Former World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin predicted in 1995 that “the wars of the next century will be about water.”
It was a bold assertion, anchored in human behaviors that have led to a growing scarcity of clean water in some of the most contentious political zones in the world.
Predictions of wars between nations over water have not come to pass. But there is no shortage of battles over this essential resource. Bitter conflicts over water at the subnational level already take a fierce toll on human life and welfare—and could grow into something more deadly.
Concern over “water wars” writ large has gained renewed traction as climate change, continued population growth, and increasingly polluted waterways pose growing risks to the world’s water. It remains a go-to concept, no matter what the facts are.
“We’re seeing some of the same headlines we’ve been trying to knock down for going on 30 years,” says Geoff Dabelko, former director and current senior advisor to the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program. “Despite the seemingly irresistible temptation for politicians and headline writers to proclaim otherwise, countries have not fought wars over water.”
Researchers have put the notion of "water wars" to the test. An analysis in the 1990s of 263 international water basins conducted by Aaron Wolf, Shira Yoffe, and colleagues at Oregon State University found conclusively that states are much more likely to cooperate over shared water than go to war. In fact, while water may be one of many factors influencing skirmishes between states, wars have rarely, if ever, been fought over water. To date, this finding continues to be backed up by empirical studies.
Dabelko says that the implications of clinging to the broad concept of “water wars” between nations comes at a cost. “When we focus so heavily on potential interstate wars over water,” he says, “we miss the mark on how important water is to fostering cooperation, to achieving development goals, and to managing the inevitable tensions over competing uses for water at local levels.”
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t large scale battles over water looming. Some of them are right in our own backyard. Last year, research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) inspired a new spate of headlines about coming “water wars.”
"Water wars" remain a go-to concept, no matter what the facts are.
The JRC researchers analyzed historical records of conflict and cooperation over transboundary water to identify the factors most relevant to “hydro-political interactions,” or transboundary conflict or cooperation over water. Then, they mapped those factors—water availability, population density, power imbalances, and climatic stressors, among others—against future climate and population projections.
The result? The centre’s researchers identified five “hotspot” water basins where demographic and climatic conditions will increase “hydro-political risk” in already stressed basins.
Four of those hotspot basins might not come as a surprise: the Nile, the Ganges/Brahmaputra, the Indus, and the Tigris/Euphrates. But the fifth should bring a healthy dose of reality for those of us sitting in the United States: the Colorado River basin.
The Dynamics of Water Conflicts
The case of the Colorado River underscores the cross-boundary risks of a water crisis. The basin has been a source of contention for nearly 100 years, since California began lobbying for the Hoover Dam to secure the state’s water supply. While most of the water originates in the upper basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico), a majority of the demand is generated in the lower basin states (California, Nevada, and Arizona)—and in Mexico. In the United States, more than 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland rely on the basin for water.
The water levels in the Colorado basin have fallen to dangerously low levels—and the future looks even more bleak. With temperatures in the basin projected to increase by 5 degrees Fahrenheit by midcentury, research estimates put the reduction in water flow of the river at 20 percent or more in the same time period.
At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that compared to 1995 population numbers, the basin states’ populations will increase by more than 50 percent. Without immediate action, scientists anticipate that within five years, the reservoirs will be at such low levels that water supply to downriver cities, like Phoenix, Los Angeles, Tucson, and San Diego will be disrupted.
Yet the steps taken to forge agreement over the Colorado River basin also demonstrate the power of water to bring neighboring governments together, not apart.
In May of this year, following years of negotiation and collaboration, the seven basin states in the U.S., the United States Bureau of Reclamation, and Mexico signed the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). The DCP aims to protect water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead by reducing water usage across the basin.
“Drought is the new normal, and this legislation is an important step in securing sustainable water supplies throughout the Southwest, and minimizing future conflicts and litigation,” said Senator Tom Udall (New Mexico) in a press release announcing bipartisan legislation to ensure the plan’s implementation.
The DCP is just one step in managing the many challenges facing the basin. But it also illustrates the findings generated by Wolf, Yoffe, and others. While the assumption is often that scarcity drives conflict, cases like the Colorado River basin demonstrate that scarcity has actually incentivized cooperation.
“It turns out that conflict increases when there’s more to fight over,” says Scott Moore, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins. “In the case of the Colorado, interstate conflict has tended to spike in response to competition for federal funding to build dams, irrigation systems, and other water infrastructure.”
Variability in a basin, and not scarcity, turns out to be a more accurate indicator of potential conflict. Sudden changes in the physical nature of a basin or its governance (the creation of a new country, for example), and the institutional capacity to absorb those changes, is more likely to lead to increased tensions and hostility between parties.
Often, these changes take the form of a large infrastructure project, like the development of a large dam by one country without consideration of the impact on downstream neighbors. Ultimately, geography takes a backseat to governance when it comes to determining the conflict or peace outcomes of a water source.
This is small comfort in an era of unprecedented climatic change. It also leads to a prudent question: Will the future of conflicts over water look like the past? Between climatic change and explosive population growth in many of the world’s most vulnerable regions, is it reasonable to assume that countries will continue to cooperate over shared water?
“On one side, the drivers to cooperate—optimizing the benefits and managing increasing variability—will be greater than ever,” says Aaron Salzberg, who until recently led U.S. foreign policy on transboundary water at the Department of State. “But on the other, water’s growing value as a strategic asset that can have a direct impact on national security will make it a red-line that many countries will seek to protect.”
And this logic may extend past mere protection. As countries face rising water insecurity, will water be used as a coercive tool to achieve other strategic objectives?
Another hotspot identified by the JRC researchers might be useful to examine. For nearly 60 years, the Indus Water Treaty has governed India and Pakistan’s management of the Indus River Basin’s rivers and tributaries. “The Indus Waters Treaty has done a remarkable job managing India-Pakistan water tensions,” says Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program. “After all, India and Pakistan have fought multiple wars, but they’ve never fought a war over water.”
Yet Kugelman observes that India’s status as the upper riparian may give it the potential to use the treaty as a “pressure point” against Pakistan. Just a few months ago, India threatened Pakistan’s water supply in retaliation for a suicide bombing carried out by a Pakistan-based terrorist group that killed more than 40 Indian police officers in Kashmir. And in fact, India has, at multiple points in the treaty’s history, threatened to withdraw from the treaty.
“For Islamabad, the nightmare scenario would be a decision by New Delhi to revoke the treaty at a time of deep tensions in India-Pakistan relations,” says Kugelman. “Even the mere threat of revoking the treaty would be enough to send shock waves through Islamabad. This is because backing out of the accord would give India carte blanche to stop the Indus River—Pakistan’s most important water source—from flowing downstream.”
Such a step might also have costs to India that would prevent it from ever being taken, however. “To be sure, building the dams and other structures necessary to bottle up river flows would take India a lot of time, and given India’s geography, this may cause so much flooding in India that it wouldn’t be worth the effort,” says Kugelman. “Also, India, which wants to be taken seriously by the world as a responsible rising power, may not want to face the international opprobrium resulting from a decision to unilaterally withdraw from an international treaty. And yet, these considerations don’t make India’s potential abrogation of the treaty less unsettling for water-insecure Pakistan. In fact, Islamabad would likely regard such a move as a hostile act.”
The Big Ripples of Local Politics
Nations see the strategic advantages and challenges of water on a grand scale. But human beings experience issues of water supply—both availability and quality—at an intensely personal level.
Water is inextricably linked to people’s livelihoods, to their health and well-being, and ultimately, to security. While countries may not go to war over water, people lose their lives every day because of bad water management, diminished access to safe water, and yes, even violent conflict over water in their own community.
Today there are 2.2 billion people without access to safely-managed drinking water, and 4.2 billion people who lack sanitation services. Put another way, every third person on the planet lacks safe drinking water, and half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to safe sanitation. More than 297,000 children under five die every year from diarrheal diseases. It is a fact that bears repeating: more than 297,000 children under five—more than 800 per day—die every year from diarrheal diseases.
In places experiencing violent conflict, water insecurity is heightened by the destruction of infrastructure and interruption of vital services. According to UNICEF, children younger than 15 who live in areas where there are protracted conflicts are nearly three times more likely to die from diarrheal disease—as a result of unsafe water and sanitation—than from the violence of a protracted conflict.
These statistics are even bleaker for children under five years of age, who are over 20 times more likely to die from diarrheal disease linked to unsafe water and sanitation in a conflict zone than they are from a bullet. In real numbers, the figures are stark. UNICEF found that on average, 85,700 children under the age of 15 died from unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene, as compared to 30,900 deaths from conflict per year from 2014 to 2016.
And, again, scarcity is only part of the story. In South Sudan, five years of civil war left 400,000 people dead, another 4 million displaced, vital critical infrastructure in ruins, and a stark humanitarian crisis. Fully 80 percent of the country lacks access to clean water. Yet as Bel Trew, Middle Eastern correspondent for The Independent, observed in a dispatch from the region: “Officials in South Sudan’s water authority say there is more than enough water to serve the population of just 10 million.” What is lacking in South Sudan, she continued, is the “capacity to build permanent water infrastructure for people or livestock.”
As countries face rising water insecurity, will water be used as a coercive tool to achieve other strategic objectives?
Getting help to places made water-insecure by conflict is difficult. Aid organizations are hampered in their efforts to respond by limited resources to access remote areas and ongoing insecurity. Competition between such communities for water is ratcheting up as well, with increased violence between farmers and herders in Africa’s Sudano-Sahel region, and against the women and children who are often the ones tasked with the long walk to collect water.
Water infrastructure is often an indirect casualty of war, but increasingly, water and energy infrastructure are targeted by armed groups seeking to undermine communities’ resilience. This was the case in South Sudan, for instance. And there are reports of this tactic being used elsewhere, including Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Kenya, and Palestine. This can have long-lasting impacts that undermine a country’s ability to rebuild and provide essential services to its citizens after a conflict.
“When water becomes a weapon, we’ve essentially increased the vulnerability of infrastructure, the vulnerability of communities,” says Erika Weinthal, a professor of environmental politics and environmental security at Duke University. “Especially where there are protracted conflicts, like those in the Middle East, the repeated cycles of direct and indirect targeting of critical infrastructure exacts a heavy cost on human welfare and livelihoods.”
A report from VICE news last year described how protesters were shot and killed in the Iraqi city of Basra during a demonstration sparked by water shortages and contaminated water. Layered on top of high unemployment, limited public services, and extremely high temperatures, protesters were responding to an outbreak of contaminated water that left hundreds hospitalized.
Deteriorating water quality on the Tigris and Euphrates, two rivers on which Iraq is heavily dependent for farming and drinking water, results in part from dams in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. With freshwater levels in those rivers reduced by the dams upstream, sea water from the Southern Persian Gulf infiltrated the canals and streams with devastating impacts for farms in the area. This also contributed to the contamination of drinking water for over 2 million residents of the city of Basra and helped fuel the protests.
Examples like this exist all over the world. As communities contend with poor water management and uncertainty in supply and quality, the conflict that arises—from rising tensions to violent altercations—is most acutely experienced at the local level.
Water, Cooperation, and Peace
When Ismail Serageldin predicted 25 years ago that the wars of our century would be over water, he likely didn’t imagine that such a conflict would be so long in coming.
Thankfully, that war has not come to pass. But the connections between water, conflict, and cooperation are real, and they are already playing out all over the globe.
For instance, observing that concerns over interstate water conflicts often obscure intense local-level violence and water insecurity does not mean we should look past key questions about water’s effect on international security. In fact, the two are often connected.
Take migration, for example. While the decision to move is most often the result of a combination of complex and interconnected political, social, economic, demographic, and environmental drivers, flooding and drought are increasingly playing a driving role in these choices. In 2017, nearly 19 million people were internally displaced by extreme weather events—including drought and flooding— as compared to 12 million people internally displaced by conflict and violence.
High rates of criminal violence have spurred a dramatic increase in migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. But the impact of drought on the region’s smallholder agriculture, on which people are heavily dependent for their livelihoods, should not be overlooked. Increased temperatures and record-breaking droughts have devastated crops in the Northern Triangle. Climate change has also contributed to an outbreak of coffee rust disease that has desiccated coffee crops across the region.
And finally, even when nations do cooperate over water, agreements between nations can complicate water management at the local level. “The very transboundary agreements that we applaud for preventing conflict at the regional level may, in fact, exacerbate conflicts over water at the local level,” says Ken Conca, a professor of global environmental governance at American University. “The Mekong River Commission, for example, has brought the countries of the region together to talk about ‘sustainable’ management of the river system. But to date it has done more to enable dam building in the basin than to hold it up to serious environmental scrutiny, putting the resource-based livelihoods of tens of millions downstream in jeopardy.”
The future of water seems inextricably linked to conflict and competition. But focusing solely on the conflict risk of water can undermine the very solutions that address those risks. Such an approach puts the military and security community in the drivers’ seat—to the detriment of other key partners.
Addressing water insecurity requires a multi-sectoral approach that is inclusive of aid agencies, international financial institutions, diplomatic engagement, private sector innovation, as well as the military. When water is recognized as a tool for peace and diplomacy, for economic prosperity, and a cornerstone of healthy communities, and the actions taken to secure water resources reflect that vision, the future looks quite different.
“The very transboundary agreements that we applaud for preventing conflict at the regional level may, in fact, exacerbate conflicts over water at the local level."
Changing the narrative on water and conflict can have an important impact on the outcome. While the researchers at Oregon State University were developing the database that recognized cooperation as the more common outcome from shared water, a wider community of researchers, including Dabelko, Weinthal, and Conca, began to think about what happens when we recognize water as a tool for cooperation, rather than conflict.
They found that focusing on water management as an avenue for peace helps facilitate dialogue between nations, even when there are broader disputes between those nations; that cooperation over water creates people-to-people and expert-to-expert connections that can reverberate through governing agencies and institutions; and that a peacemaking approach to water can foster a shared sense of identity and institutionalize cooperation on issues beyond water.
Behind the frightening headlines of “water wars,” real work is being done to anticipate and mitigate future water conflicts, both between and within nations. The Wilson Center is collaborating with NOAA and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research to develop a framework to improve predictive capabilities for security risks posed by extreme weather events, including drought and flooding. The framework prioritizes alignment and sustained engagement across the U.S. government, and seeks increased and better coordination between all stakeholders.
While the future of “water wars” remains unclear, we do have many of the tools needed to address today’s most pressing water challenges. Around the world, significant expertise, development experience, and private sector innovation could be better harnessed and propelled by political will to do the things that prevent conflict. We can provide clean water to the millions of people who don’t currently have access to it, and ensure that countries and populations protect and manage their water resources in a way that encourages sustainable economic prosperity.
Lauren Risi (@Lauren_Risi) directs the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, which is housed in the Global Risk and Resilience Program. Risi has authored and edited a number of publications, and is the managing editor of New Security Beat; co-producer of the "Backdraft" and "Water Stories" podcast series; and managing producer of the animated short, "Water, Conflict, and Cooperation."
Cover photo: A protestor hurls a Molotov cocktail during protests in September 2018 in Basra, Iraq. Obtaining clean and accessible water is a key challenge in the city. AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani