Water Wars: Fact or Fiction?

Genevieve Donnellon-May | Climate Change Fellow

Image Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia

In recent decades, there has been much speculation over the possibility of water-related conflict, particularly between countries over transboundary water resources. Transboundary waters are the aquifers and lake and river basins shared by two or more countries. Transboundary waters account for 60 percent of the world’s freshwater flows. In total, 153 countries have territory within at least one of the 286 transboundary river and lake basins and 592 transboundary aquifer systems.


In an era of growing water stress, poorly managed transboundary water supplies are considered to have the potential to cause significant socio-economic unrest within countries and between countries. As the actions in one country have consequences in another, this has led to the looming spectre of ’water wars’. While water conflict remains a possibility, albeit a smaller one than depicted by the media, a greater concern is the poor management of water resources and additional pressures which worsen water insecurity and related concerns.


Who perpetuates the water wars narrative?


A major driver of the so-called water wars narrative is the media which often uses sensationalist headlines and fearmongering tactics to attract readers. This can be seen in the media of countries worldwide, where recent headlines include “Water wars: Turkey needs to share Euphrates-Tigris waters with Iraq and Syria” and “Are water wars next? What are the implications for India?”.


Yet the media is not alone in creating the impression of future water wars. Various high-ranking officials from leading international organizations have made statements about future water conflicts. Notably, three successive United Nations (UN) Secretary-Generals – Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan, and Ban Ki Moon – and along with a former World Bank vice president and various politicians have all issued warnings over the potential for water conflicts in the future. Think tanks, books, organizations, reports, and Wikileaks cables have also identified water conflict and risks associated with water crises, especially in the case of transboundary water basins.


Upstream-downstream tensions


Further complicating matters, there is often geopolitical tension between the upstream and downstream countries. Although not a new concept, upstream-downstream tensions are frequently linked to broader historical, socio-economic, territorial, religious, and/or political disputes. This is not restricted to one area, rather it is found throughout the world.


Generally speaking, upstream countries have more power over the water resources than downstream countries. The most powerful actor may also use various tools like coercion, military force, and bargaining power to support its claims to and uses of shared water resources.


In some cases, this can occur at the detriment of other countries which share the water resources as they may fear of water shortages and of conflicts between each other to secure water resources. Examples of upstream-tension tension worldwide include between Egypt and Ethiopia, between China against India, and between Turkey and Syria and Iraq.


Cooperation over conflict


While this may appear incredibly worrisome, the water wars narrative has also been debunked. To date no country has fought a war over water resources.


Various academics have repeatedly stressed that access to water is not the main reason for war. Notably, Professor Aaron Wolf’s Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database which shows that countries have not gone to war exclusively over water. Other academics have noted that water conflict can coexist at different variations of intensity and scales alongside various forms of cooperation.


However, it should be noted that water infrastructure may be victim to bigger political conflict as demonstrated by examples in Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine.


Water-stressed regions


While there are many more cases of cooperation over conflict, thereby debunking the water wars narrative, it is undeniable that many regions in the world are water-stressed. This puts additional pressure on the sharing of water resources between countries, further challenging existing water management practices.


According to the United Nations, half of the countries worldwide will face water shortages or stress by 2025. By then, nearly 1.8 billion people will live in areas with absolute water scarcity, while two-thirds of the world population could face water-stressed conditions. Furthermore, by 2050, as much as 75 percent of the global population may be affected by water scarcity. For instance, the U.N. estimates that between 4.8 to 5.7 billion people could live in areas with water shortages for at least one month a year by 2050.


While some water scarce countries like Saudi Arabia have made significant progress in improving water management, it is an expensive process and requires, long-term planning.


Climate change impacts and other pressures


Other factors such as climate change impacts, including extreme weather events, exacerbate poor water management. A telling example of this is the ‘summer from hell’ where a number of countries suffered climate change-related extreme weather events including floods in Pakistan and droughts in China, the US, and Europe, causing significant socio-economic and humanitarian costs. Rapid population growth, urbanization, and concomitant water demands are additionally placing pressure on water resources, especially in developing countries.


Looking ahead


While the water wars narrative may lack historical evidence, it is undeniable that interlinked concerns of rapid population growth and urbanization combined with growing demands and climate change impacts for water further challenge poor water management in the countries. These many stressors in the context of increasing geopolitical instability and regional tensions, particularly in water-stressed regions like Africa and Asia and between countries, mean that a water war or water conflict cannot be ruled out.


To avoid additional water challenges and to ensure water security, countries must improve their water management at all scales (national, regional, and local) by using water demand management practices alongside the use of alternative water supplies.


Genevieve Donnellon-May is the Climate Change Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.