Water conflict is a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or groups over an access to water resources. The United Nations recognizes that water disputes result from opposing interests of water users, public or private.
A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, though rarely are traditional wars waged over water alone. Instead, water has historically been a source of tension and a factor in conflicts that start for other reasons. However, water conflicts arise for several reasons, including territorial disputes, a fight for resources, and strategic advantage. A comprehensive online database of water-related conflicts—the Water Conflict Chronology—has been developed by the Pacific Institute. This database lists violence over water going back nearly 5,000 years.
These conflicts occur over both freshwater and saltwater, and both between and within nations. However, conflicts occur mostly over freshwater; because freshwater resources are necessary, yet limited, they are the center of water disputes arising out of need for potable water and irrigation. As freshwater is a vital, yet unevenly distributed natural resource, its availability often impacts the living and economic conditions of a country or region. The lack of cost-effective water supply options in areas like the Middle East, among other elements of water crises can put severe pressures on all water users, whether corporate, government, or individual, leading to tension, and possibly aggression. Recent humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Rwandan Genocide or the war in Sudanese Darfur, have been linked back to water conflicts.
A recent report "Water Cooperation for a Secure World" published by Strategic Foresight Group concludes that active water cooperation between countries reduces the risk of war. This conclusion is reached after examining trans-boundary water relations in over 200 shared river basins in 148 countries, though as noted below, a growing number of water conflicts are sub-national.
According to the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment, water is a vital element for human life, and human activities are closely connected to availability and quality of water. Unfortunately, water is a limited resource and in the future access "might get worse with climate change, although scientists' projections of future rainfall are notoriously cloudy" writes Roger Harrabin. Moreover, "it is now commonly said that future wars in the Middle East are more likely to be fought over water than over oil," said Lester R. Brown at a previous Stockholm Water Conference.
Water conflicts occur because the demand for water resources and potable water can exceed supply, or because control over access and allocation of water may be disputed. Elements of a water crisis may put pressures on affected parties to obtain more of a shared water resource, causing diplomatic tension or outright conflict.
11% of the global population, or 783 million people, are still without access to improved sources of drinking water  which provides the catalyst for potential for water disputes. Besides life, water is necessary for proper sanitation, commercial services, and the production of commercial goods. Thus numerous types of parties can become implicated in a water dispute. For example, corporate entities may pollute water resources shared by a community, or governments may argue over who gets access to a river used as an international or inter-state boundary.
The broad spectrum of water disputes makes them difficult to address. Locale, local and international law, commercial interests, environmental concerns, and human rights questions make water disputes complicated to solve – combined with the sheer number of potential parties, a single dispute can leave a large list of demands to be met by courts and lawmakers.
Economic and trade issues
Water’s viability as a commercial resource, which includes fishing, agriculture, manufacturing, recreation and tourism, among other possibilities, can create dispute even when access to potable water is not necessarily an issue. As a resource, some consider water to be as valuable as oil, needed by nearly every industry, and needed nearly every day. Water shortages can completely cripple an industry just as it can cripple a population, and affect developed countries just as they affect countries with less-developed water infrastructure. Water-based industries are more visible in water disputes, but commerce at all levels can be damaged by a lack of water.
International commercial disputes between nations can be addressed through the World Trade Organization, which has water-specific groups like a Fisheries Center that provide a unified judicial protocol for commercial conflict resolution. Still, water conflict occurring domestically, as well as conflict that may not be entirely commercial in nature may not be suitable for arbitration by the WTO.
Historically, like fisheries have been the main sources of question, as nations expanded and claimed portions of oceans and seas as territory for ‘domestic’ commercial fishing. Certain lucrative areas, such as the Bering Sea, have a history of dispute; in 1886 Great Britain and the United States clashed over sealing fisheries, and today Russia surrounds a pocket of international water known as the Bering Sea Donut Hole. Conflict over fishing routes and access to the hole was resolved in 1995 by a convention referred to colloquially as the Donut Hole Agreement.
Corporate interest often crosses opposing commercial interest, as well as environmental concerns, leading to another form of dispute. In the 1960s, Lake Erie, and to a lesser extent, the other Great Lakes were polluted to the point of massive fish death. Local communities suffered greatly from dismal water quality until the United States Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.
Water pollution poses a significant health risk, especially in heavily industrialized, heavily populated areas like China. In response to a worsening situation in which entire cities lacked safe drinking water, China passed a revised Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law. The possibility of polluted water making it way across international boundaries, as well as unrecognized water pollution within a poorer country brings up questions of human rights, allowing for international input on water pollution. There is no single framework for dealing with pollution disputes local to a nation.
According to Aaron Wolf, et all. there were 1831 water conflicts over transboundary basins from 1950–2000. They categorized these events as following:
- No water-related events on the extremes
- Most interactions are cooperative
- Most interactions are mild
- Water acts as irritant
- Water acts as unifier
- Nations cooperate over a wide variety of issues
- Nations conflict over quantity and infrastructure
A comprehensive chronology of water-related conflicts is maintained by the Pacific Institute in their Water Conflict Chronology, which includes an open-source data set, an interactive map, and full information on citations. These historical examples go back over 4,500 years. In this dataset, water conflicts are categorized as follows:
- Control of Water Resources (state and non-state actors): where water supplies or access to water is at the root of tensions.
- Military Tool (state actors): where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation or state as a weapon during a military action.
- Political Tool (state and non-state actors): where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation, state, or non-state actor for a political goal.
- Terrorism (non-state actors): where water resources, or water systems, are either targets or tools of violence or coercion by non-state actors.
- Military Target (state actors): where water resource systems are targets of military actions by nations or states.
- Development Disputes (state and non-state actors): where water resources or water systems are a major source of contention and dispute in the context of economic and social development
International organizations play the largest role in mediating water disputes and improving water management. From scientific efforts to quantify water pollution, to the World Trade Organization’s efforts to resolve trade disputes between nations, the varying types of water disputes can be addressed through current framework. Yet water conflicts that go unresolved become more dangerous as water becomes more scarce and global population increases.
The UN International Hydrological Program aims to help improve understanding of water resources and foster effective water management. But by far the most active UN program in water dispute resolution is its Potential Conflict to Co-operation Potential (PCCP) mission, which is in its third phase, training water professionals in the Middle East and organizing educational efforts elsewhere. Its target groups include diplomats, lawmakers, civil society, and students of water studies; by expanding knowledge of water disputes, it hopes to encourage co-operation between nations in dealing with conflicts.
UNESCO has published a map of transboundary aquifers. Academic work focusing on water disputes has yet to yield a consistent method for mediating international disputes, let alone local ones. But UNESCO faces optimistic prospects for the future as water conflicts become more public, and as increasing severity sobers obstinate interests.
World Trade Organization
The World Trade Organization can arbitrate water disputes presented by its member states when the disputes are commercial in nature. The WTO has certain groups, such as its Fisheries Center, that work to monitor and rule on relevant cases, although it is by no means the authority on conflict over water resources.
Because water is so central to agricultural trade, water disputes may be subtly implicated in WTO cases in the form of virtual water, water used in the production of goods and services but not directly traded between countries. Countries with greater access to water supplies may fare better from an economic standpoint than those facing crisis, which creates the potential for conflict. Outraged by agriculture subsidies that displace domestic produce, countries facing water shortages bring their case to the WTO.
The WTO plays more of a role in agriculturally based disputes that are relevant to conflict over specific sources of water. Still, it provides an important framework that shapes the way water will play into future economic disputes. One school of thought entertains the notion of war over water, the ultimate progression of an unresolved water dispute—scarce water resources combined with the pressure of exponentially increasing population may outstrip the ability of the WTO to maintain civility in trade issues
Water conflicts can occur on the intrastate and interstate levels. Interstate conflicts occur between two or more neighboring countries that share a transboundary water source, such as a river, sea, or groundwater basin. For example, the Middle East has only 1% of the world's freshwater shared among 5% of the world's population. Intrastate conflicts take place between two or more parties in the same country. An example would be the conflicts between farmers and industry (agricultural vs industrial use of water).
According to UNESCO, the current interstate conflicts occur mainly in the Middle East (disputes stemming from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq; and the Jordan River conflict among Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the State of Palestine), in Africa (Nile River-related conflicts among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan), as well as in Central Asia (the Aral Sea conflict among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). At a local level, a remarkable example is the 2000 Cochabamba protests, depicted in the 2010 Spanish film Even the Rain by Icíar Bollaín.
In 1979 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said that if Egypt were to ever go to war again it would be over water. Separately, amidst Egypt–Ethiopia relations, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said: "I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story."
Recent research into water conflicts
Some research from the International Water Management Institute and Oregon State University has found that water conflicts among nations are less likely than is cooperation, with hundreds of treaties and agreements in place. Water conflicts tend to arise as an outcome of other social issues. Conversely, the Pacific Institute has shown that while interstate (i.e., nation to nation) water conflicts are increasingly less likely, there appears to be a growing risk of sub-national conflicts among water users, regions, ethnic groups, and competing economic interests. Data from the Water Conflict Chronology show these intrastate conflicts to be a larger and growing component of all water disputes, and that the traditional international mechanisms for addressing them, such as bilateral or multilateral treaties, are not as effective.
Strategic Foresight Group in partnership with the Governments of Switzerland and Sweden has developed the Blue Peace approach which seeks to transforms trans-boundary water issues into instruments for cooperation. The Blue Peace framework offers a unique policy structure which promotes sustainable management of water resources combined with cooperation for peace. By making the most of shared water resources through cooperation rather than mere allocation between countries, the chances for peace can be increased. The Blue Peace approach has proven to be effective in cases like the Middle East and the Nile basin.
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