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. According to data maintained by the Pacific Institute, the incidence of water-related conflict has doubled over the last decade.
However, it would be naive to attribute water-related conflicts to scarcity alone. Near neighbours, whether villages or nation states, have a predilection for disagreement on any issue. Water has become a global security issue due to evidence that weak governance or regional political tensions can overwhelm the basic logistics of water management.
There are many studies suggesting that the Syrian conflict had 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. An obvious vulnerability is the River Jordan which supplies water to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Syria.
Within the Middle East’s most serious recent turbulence in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, there is constant vigilance over any reports that civilian water supplies have been the target of violent attacks. Alleged examples include the actions of Turkey in Kurdish areas of Syria. Such violence would constitute a breach of international law, a provision that contributed to the International Criminal Court’s successful indictment of Omar al-Bashir, the former ruler of Sudan.
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 north-south river-linking project, given that 54 out of India’s 56 rivers pass through Bangladesh.
In Southeast Asia, concerns centre on the impact of a sequence of dams on the Mekong River under construction in Laos, combined with China’s management of 21 dams on the upper Mekong. Potentially significant downstream impacts in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam range from the degradation of ecosystems to human displacement and loss of livelihoods.
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. The Commission lacks powers of enforcement and has been unable to persuade Laos to scale back its proposals.
Similar impotence has been the experience of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), established in 1999 to coordinate the interests of no fewer than ten countries that share the resources of the River Nile. Egypt, historically the dominant partner, believes that filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will undermine agriculture in the Nile Delta. In recent failed attempts to facilitate a negotiated solution, mediation was conducted by the African Union.
more Water Scarcity briefings (updated May 2021)
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Solutions to Water Scarcity
Sustainable Development Goal for Water
Source material and useful links