Learn more about past, present, and future causes of water conflict from around the world and how we can work towards avoiding them. See our timeline on the major water conflicts throughout world history and the regions which spark concern for future disputes between nation states.
By 2040, the global demand for freshwater resources will exceed availability according to The National Intelligence Council’s report on Global Water Security (2012).
The report acknowledges that large-scale water wars are unlikely to happen within the next ten years, but water-related challenges such as shortages and sanitation are already increasing smaller-scale conflict and instability within and across national borders.
Water problems can lead to food shortages, energy crises, and ultimately economic and governmental instability.
The term 'water conflict' is used to describe tensions or disputes between states, countries, or people groups surrounding the utilization, consumption, or control of water resources.
In this article, we'll cover:
- Some of the major causes of water conflict around the world
- A timeline of water conflict throughout human history
- Current world regions of major concern which may spark potential conflicts
- What future plans can be put in place to mitigate water conflict
Major Causes of Water Conflict
Only 0.4% of the world's drinkable water is accessible to humans. With a growing population of 7 billion people, disputes over potable water sources common especially in regions where water is scarce. Whenever a water source such as a lake, a river, or an underground aquifer crosses national borders, rightful ownership is often contested.
The Nile River in North Africa flows upstream and it is arguable that Egypt has historically benefitted the most – both economically and culturally – from the resources the river has provided. With several countries downstream including Ethiopia, motioning to build a dam for their own purposes, Egypt is facing the reality of losing access to their most precious resource (Kreamer, 2013).
Bangladesh and India both rely on the Ganges River as a major source of water for their people. With India posturing to build a dam for energy and efficiency purposes, Bangladesh would be in a more critical condition than they already are (Kreamer, 2013).
Because of the decreasing amount of potable water, it is not uncommon for nations or people groups to have conflict over a shared body of water, as we'll read further.
Water as a Tool for Warfare
Because of its fundamental necessity, water scarcity has been both a source of regional dispute and a tool of military conflict throughout history. It has been the cause of tribal conflict and border tension and has been used for ethnic warfare, terrorism, and political actions.
Water has often been used as an excuse for ethnic violence.
In 14th century Europe, during the Black Death epidemic, hundreds of Jewish communities suffered violence at the hand of those who claimed that the Jews poisoned the local water wells (Tsillas, 2014).
Rivers that cross international borders are too commonly a source of dispute. The Ataturk Dam in Turkey controls the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which supply clean water to marginalized groups such as the Alevi and Kurds in Iraq. According to the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Turkey’s withholding of freshwater sources to these regions is a violation of international guidelines (Nasrawi, 2018).
Regions such as China, India, and Pakistan are experiencing increasing tensions regarding clean water resources.
We will take a historical look at water conflicts throughout history and will observe which regions are of significant concern for the near future.
Water Conflict Throughout History
430 BC - Spartans Poison Cistern
The Spartans are accused of causing a plague outbreak in Athens by poisoning their cisterns during the Peloponnesian War.
537 - Goths Cut Rome’s Aqueducts
As barbarian tribes invade the Roman Empire, the Goths cut of most aqueduct access to Rome and successfully besiege the city.
1187 - Saladin Cuts Crusader’s Water Supply
Saladin defeats the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin by filling their wells with sand and destroying the Maronite villages which the Crusaders relied on for water.
1863 - General Grant Destroys Levees
During the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant cut levees in the battle against the Confederates, leaving them without access to water.
1941 – Sabotage of Soviet Dam
The Dnieper hydropower plant, a strategically-important dam and power plant in the Ukraine is a coveted site by both the Soviets and the Germans in World War II. The Soviets bomb the dam with dynamite when retreating from the Germans in attempt to sabotage it from future use.
1964 – Cuba Cuts Off Water to U.S. Navy
In retribution for the capture of several Cuban boats, the Cuban government cut off the water supply to the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.
1985 – Anonymous Threat in New York
New York City officials receive an anonymous letter with a threat to release plutonium into the city’s water supply unless the charges brought against a man for shooting 4 black men in a subway were dropped.
1992 - Serbs Cut Water and Power to Sarajevo
Serbia cuts off power and water to the city of Sarajevo during a siege despite promises to the UN not to do so. 80% of Sarajevo’s water supply was reduced by regulating flow from water wells as an attempt to remove the Bosnians from refuge.
1997 – Troop Deployment on Kyrgyz Border
A highly contended water reserve straddling Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan borders leads to the deployment of 130,000 Uzbekistani soldiers to stand guard on the Toktogul reservoir.
2000 – Kenyans Fight with Monkeys over Water Source
Drought-stricken monkeys attack a Kenyan village for water-tanker access leaving eight monkeys dead and ten Kenyans wounded.
2001 – Battle for Water Reservoir
Macedonians fight with Albanians in village of Radusa over control of the reservoir that supplies the nation’s capital.
2002 – Violence over Indian River
The dispute over the contested Kaveri River in India, between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, has caused riots, property destruction, injuries, and arrests for a period of almost 2 months.
2004 – 23 Dead in Somalian Clan Dispute
Two Somalians subclans, the Murusade and the Duduble, fight for control of a single water well resulting in 23 deaths.
2004-2006 - 250 Dead in Ethiopian Water Conflict
A 3-year drought in Ethiopia led to what has been called the “War of the Well”, in which 250 people were killed during an extensive period of violence over water wells and land ownership.
2008 – Dispute Between Villagers and Border Guards Over Dam Access
A dam located in a region where the border between the countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not been agreed upon has caused a series of conflicts over water resources. Tajikistan villagers cross into contested Kyrgyzstan territory in order to access the dam and allow an irrigation canal to reach their village, often conflicting with Kyrgyz border guards.
2010 – Over 100 Dead in Pakistani Tribal Dispute
Tribal conflict erupts in Pakistan as the Shalozan Tangi tribe cut off irrigation to the Shalozan tribe, resulting in over 100 dead in a two-week long battle.
2012 – Protests Turn Violent Across Egypt
Several public protests over water shortages across Egypt turn violent: one person killed in Beni Sueif in irrigation conflict, villagers and officials in Minya clash over water shortages, and water shortage protests in Fayyoum involving hundreds result in fires and blocked highways.
2014 - Over 1000 Killed in Nigeria over Water Resources
According to Human Rights Watch, over 1000 people in Nigeria were killed in disputes between farmers and herders regarding water shortages in 2014 alone.
2016 – Water Crisis in Yemen
20 million people in Yemen and deprived of access to clean water due to internal conflict and destruction of water and power infrastructure.
2016 – Clash Between Indian Army and Protestors
Political disputes between the Indian Army and protestors in New Delhi result in 18 deaths and 200 injuries over the reopening of the Munak canal, a source that supplies New Delhi with three-fifths of its clean water supply
2017 – 70 Dead in Darfur over clean water source
Clashes between farmers and herders in Southern Darfur over freshwater sources have resulted in over 70 deaths
2018 – Water Protests in Iran
Continuing protests about water shortages in Iran are escalating and gaining media attention.
Current Regions of Concern
Arabian Aquifer System
Helmand River Basin
Other Speculative Concerns
According to Innovative Energy and Research, the following water sources are stressed enough to raise concern about possible conflicts in the future.
- The River Columbia (conflict between Canada and the US).
- The Colorado River (conflict between Mexico and the US).
- The River Senepas (conflict between Ecuador and Peru).
- The River Senegal (conflict between Mauritania and Senegal).
- The River Zambezi (conflict between Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana).
- The sources in the Sahara Desert (Reaction Egypt, Chad, Niger and Sudan).
- The River Nile (conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia).
- The River Tagus (conflict between Tagus and Duero).
- The River Syr Darya (conflict between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kazakhstan)
- The River Ganges (conflict between India and Bangladesh).
- The Jordan River (the conflict between Israel and Jordan).
- The Mekong River (conflict between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam)
Looking to the Future
Despite many conflicts surrounding the control and utilization of freshwater sources, future conflict can be anticipated and resolved with proper planning, education, and cooperation. Non-governmental agencies and think-tanks are actively pursuing reasonable avenues as to how these water-stressed regions can gain cooperation from the neighboring people groups who utilize them and how these conflicts can be predicted and avoided.
David Kreamer is his article The Past, Present, and Future of Water Conflict and International Security, proposes that effective policies in better water management should include:
- Water quality education
- Holistic sanitary community improvement
- Improvement of water regulation enforcement
- Water quality protection at wellheads and distribution points
- Strengthening of natural protected areas
- Upgraded emergency response to potential water crises
- Creation of hydrological and water quality data storage systems that are transferrable and compatible
As stated before, large-scale water wars are unlikely to happen in the near future. What is happening are small-scale disputes and rising tensions which can lead to a larger conflict. Water conflict, on any level, is a result of freshwater scarcity which all peoples are affected by. By doing our own part in proper water management, education, and cooperation, seeds for future conflict can be uprooted before they sprout.
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Factbook. (2018, January 16). Transboundary water disputes between Afghanistan and Iran. Retrieved from https://factbook.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/transboundary-water-disputes-between-afghanistan-and-iran
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