a result of rapid population growth, rising temperatures and increasing water consumption. If not properly dealt with, growing freshwater scarcity will put severe strains on Egypt’s economy and make the country more vulnerable to renewed internal strife. Moreover, it risks putting increasing pressure on Egypt’s diplomatic relations with other states along the Nile.
10. Water privatisation in Cochabamba, Bolivia
In 2000, privatisation of the drinking water in Cochabamba incurred violent protests and escalated into the so-called ‘Water War of Cochabamba’, which killed at least nine people. Eventually, the city’s water was renationalised and access to water received new legal backing. However, dwindling water supplies induced by global climate change, over-consumption and technological deficiencies continue to heavily strain the city of Cochabamba.