Causes of Water Conflict: Past Wars and Future Predictions

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.

Updated: May 8, 2024
Jeremiah Zac


By 2040, the global demand for freshwater resources will exceed availability, according to The National Intelligence Council’s report on Global Water Security (2012).

While the report acknowledges that large-scale water wars are unlikely to occur within the next ten years, water-related challenges such as shortages and sanitation are increasing smaller-scale conflict and instability within and across national borders.

Water problems can lead to food shortages, energy crises, and economic and governmental instability.

The term 'water conflict' describes 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

brass sculpture

brass sculpture / creative commons

Only 0.4% of the world's drinkable water is accessible to humans. With a growing population of 8 billion people, disputes over potable water sources are familiar, especially in regions where water is scarce. Rightful ownership is often contested whenever a water source such as a lake, a river, or an underground aquifer crosses national borders.

The Nile River in North Africa flows upstream, and it is arguable that Egypt has historically benefitted the most – economically and culturally – from the river's resources. With several countries downstream, including Ethiopia, motioning to build a dam for their purposes, Egypt is facing the reality of losing access to its most precious resource (Kreamer, 2013).

Bangladesh and India rely on the Ganges River as a significant water source for their people. With India posturing to build a dam for energy and efficiency, Bangladesh would be in a more critical condition than it already is (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 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 hands 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 violates international guidelines (Nasrawi, 2018).

Regions such as China, India, and Pakistan are experiencing increasing tensions regarding clean water resources.

We will look at water conflicts throughout history and observe which regions are of significant concern for the near future.

The Pacific Institute publishes a regularly updated list of water-related conflicts since history's earliest recorded events. Here is a partial list of some of the most significant cases throughout world 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.

Old Art Battle scene

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

arabian desert

The Arabian Aquifer System, which supplies water to 60 million people in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, is in a critical state. Before the invention of modern farming, the Arabian Aquifer held around 120 cubic miles of water underneath the Saudi desert, enough water to fill Lake Erie. But due to extensive pumping and the inability to be replaced by rainfall in such a dry area, an estimated one-fifth of the original quantity is left in reserve (National Geographic, 2017).

Indus Basin

indus river

Considered the world’s second most stressed underground water reserve and shared by North-Western India and Pakistan, this basin of 16.2 million hectares was in a state of hydrological equilibrium until a canal irrigation system was developed. With no natural source of replenishment, this basin was classified as “extremely stressed” according to the Water Resources Research and will continue to deplete at this rate. In India, 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of drinking water depend on this basin, and in 20 years, it will be in critical condition (Laskar, 2015).

Ataturk Dam

Atatürk Dam

With several dams controlling the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Turkey’s territory, the Turkish government has been accused of withholding water to regions in which the Euphrates and Tigris rivers provide water, areas such as Syria and Iraq where millions of people depend on it for survival. With water shortages already a concern in Iraq and tensions in place due to geopolitical and religious disputes, conflict over the control of the Tigris and Euphrates might only increase instability in the region (Nasrawi, 2018).

Helmand River Basin


Afghan and Iranian farmers depend on the Helmand River Basin for agricultural purposes. With political disputes between both countries and recent NATO involvement, a mutual agreement regarding proper water system management is still yet to be reached (Factbook, 2018).

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 controlling and utilizing freshwater sources, future competition 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, in his article The Past, Present, and Future of Water Conflict and International Security, proposes that effective policies for better water management should include the following:

  • 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 more significant conflict. On any level, water conflict results from freshwater scarcity, which everyone is affected by. By doing our part in proper water management, education, and cooperation, seeds for future disputes can be uprooted before they sprout.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article on the causes of water conflict. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. If you've found this article to be useful and are interested in learning more, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

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Factbook. (2018, January 16). Transboundary water disputes between Afghanistan and Iran. Retrieved from

Global water security. (2012, February). Retrieved from

Kreamer, D. (2013, January). The past, present, and future of water conflict and international security. Retrieved from

Laskar, R. (2015, June 18). Indus Basin is world's second most 'overstressed' aquifier. Retrieved from

Nasrawi, S. (2018, February). Turkish dams on Euphrates and Tigris: A water dilemma for Iraq. Retrieved from

National Geographic. (2017, January 10). Saudi Arabia's great thirst. Retrieved from

Pacific Institute. (2018, May 31). Water Conflict. Retrieved from

Tsillas, V. (2014, December 12). Research on Water Disputes. Retrieved from

I'm Jeremiah, the owner of World Water Reserve. I'm a writer and researcher with a particular interest in sustainability and rural living, water scarcity, and innovative water purification methods. I utilize my multimedia and communication experience in the NGO and humanitarian fields to bring light to important topics. My passion is to educate others on the reality of the global water crisis and on ways to sustain themselves and their families in the midst of it.
Jeremiah Zac