Water Wars and

International Conflict


Abigail Ofori-Amoah oforiaa@uwec.edu

Part of Water is Life, a class web site on water privatization and commodification, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2004.

    For centuries war and conflict has been tied to the protection of water resources. With the risk of water shortages around the world becoming more and more of an issue, water has become the fuel of certain conflicts in many regions around the world. “Water Wars” are becoming inevitable in the world's future as the misuse of water resources continues among countries that share the same water source. International law has proven itself inadequate in defending the equal use of shared water supplies in some parts of the world (Darwish, Middle East Water Wars). The rapid population increase has greatly affected the amount of water readily available to many people.

    Water as a resource is very comparable to oil; it is essential to all daily human activities. Water is becoming a very valuable commodity, yet freshwater resources are unevenly distributed among developing countries. This scarcity in water has triggered desperation in countries that already have little access to water, let alone reliable water supplies. This desperation usually cannot be resolved by negotiations. If governments or rebels want water badly enough, they resort to force to obtain it. Water has very rarely been the main ingredient in international conflicts, but it is often factored into the problem due to its economic importance. (Peter Gledick, Water Conflict Chronology)

    "Conflicts over water arise form the fact that under conditions of increasing scarcity, competition levels also increase.” Anthony Turton


    The Potential Causes

    There has been much speculation over what causes conflicts over water. The conflicts arise over who has the power to control water and therefore control the economy and population. By breaking it down into categories, we can begin to understand the causes. Conflicts can be caused by water use which includes military, industrial, agricultural, domestic and political uses. Through the military and political uses, conflicts can be exacerbated by the use of water systems as a weapon and as a political goal. In relation to industrial and agricultural uses conflicts may arise from the overuse and degradation of water resources, and the insufficient amount that is left over for communities.

    Conflicts can further be a result of pollution affecting the quality of the water supply. The military is already most likely the number one producer of wastes in the world, and the leftover chemical and weapons used in times of war can have an effect on water supplies. Wastes from industries and agriculture can contaminate groundwater resources if not disposed of properly, and cause frustration for those who must travel to obtain sufficient daily water supplies. This lack of water quality can cause a conflict to arise regarding the distribution of water. Not having water evenly distributed among people and countries creates an imbalance among those who share supplies, particularly in developing countries (Cause of Conflicts, Haftendorn).

    The increase of urbanization has increased the demand for water. However the supply cannot take care of the demand. With the problem of uneven water distribution future conflicts can occur. As societies become more developed they tend to use more resources such as water (Klare).


    Regions of Conflicts

    Many regions around the world deal with shortages of water. However, some areas deal more with conflicts over inadequate water supplies and disputes over shared water supplies. In regions where countries compete for access to water, the relations between the countries are likely to be unstable. In regions where water supply is scarce, combat sometimes seems to be the only way to resolve the problem. It is estimated that there are 1,250 square kilometers of freshwater remaining in the world’s semi-arid and arid regions and this supply is not evenly distributed among two or more countries sharing the same water source. Severe water scarcity is strongest in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The need for water in these regions is essential for food production used in irrigation farming (Klare).

    Water systems usually arise in one country and pass through others before reaching the sea or oceans. The rivers and lakes that come off these larger water systems are typically shared by more than one country. The states where these systems originated tend to try and gain the most control over the water. This is the case along river systems like the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and the Jordan River (Klare).


    The Middle East

    Middle East conflicts are usually tied in the media to religion or oil, but water has become a major factor in recent disputes. In prominent watersheds such as the Jordan River Basin and the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, water supplies can be critical especially when they are being shared among multiple countries. These rivers play a very important role in the agriculture and economic development of these states.

    Jordan River Basin

    The area of the Jordan River Basin, including parts of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank, is primarily an arid region. The river originates in Lebanon and has a total average flow of 1,200 million cubic meters per year. This river system consists of the Jordan and Yarmuk River, which flows from Syria. With the arid climate and low precipitation in this region, water has become the most valuable resource (Klare). Most countries in the Jordan River Basin are among some of the poorest countries in the region. Groundwater aquifers are the principle source for water supplies to the states that rely on the Jordan River. Water use varies throughout the region. Israel uses the greatest amount of water available in the basin, and next in line is Jordan. The Israeli-occupied West Bank uses the smallest amount. The daily amount of water per person in the Jordan River Basin is the lowest in the world (Water Scarcity in Jordan River Basin).

    The patterns of water use, overuse, and political territorial issues are resulting in disagreement over water distribution. The increase in population (both through natural increase and Israeli settlements) has led to significant challenges in managing limited water supplies. Without the existence of a legitimate water sharing agreement, the countries of Syria and Israel have taken over the water supplies. The construction of reservoirs on the Yarmuk River has caused the reduction of discharge into the Jordan River (The Jordan River Basin).

    The Mountain Aquifer underneath the West Bank is a point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. Issues include the domination of groundwater supplies by the Israeli state and settlers, and the walling off of Palestinian access to water supplies. Compared to Israeli settlers Palestinians are charged three times the cost for water that comes from under the West Bank (Villiers).

Map and Satellite picture of the Jordan River Basin

The Tigris-Euphrates Basin

The scarcity of water supplies in the river basin of ancient Mesopotamia has long fed disagreement among neighboring nations. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate in Turkey, and their watershed covers a much larger area than the Jordan River basin. The river system is shared by several countries and ethnic groups who regularly disagree on water issues. Like the Jordan River Valley, rising population in these areas is heavily affecting the availability of water. The Tigris and Euphrates are especially important to Syria and Iraq. Syria obtains approximately 85 percent of the renewable water supply while Iraq obtains 100 percent from the combination of both rivers (Klare).

The Turks (and the Kurds who live in southeastern Turkey) are less dependent on the rivers, yet they still have plans for irrigation schemes to increase their utilization of both rivers. Along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, conflict arises from north to south. The downstream states of Iraq and Syria depend heavily on these two rivers for their water supply. Dams along the rivers installed by Turkey have prevented some of the water from flowing downstream to these warmer, drier countries.(Haftendorn). All three countries (but mainly Turkey) have constructed dams on the rivers for purposes of agriculture, hydroelectric power and industrialization.

Turkey and Syria have increased hostilities towards one another over the use of the Euphrates River. Turkey’s plans to utilize its portion of the Euphrates have affected the share going to Syria for irrigation purposes. Hostilities between Syria and Iraq escalated due to the filling of Lake Assad by Syria, resulting to the reduction of downstream flow in the 1970’s. Iraqi’s began accusing Syria of holding back water supplies. Among all three countries, the water supply conflict is equated with their national security (Tigris Euphrates Dispute).

Tigris-Euphrates River


Warfare in Iraq

The 1991 Gulf War brought on water crisis in Iraq due to the bombing of water treatment facilities in Iraq by the U.S., triggering water shortages in the country. Out of the seven major water pumping stations, four were destroyed. The targeting of sewage and water treatment plants contributed to the mass contamination of the Trigris River, and triggered many waterborne diseases. The bombing during the 2003 Iraq invasion agian targeted civilian infrastructure, and left many southern Iraqis with little or no access to water in the first weeks of the occupation. (See Iraq water crisis.)

Iraqi women waiting for incoming water supplies while confronted by British troops



In many parts of Africa, water shortages are a part of everyday life. Many countries share one water resource for the use both of their populations. A large percentage of these countries are very dependant on the weather to provide proper irrigation to the agricultural industry, since water resources are so scarce.The major areas being shared among countries are the Nile River, Volta River, Zambezi River, and the Niger Basin. Conflicts rage from the privatization of the water resources to the many people displaced by dams along the rivers, and the unequal distribution of water supplies amongst neighboring countries.With the growing demand for water resources, conflicts seems almost inevitable, especially with many African governments' history of poor management of resources and inadequate conflict resolution mechanisms.

The Nile River Basin

The Nile is the longest river in the world, stretching for 4,130 miles. The Nile River for centuries has been the source of sustaining human life in Egypt and Sudan. The Nile’s tributaries, lakes, and rivers collect and disperse water in nine African countries before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The Egyptians have used military force to ensure their control over the headwaters of the Nile, because the country has no other water source. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda have constructed various river projects to increase their annual water withdrawals, affecting Egyptian control over the Nile (Klare). However, in some cases national governments have agreed to share water that flows between their countries. For example, the leaders of Uganda, Sudan and Egypt signed a pact to share the waters of the Nile River. Such solutions can potentially prevent water shortage and head off conflict.


Volta River Basin


Niger River Basin


Zambezi Water Basin



School children crossing contaminated river source



South Asian countries deal with conflict over the sharing of river water supplies both in downstream and upstream regions. The distribution of water resources throughout Southeast and Central Asia is increasingly becoming a political issue, with the tensions amounting over the control of water supplies (Biliouri). The idea of shared water supply has not been easily understood by the nations of this region. The growing populations come with the increase in demand and could be a catalyst for conflict to arise out of the ethnic and political disputes (Water and Conflict).

In India and China water shortages pose both a social and economic threat. Throughout India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, water shortages are increasingly triggering conflict. Although the freshwater resources are abundant, they are not well distributed to drier regions in dire need of water. With the immense amount of pollution being dumped in the freshwater supply, clean water is becoming scarce to the mass of people and tensions can easily escalate.

The Indus River Basin has been an area of conflict between India and Pakistan. Spanning 1,800 miles, the river and its tributaries together make up one of the largest irrigation canals in the world. The basin provides water to millions of people in northwestern India and Pakistan. Dams and canals built in order to provide hydropower and irrigation ha dried up stretches of the Indus River. Water projects have further caused the displacement of people and have contributed to the destruction of the ecosystem in the Indus plain.

The divisions of the river basin waters have created friction among the countries of South Asia, and among their states and provinces. Accusations of overdrawing made by each central region or province has resulted in the lack of water supplies to coastal regions of Pakistan (Controversy over Indus River Water). The Ganges River has long been disputed over by India and Bangladesh. The two regions share a common river system, formed by the joining of the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda.

Water Supply in Bangladesh



Map of the Indus River Basin



Ganges River System:

The Ganges River possesses strong economic and religious importance. The Ganges River as a water source has been strongly disputed between India and Bangladesh. With increasing demands of water in Calcutta for industrial and domestic use, and irrigation use in the Indian state of West Bengal, water conflicts between the two countries have increased. With large amounts of pollution in this river system, the available water is unsanitary and can increase illness, as well as trigger mass migration.

Ganges River pollution makes it an unsanitary water resource




For more information:

Conflict and Natural Resources

Green Nature

Global Policy Forum

International Freshwater Conflict

Potential for Water Wars

Sea-River New Letter

Science in Africa

The Emerging Water Wars

The Water Page

Water and Conflict

Water Conflict and Cooperation

Charrier, Bertard, Shlomi Dinar, Fiona Curtin. Water, Conflict Resolution and Environmental Sustainability in Middle East. [Internet] http://www.gci.ch/GreenCrossPrograms/waterres/water/waterconflictresolution.html 27 April 2004

Darwish, Adel. Analysis: Middle East water wars. [Internet] BBC News http://www.newvote.bbc.co.uk 27 April 2004

Gleick, Peter. World Conflict Chronology. [Internet] The World Water. 27 April 2004

Haftnedorn, Helga. Water and International Conflict. [Internet] http://www.ciaonet.org 27 April 2004

Klare, Michale T. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict.Owl Books New York 2001

Turton, Anthony. Water and Conflict in an African Context [Internet] http://www.accord.org 27 April 2004

Villiers, Marq De Water: The Fate of our most Precious Resource. Mariner Books Boston New York 2000