History is replete with water conflict, from squabbles between neighbouring farms to wars decided by cutting off, or poisoning, a water supply.
Fear of water wars pervades the modern era. The ingredients are certainly there – the mega-dam technology that denies supplies to downstream countries, the location of major rivers in regions already convulsed by conflict, and the relentless shift towards water scarcity on a global scale.
These conditions load the potential to trigger a chain of instability that ferments violence – food insecurity, internal displacement and cross-border migration. Water scarcity has become a global security issue out of fears that weak governance or regional political tensions will fail to prevent the tipping point into conflict.
For example, there are many studies which suggest that the Syrian conflict has its origins in the country’s rapid expansion of agriculture, at the expense of water security. The Middle East and North Africa region is constantly at the mercy of unstable water governance. Another example is the River Jordan which supplies water to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Syria.
Management of a transboundary river is a zero sum game; if one country gains in distribution rights, another loses. Bangladesh is almost bound to challenge Indian schemes such as the river-linking project, given that 54 out of India’s 56 rivers pass through Bangladesh.
No fewer than eleven countries share the resources of the River Nile and they are currently in dispute. The dominant user, Egypt, believes that filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will exacerbate its own sensitive water scarcity.
There is nothing new about such disputes. Water conflict resolution mechanisms are commonplace around the world, including the Nile Basin Initiative.
In Southeast Asia, the Mekong River Commission is an inter-governmental agency formed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to further their interests of shared water resources of the Mekong River. Concern over the impact of a sequence of dams under construction in Laos, combined with that country’s refusal to act on the Commission’s reservations, dominates the current agenda. The Commission also maintains dialogue with China whose 21 dams on the upper Mekong represent a further cause of anxiety.
more Water Scarcity briefings (updated April 2018)
Water Energy Food Nexus
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Solutions to Water Scarcity
Sustainable Development Goal for Water
Access to Safe Water
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