Debating Water Wars

Debating Water Wars

Seed Magazine has an interesting roundtable discussion about whether or not conflicts over fresh water are a significant threat to international stability (and whether water shortages are even a cause of war).  The introduction to the discussion notes the case being made that water shortages have been and will increasigly be a source of violent conflict:

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.

However, this is not the final word, but rather the opening of a debate on the relationship of water shortages to conflict, trade, and development:

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.”

And, all this before the seven experts even begin their discussion!  Check it out.

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Foreign Relations Law, General, Trade & Economic Law
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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Given the water wars in the history of the western states and the battles about having Great Lake water (Toledo is right near Lake Erie) the issue of freshwater is definitely a high potential issue for conflict.  I can remember a dam dispute about downstream water between India and Bangladesh a few years ago.  And there is the ICJ case between Spain and France on the duty to take into account the interests of other states (though not necessarily to inform) on states about what they are going to do with waterways that are common.  Danube is another example.

The Nile Basin Initiative always seemed to me a very interesting structure with a “technical commission” that was appropriately named to keep down the political aspects of water battles.



I expect there to also be mass water conflicts in east Asia, where China and Japan are diverting huge amounts of water for manufacturing and hydroelectric power. One need only look at the Three Gorges situation to see this. There’s a lot of information about it over on Asia Chronicle,


I think there’s a distinction that needs to be drawn here, between the situation where State A has water and State B doesn’t, but State A’s water is sufficient for sustenance purposes for both State A’s and State B’s populations; and the situation where State A has water and State B doesn’t, but the amount of State A’s water is insufficient to meet the basic needs of both populations.

In the first scenario, Barnaby is probably right insofar as (s)he suggests that State B’s water shortage can be (and is) overcome by trade and cooperation. However, where there is a shortage of water in one state, and no other state has surplus water that can be given away, no agreement or cooperation can solve this problem. Conflict, it seems to me, is inevitable.