The potential risk of conflict arising over water resources has become a key topic in development over the past two decades. Water is often shared between several riparians, as rivers, groundwater lakes or streams flow across administrative boundaries and may lead to transboundary conflict scenarios. Although to date no military conflict between states over water resources has arisen, conflicts over water do occur frequently on the sub-national level in developing countries, centered on disputes such as on water rights, animal water provision or sectoral competition over water resources (e.g. hydropower and agricultural water use). However, there have also been ample attempts to counter conflict scenarios, such as integrated water management options, with the aim of economic and political cooperation by local and regional actors.
In August 1995, the then Vice-President of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, issued a widely quoted statement in the New York Times that “the wars of the next century will be about water”. The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan echoed his argument in 2001, stressing that “fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future”. On the academic side, numerous academic publications have been devoted to the topic to investigate the link between water scarcity and military conflict. Although some analysts have warned over the looming risk of future water wars, no armed military conflict over water has fortunately arisen thus far.
Allan (1995) explained the absence of conflict in a highly water-stressed region such as the Middle East with the availability of “traded virtual water”, i.e. water embedded in food commodities that balances out a negative water budget in an economy through food and thus water imports. The Pacific Institute has compiled a list of 225 past conflicts over water resources, covering up till 2011. However, scientists of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) further scrutinized past conflicts that have been connected with water resources and found several other possible reasons for each conflict scenario. In a nutshell, the grim scenarios and assumptions over water scarcity have thus far not led to military conflict between states and their armies. Nonetheless, the potential for conflict between countries remains. Egypt, for example, has threatened Ethiopia with military action over the Nile waters since the 1970s leading to sometimes tense diplomatic disputes between Cairo and Addis Ababa. A major issue of concern has been the dispute over Ethiopia’s intention to make more use of its hydropower potential, which would mean greater alteration of Blue Nile water for energy purposes.
Sub-national water conflict
In contrast to regional conflicts, sub-national clashes over water resources have frequently occurred in developing countries with strong tribal societies. For example, South Sudan has witnessed several so-called “cattle raids” where pastoralists have clashed over access of cattle herds to drinking water during the dry season, which have left several hundreds dead over the past decades.
From conflict to cooperation
However, potential or looming conflict over water resources has also led to the promotion of frameworks of greater cooperation between riparians. In particular, the establishment of river basin commissions has marked a response to conflict over shared water resources, often being the initial political attempt to introduce the functionalist paradigm in international relations to integrate formerly conflicting state actors in a supra-national institutional setting. For example, the Nile Basin Initiative, the Rhine Commission and the Mekong River Commission have been founded by riparian states to cooperate on mutual interests in water management.
Development agencies have supported such efforts to establish supra-national institutions through capacity development programmes in order to scale-up knowledge and skills, and to find ways to cooperate over shared water resources on many political levels. The role of water governance plays a major role in mitigating conflict scenarios. Effective and efficient water governance can also aide political and economic cooperation across administrative borders, vis-à-vis the model of European economic cooperation promoted since the end of the Second World War.
On the sub-national level, small technical interventions such as water-spreading weirs have provided effective ways to increase water availability during the dry season in addition to rehabilitating degraded soils. The sub-national level is furthermore addressed through concepts such as rural territorial development that holistically address economic development on all levels to enable economic development in areas where local populations may clash over an inadequate supply of water resources. Such conflicts are addressed in development projects across developing regions such as Sub-Sahara Africa, e.g. through water-spreading weirs or drinking water canals for cattle, to mitigate conflict. Moreover, the implementation, transparency and accountability of water rights play a major role to mitigate conflict over water resources in agricultural water management in development strategies. As the water conflict database compiled by the Pacific Institute affirms, most conflicts occur on the sub-national level; hence it is at this level where concepts such as IWRM, rural territorial development or transboundary water management have been developed to address the challenges resulting from conflict over water resources.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 A.T. Wolf. (1998). Conflict and Cooperation Along International Waterways." Water Policy. Vol. 1 and 2, 1998. pp. 251-265.
- ↑ Wilson Center. (2004). Water, Conflict, and Cooperation. Available online: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/ecspr10_unf-caribelko.pdf (accessed 30.12.2012).
- ↑ P.H. Gleick. (1994). Water, war, and peace in the Middle East. In Environment Vol. 36, No. 3, pp.6-on. Heldref Publishers, Washington.
- ↑ M. Ramahan (2012). Water Wars in the 21st century: speculation or reality. In International Journal of Sustainable Society 2012 Vol. 4 No. 1/2.
- ↑ J.A. Allan. (1995). Hydro-Peace in the Middle East: Why no Water Wars? A Case Study of the Jordan River Basin. Available online: http://www.soas.ac.uk/water/publications/papers/file38388.pdf (accessed 30.12.2012).
- ↑ Pacific Institute. (2011). Water Conflict Chronology Timeline. Available online: http://www.worldwater.org/conflict/timeline/ (accessed 30.12.2012).
- ↑ International Water Management Institute. (2010). Success Stories. Available online: http://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/Publications/Success_Stories/index.aspx (accessed 30.12.2012).
- ↑ Al Jazeera. (2010). Ethiopia PM warns of Nile war. Available online: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2010/11/20101124152728280839.html (accessed 30.12.2012).
- ↑ American University. (2011). ICE Case Study Number 274 December, 2011. Available online: http://www1.american.edu/ted/ICE/jonglei.html (accessed 30.12.2012).
- ↑ Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit. (2011). Water wars: reality or science fiction? Available online: http://www.giz.de/en/mediacenter/632.html (accessed 30.12.2012).
UNESCO International Hydrological Programme Case Studies