Conflicting claims to shared inland water resources

International water disputes

The quantity and quality of available water resources for human, animal and plant consumption is limited and fixed. Population increase, technological advances and higher standards of living make the competition for securing water supplies a vital issue. National sovereignty over these waters allows a state to divert waters while in its territory, often causing injury to other states sharing the same resource. Problems are, therefore, increasing over the use of such shared inland water resources, and disputes are present in many parts of the world.


There are more than 250 surface international drainage basins or international aquifers; that is, those underground waters shared between two or more states. There are at least 10 rivers passing through six or more countries. International agreements for sharing the benefits deriving from these waters are few. As a consequence, the potential for conflicts cannot but increase. The Indus, Ganges, Brahma Putra, Arvand Roud, Sind, underground water tables between Mexico and the USA, the Nile, Danube, Euphrates, Tigris and Jordan river basins are examples of problem areas where disputes over water are potential or real.

Israel's siege to occupy the Golan Heights in 1967 was to gain control of the water divide. Another examples of recent water wars is a conflict over use of water between nomads and local tankers in Mali where 1000 people were killed.

[Middle East / South-West Asia] Many countries in the Middle East share water catchments with their neighbouring countries. In the Middle East, the water crisis focuses on the three rivers of the region (Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan). A similar situtaion pervades in the dry Central Asian region which could act as a catalyst for confrontations among newly independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, expanding the extent of the crisis in lands beyond the northern regions of the Persian Gulf.

The Tigris and Euphrates both originate in Turkey claims that Syria and Iraq take more than their allotted amount of water from the rivers as compared to how much each country contributes to the rivers' flows. Thus Turkey began constructing a major series of dams to control the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The Southeast Anatolia Project consists of 15 dams, 14 hydroelectric stations and 19 irrigation projects. Maybe to prove its capacity for controlling Syria's and Iraq's access to the life-sustaining waters of the two rivers or maybe just to fill the largest of the Project's dams, Turkey cut off the water flow for 29 days in 1990. Iraq and Syria effectively tabled their mutual disagreements and colluded in 1998 to resist the construction of the Southeast Anatolia Project in Turkey. Syria began construction of the Al-Thawra dam. These and other plans to develop water resources have become part of Iraq's national security issue.

It is predicted that the amount of water in Iran would decrease to between 776 and 860 cubic meters a year per capita. This is very low and will certainly cause serious problems for the Iranians, given the current rate of population growth.

The Arab oil rich countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are five out of nine countries in the world that have the least per capita water resources. At present, 60 percent of water desalination capacity of the world have been concentrated in the Persian Gulf. The water desalination capacity in Saudi Arabia alone accounts for 30 percent of the overall capacity of the world. Kuwait and most of other Arab emirates rely on desalinating sea waters in order to meet their needs for sweet waters. They can only do this by reliance on their oil reserves. For US troops stationed in desert lands bordering Kuwait and Iraq in 1991, the theoretical cost of supplying water was much more than that for oil. Indeed water is now replacing oil as the focal point of political, economic and social decisions made in the Middle Eastern countries.

The huge water desalination plants of the Persian Gulf -- each nearly the size of a small town -- are candidates for hostile attacks. In addition to the potential risk of sabotage in these installations, the use of these systems in the region would endanger the national security of the consuming countries because of their technical dependence on Western countries. This vulnerability will become more serious in those countries where water desalination equipment is the sole source of supplying water and its replacement at a short period of time is not possible. Although this danger may not arise under normal conditions, it can be used as a means for exerting political and social pressure by the countries manufacturing these systems at times of crises.

[Europe] In 1995, the Spanish government begun work on an extensive network of dams and canals to divert water from its lush, verdant north to its dry south. The draft plan was not consulted with Portugal, where most of the rivers Spain wants to tap feed into. Flow of one of the major rivers, Douro, was already cut by drought and Spanish consumption by 25% since 1975. Possible climatic changes, decrease of hydroelectrical power supply and pollution resulted into Lisbon's decision to take its case to the European Union. Climatic changes resulting from the Spanish dam network could hurt the production of Port wine, an industry that accounts for 1.8% of Portugal's exports.


In order to cope with this problem, states should accept the principle of limited territorial sovereignty over the shared water resources located on or under their territories, and thus refrain from acting unilaterally without consulting and/or cooperating with other basin states.


It is unrealistic to expect states to accept the principle of limited territorial sovereignty over the shared water resources located in their territories.

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(D) Detailed problems