by Hampton Stephens
July 27, 2018

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

Spanish version

The sluice of Three Gorges Dam

opened to discharge the flood in Yichang, Hubei, China

on 17 July 2018.

Photo by TPG/CNS

via AP Images


The threat of new water wars grows across the globe. Can we resolve the causes of water conflicts before it's too late?

Although alarmist headlines often announce imminent water wars over scarce resources, the truth is that cooperation over shared waterways, particularly rivers, is historically more common than conflict.


In fact, even among bitter enemies, the historical record shows that water conflicts around the world do get resolved, even to the point that international cooperation often increases during droughts.

However, common causes of water conflicts remain a concern. Unilateral actions to construct a dam or river diversion in the absence of a treaty or some other protective international mechanism are highly destabilizing to a region, often spurring decades of hostility before cooperation is even pursued.


Similarly, as access to irrigation water is threatened, one result can be mass migrations of out-of-work, disgruntled people from the countryside to the cities - invariably a recipe for political instability.

Water is a vital resource for which there is no substitute, one that ignores political boundaries and has conflicting demands on its use. In the international realm, these problems are compounded by the fact that the international law that governs water is often contradictory.


So it is little wonder that water is being portrayed not only as a cause of armed conflict in the past, but as the resource which will bring combatants to the battlefield in this century.

Can Improvements in Water Management Bring an End to Water Wars?

Water, unlike other scarce, consumable resources, is essential to all facets of society.


Moreover, it fluctuates wildly in space and time, its management is usually fragmented, and it is often subject to vague or contradictory legal principles.


The 21st century has seen access to new technology which adds substantially to the ability both to negotiate and to manage transboundary waters more effectively.


More effective management of the root causes of water conflicts means that if there is to be water-related violence in the future, it is much more likely to be of the "water riots" variety than the "water wars" scenarios across national boundaries.


In any event, changing circumstances, both in terms of the environment and available technology, mean that water-management approaches must adapt as well.

The Economic Impact of Water Conflicts Around the World

One area of particular danger is not shared waterways, but maritime resources, particularly ocean fishing.


Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens the economies of many developing nations, as dramatic reductions in fish stocks would mean economic calamity and the prospect of millions of jobs lost in vulnerable economies.


IUU fishing is also linked to criminal smuggling rackets, terrorist organizations, and human trafficking - including children trafficked into the fishing industry as laborers.


The good news is that governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector and NGOs have started to see IUU fishing for what it is:

a geostrategic challenge with devastating global consequences for conservation, development and security.

Declining Maritime Resources Escalate the Threat of Water Wars

Illegal catches and China's aggressive approach to its global fishing fleet pose significant dangers to development and security.


While China's fisheries are overexploited and collapsing, its fish consumption is growing.


In order to meet the demand, China has built a large, state-subsidized, distant-water fishing fleet, which is getting more hostile, with illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers steadily increasing, especially in China's East Asia neighborhood.


China's behavior should be considered an early warning sign of the security implications of unmanaged fisheries and illegal fishing as two growing causes of water conflicts around the world.

More about water wars, the causes of water conflicts, and a wide variety of other world global issues in the vast:






Troubled Waters

-   Conflict and Cooperation Over Shared Rivers   -
by Aaron Wolf
March 02, 2009

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

Spanish version


Aaron T. Wolf is a professor at Oregon State University specializing in water resources policy and conflict resolution, and Middle East geopolitics. His areas of research include transboundary water conflicts and conflict resolution, and water basin technical and policy analysis. He edited "Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Water Systems" (Cheltenham, UK: Elgar, 2002), and co-edited "Water in the Middle East: A Geography of Peace"

(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000).






NASA satellite image of the Dead Sea.




Till taught by pain,

men know not water's worth.

Water is

an eloquent advocate for reason.
Adm. Lewis Strauss


For millennia, the Dead Sea has been fed by the sweet waters of the Jordan River while losing only pure water to relentless evaporation.


The collected salts left behind have resulted in an inhospitably briny lake eight times saltier than the sea, topped by a thin layer of the Jordan's relatively less-dense fresh water.


The differing salinity levels between the river and the lake kept the Dead Sea in a perpetually layered state, even while the lake's overall water level remained fairly constant, since evaporation from the lake's surface occurs at roughly the rate of the natural flow of the Jordan and other tributaries and springs.

This delicate equilibrium was disrupted as modern nations - with all of their human and economic needs tied inexorably to the local supply of fresh water - built up along the Jordan River's shores.


In this century, as more and more of the Jordan was diverted for the needs of these newly formed nations (Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Israel), the level of the lake began to drop, most recently by about one-half meter per year.


Greater amounts of the shoreline were exposed, and the lake was cut in half by the Lisan Straits.


The shallow southern half all but dried up, and the potash works and health spas built to take advantage of the lake's unique waters found themselves ever farther from the shore.

Along with the drop in the lake's level came a relative rise in the pycnocline - the dividing line between the less saline surface water and its hyper-saline fossil base. The division between the two layers was finally eradicated briefly in the winter of 1978-9: For the first time in centuries, the Dead Sea "turned over."


In a hydrologic protest against the loss of the Jordan River's flow, the Dead Sea effectively rolled over in its grave.

The turnover brought water to the surface which had not seen light of day for three hundred years. Although it sterilized the lake, the turnover was not counted as an ecological disaster. (Except for bacteria and one type of alga, the Dead Sea is appropriately named.)


But the event was a symptom of a wider crisis of history-influencing proportions.

The world is running out of "easy" water, and nowhere are the shortages more acute than in the Middle East.


Jordan in particular ranks high on any list of countries facing water scarcity, as do the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza, whose access to adequate water is still closely controlled by Israel and has not yet been guaranteed by any peace treaty.


Over the last 50 years, most of the international conflicts over water have taken place between Israel and at least one of its neighbors, although the last was in 1970. In the Jordan River basin, for example, violence broke out in the mid-1960s over an "all-Arab" plan to divert the river's headwaters (itself a preemptive move to thwart Israel's intention to siphon water from the Sea of Galilee).


Israel and Syria sporadically exchanged fire between March 1965 and July 1966, and the water-related tensions in the basin have only recently begun to dissipate.

The origins of the Jordan lie near where Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel come together, and the rivalry over its waters tells us much about the difficulty of dividing water across political lines.


The process of carving modern borders out of what was the Ottoman Empire dates to the end of World War I, and the struggles in the area around the Jordan headwaters remind us just how crucial to the debate the issue of water resources has been.


From the Sykes-Picot agreement to the Paris Peace Talks, through five Arab-Israeli wars and consequent armistice arrangements and later peace negotiations, the question of what will replace what was once a single entity and how its water will be divided remains less than fully resolved. Indeed, water was the last and most contentious issue resolved in negotiations over a 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.


Tellingly, it was relegated to "final status" negotiations - along with the other most difficult issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees - between Israel and the Palestinians.

Even so, an increasing awareness of water scarcity around the world has given rise to a number of myths.


The most prominent among them, as articulated in 1995 by Ismail Serageldin, a vice-president of the World Bank, holds that,

"the wars of the next century will be about water."

Invariably, such warnings about "water wars," echoed regularly, point to the arid and hostile Middle East as an example of a worst-case scenario, in part because armies have in fact been mobilized and shots fired over this scarce and precious resource.

Water is a vital resource for which there is no substitute, one that ignores political boundaries and has conflicting demands on its use. In the international realm, these problems are compounded by the fact that the international law that governs water is poorly developed, contradictory, and unenforceable.


So it is little wonder that water is being portrayed not only as a cause of armed conflict in the past, but as the resource which will bring combatants to the battlefield in the 21st century.



The Evidence

The only problem with these theories is a complete lack of evidence.


While shots were fired over water between Israel and Syria between 1951-53 and 1964-66, the final military exchange - involving both tanks and aircraft on July 14, 1966 - stopped Syrian construction of the diversion project in dispute, effectively ending water-related tensions between the two states.


Water had nothing to do with the strategic thinking of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war that broke out almost a year later, or those that followed in 1967, 1973, and 1982. [1]

Certainly, there is abundant and increasing potential for clashes over water amongst countries that share it - a group that today includes 145 nations.


Of these, 21 lie in their entirety within international basins, and at least 33 countries have greater than 95 percent of their territory within these basins, meaning that they are essentially dependent for their water resources on sharing with their neighbors.


These include such sizable countries as Hungary, Bangladesh, Belarus, and Zambia. [2]

The landscape of forced sharing includes 60 percent of the world's river flow and 40 percent of its population, across 263 watersheds that span the political boundaries of two or more countries. [3]


This reflects a sharp increase from the 214 international basins listed in 1978, the last time any official body attempted to delineate them. [4] The increase reflects both political change (such as break up of the Soviet Union and the Balkan states) and technological changes that have made it possible to map water resources more accurately.

Some watersheds may be particularly prone to disputes if only because of the sheer number of countries that share them. Nineteen basins are shared by five or more countries:

one river, the Danube, is abutted by 17 different countries, while five more, the Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi, are shared by nine or more countries.

In order to examine the history of water conflicts more rigorously, researchers at Oregon State University undertook a three-year research project that attempted to compile a dataset of every reported water-related interaction between two or more nations, whether incidents of conflict or cooperation, over the past 50 years. [5]


The study documented more than 1,800 such interactions that involved water as a scarce and/or consumable resource or as a quantity to be managed - i.e., where water was the driver of the events. [6]



The Potential for Dispute vs. the Record of Cooperation

The study reached a number of interesting conclusions.


  1. First, despite the potential for dispute in international basins, the record of cooperation historically overwhelms that of acute conflict over international water resources.


    During this time period, 157 treaties were negotiated and signed, as opposed to only 37 acute disputes.


    In fact, the only true "water war" between nations in the historical record occurred more than 4,500 years ago, between the city-states of Lagash and Umma in the Tigris-Euphrates basin. [8]

  2. Second, despite the fiery rhetoric of politicians, often aimed at their own constituencies rather than at the enemy, most actions taken over water are mild.


  3. Third, nations find many more issues on which to cooperate with regard to water resources than to fight over.


  4. Fourth, water acts as both an irritant and as a unifier. As an irritant, water can make good relations bad and bad relations worse. But international waters can also unify basins where relatively strong institutions are in place.

The historical record shows that international water disputes do get resolved, even among bitter enemies, and even as conflicts erupt over other issues.


Some of the most vociferous enemies around the world have negotiated water agreements or are in the process of doing so. The institutions they have created frequently prove to be resilient over time and during periods of otherwise strained relations.


The Mekong Committee, for example, has functioned since 1957, exchanging data throughout the Vietnam War.


Secret "picnic table" talks have been held between Israel and Jordan since the unsuccessful Johnston negotiations of 1953-55, even though these neighbors were until only recently in a legal state of war. The Indus River Commission survived two wars between India and Pakistan.


And all 10 of the countries that share the banks of the Nile are currently involved in negotiations over cooperative development of the basin.

So if there is little violence between nations over their shared waters, what's the problem? Is water actually a security concern at all?


In those cases where water has caused or exacerbated tensions, it is worth understanding how it did so, in order to determine both how complications arise, and how they are eventually resolved.



The Anatomy of Conflict

The first complicating factor leading to conflict is the length of time between when nations first start to impinge on each others' water planning and when agreements are finally, arduously, reached.


A general pattern has emerged for international basins over time. Countries that share access to a basin tend to first implement water-development projects unilaterally, on water within their territory, in order to avoid the political intricacies of jointly managing the shared resource.


At some point, one of the countries, generally the most powerful, will implement a project that impacts at least one of its neighbors.


This project can, in the absence of relations or institutions conducive to conflict resolution, become a flashpoint, heightening tensions and creating regional instability that require years or, more commonly, decades to resolve.


Treaties over the Indus took 10 years of negotiations, the Ganges 30, and the Jordan 40.

In the meantime, water quality and quantity degrades to the point that the health of dependent populations and ecosystems are damaged or destroyed.


This problem gets worse as the dispute gains in intensity, as illustrated by the ecosystems of the lower Nile, the lower Jordan, and the tributaries of the Aral Sea, all of which have fallen casualty to overuse upriver and to the intractability of international disputes.


During these periods, threats and disputes rage across boundaries, like those between Indians and Pakistanis and between Americans and Canadians.

A perhaps even more important set of disputes, however, takes place at the subnational level. Irrigators, indigenous populations, and environmentalists, for example, often see water as tied to their very way of life, increasingly threatened by newer uses for cities and hydropower.


Numerous violent incidents have occurred at the subnational level, generally between tribes, water-use sectors, or states/provinces. In fact, our recent research at Oregon State suggests that as the level at which the dispute occurs descends towards the locality, the likelihood and intensity of violence goes up. [8]


The many examples of internal water conflicts range from interstate violence and death along the Cauvery River in India, to California farmers blowing up a pipeline meant for Los Angeles, to clashes between Chinese farmers and police in Shandong in 2000, in response to government plans to divert irrigation water to cities and industries.

As water quality degrades or quantity diminishes over time, the effect on the stability of a region can be unsettling.


For example, for the 30 years that the Gaza Strip was under Israeli occupation, water quality deteriorated steadily. Saltwater intrusion degraded local wells, and water-related diseases took a rising toll on the people living there. In 1987, the Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada broke out in the Gaza Strip, and quickly spread throughout the West Bank.


While it would be simplistic to claim that water quality was a direct cause of the conflict, it was undoubtedly an irritant exacerbating an already tenuous situation.

Two-thirds of the world's water use is dedicated to agriculture, so when access to irrigation water is threatened, one result can be mass migrations of out-of-work, disgruntled men from the countryside to the cities - invariably a recipe for political instability.


In a pioneering work (The Water Footprint of Humanity), Sandra Postel identified those countries that rely heavily on irrigation, and whose agricultural water supplies are threatened either by a decline in quality or quantity.


The list includes many of the world's current security concerns, including,

  • India

  • China

  • Pakistan

  • Iran

  • Uzbekistan

  • Bangladesh

  • Iraq

  • Egypt

A common assumption holds that scarcity of a critical resource drives people to conflict.


It feels intuitive:

The less there is of something, especially something as important as water, the more dear it is held and the more likely people are to fight over it.

Once again, though, our study at Oregon State found conclusions that were counterintuitive.


Arid climates harbored no more conflicts than humid climates, for instance, and international cooperation actually increased during droughts.


In fact, when we ran the numbers, none of the "obvious" variables proved decisive:

Democracies engaged in water conflict as often as autocracies, rich countries as often poor countries, densely populated countries as often sparsely populated ones, and large countries as often as small ones.

A more central variable, it turned out, was the strength of institutions for dealing with shared water resources.


If naturally arid countries tended to be more cooperative, it was due to the institutional strategies necessary for adapting to water-scarce environments.


Once we began to focus on institutions - whether defined by formal treaties, informal working groups, or generally warm relations - we began to get a clearer picture of the settings most conducive to solving political tensions over international waters, and those that are less favorable.

We found that the likelihood of conflict increases significantly whenever two factors come into play.

  • The first is any large or rapid change that occurs either in the basin's physical setting (typically the construction of a dam, river diversion, or irrigation scheme), or in its political setting (especially the breakup of a nation that results in new international rivers).


  • The second factor is the inability of existing institutions to absorb and effectively manage that change. This is typically the case when there is neither any treaty spelling out each nation's rights and responsibilities with regard to the shared river, nor any implicit agreements or cooperative arrangements.

Even the existence of technical working groups can provide some capability to manage contentious issues, as they have in the Middle East.



Unilateral Actions with Regional Implications

The overarching lesson of our study is that unilateral actions to construct a dam or river diversion in the absence of a treaty or other protective international mechanism are highly destabilizing to a region, often spurring decades of hostility before cooperation is pursued.


In other words, the red flag for water-related tension between countries is not water stress per se, but rather the unilateral exercise of domination of an international river, usually by a regional power.

The scuffles over the Jordan, usually over diversion projects, are one example.


So, too, are those over the Nile, a basin shared by 10 countries, with Egypt the last in line. In the late 1950s, hostilities broke out between Egypt and Sudan over Egypt's planned construction of the High Dam at Aswan.


The signing of a treaty between the two countries in 1959 defused tensions before the dam was built.


But even today, no water-sharing agreement exists between Egypt and Ethiopia (where some 85 percent of the Nile's flow originates), and a war of words has raged between the two nations for decades.


As is the case among those who share the Jordan, the Nile nations have begun in recent years to work cooperatively toward a solution, thanks in part to unofficial dialogues among scientists and technical specialists that have been held since the early 1990s.


More recently, a ministerial-level "Nile Basin Initiative" has been facilitated by the United Nations and the World Bank.



The Prospects for Future Conflict

Looking ahead, then, which river basins are ripe for conflict over the next 10 years?


One way to answer that question is to identify those basins where dams or diversions that may negatively affect other countries are planned or under construction, and where no corresponding mechanism exists for resolving the disputes that are likely to result.


Our study identified 17 such basins, along with the four in which serious unresolved water disputes already exist or are being negotiated (Aral, Nile, Jordan, and Tigris-Euphrates).


These at-risk basins implicate 51 nations on five continents in just about every climatic zone. Eight of the basins are in Africa, primarily in the south, while six are in Asia, mostly in the southeast.


Few of them are on the radar screens of water and security analysts.

Consider, for example, the Salween River, which rises in southern China, then flows into Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. Each of these nations plans to construct dams and development projects along the Salween - and no two sets of plans are compatible.


China, moreover, has not been warm to notions of water sharing lately. It was one of just three countries that voted against a 1997 United Nations convention that established basic guidelines and principles for the use of international rivers.


Add in other destabilizing factors in the Salween basin - including the status of Tibet, indigenous resistance movements, opium production, and a burgeoning urban population in the region - and the trajectory for potential conflict begins to take shape.


Without a treaty in place, or even regular dialogue between the nations about their respective plans, there is little to buffer the inevitable shock as construction begins.

Consider, too, the Okavango, the fourth largest river in southern Africa.


Its watershed spans portions of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, and its vast delta in northern Botswana is home to a world-renowned wildlife habitat - the "jewel of the Kalahari." In 1996, drought-prone Namibia revived colonial plans to divert Okavango waters to its capital city of Windhoek.


Angola and especially Botswana object to the scheme because of its potential harm to the populations and ecosystems that depend on the Okavango's flow for their existence.


The main institution that can help manage the dispute is the fledgling Okavango Commission, formed in 1994 to coordinate plans in the basin.


The commission has recently received renewed support from the Southern Africa Development Community, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and other agencies, but the water dispute continues to simmer.

Several river basins are at risk of future disputes because of rapid changes in their political settings more than any specific dam or development scheme.


The breakup of the Soviet Union resulted in several new international river basins almost overnight. Not surprisingly, institutional capacity for managing water disputes in them is weak.


The Kura-Araks river system, for example, runs through the politically volatile Caucasus, including the relatively young independent countries of,

  • Armenia

  • Georgia

  • Azerbaijan

The river system is the source of drinking water for large portions of these nations, but millions of tons of untreated sewage and industrial waste regularly push water pollution levels to between 10 and 100 times international standards.


On top of these problems, some forecasts project severe water shortages within 10 years.



The Legacy of the Distant Past

At their heart, though, these disputes arise over sharing a resource that has throughout recorded history - and even before it - proven difficult to share.

Not far from the Dan River, the largest source of the Jordan, lies the ancient site of Tel Dan, which dates back to at least the second millennium B.C.


Back then it served as a gateway on the Via Maris, the trade route between the ancient world's two fertile crescents along the Nile and the Euphrates. The river's constant source of water proved an irresistible draw to travelers making the long journey, and Dan, built in a crescent around the river's source springs, became one of the few major urban centers in the area.

The Egyptians were the first to conquer the territory, which they ruled over at the time the Biblical patriarch Abraham brought his family to Canaan around 2000 B.C.E.


Over time, the Egyptians gave way to the Canaanites, who called the site Lais.


They, in turn, ceded the land to the Israelite tribe of Dan around 1100 B.C.E. The walls of Dan soon yielded to the Assyrians, whose might could not hold back the Persians, nor theirs the Greeks, nor theirs the Ptolemaics, nor theirs the Romans.


Given its history, then, it is not surprising that, after 70 years of tension, today's disputes over the Jordan's water have yet to be resolved.

Just north of Tel Dan are the remains of a road that runs almost due east from Tyre to Damascus and beyond. For centuries, the entire road lay under one nation's authority - that of the Ottoman Turks.


Today, it travels through a patchwork of sovereignties:

  • from Tyre to Qantara in Lebanon

  • from Qantara to Metulla in what was until recently the Israeli-occupied "security zone"

  • from Metulla to Banias (after a sharp detour south around Lebanese territory) in Israel

  • from Banias to Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights

  • from Majdal Shams to Damascus in Syria

These days, no amount of passports or diplomatic connections would allow for traveling the entire length of the road.


But in the wrangling that followed the end of World War I, it was this very road - in particular, French insistence on access to it - that resulted in the Jordan River watershed being drawn and quartered in a similar piecemeal fashion.

The difference, of course, is that a divided road can be rerouted. But a divided river is a dispute - as well as a long, circuitous process of negotiations - waiting to happen.




[1] Wolf, A. "'Hydrostrategic' Territory in the Jordan Basin: Water, War, and Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations." in H. Amery and A. Wolf, eds. Water in the Middle East: A Geography of Peace. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

[2] Wolf, A., J. Natharius, J. Danielson, B. Ward, and J. Pender. "International River Basins of the World." International Journal of Water Resources Development. Vol. 15 #4, December 1999. pp. 387-427.

[3] Wolf et. al 1999.

[4] United Nations 1978.

[5] Wolf, A., S. Yoffe, M. Giordano. "International Waters: Identifying Basins at Risk." Water Policy. Vol. 5 #1, 2003. pp. 31-62.

[6] Excluded are events where water is incidental to a dispute, such as those concerning fishing rights, access to ports, transportation, or river boundaries. Also excluded are events where water is not the driver, such as those where water is a tool, target, or victim of armed conflict.

[7] Wolf et. al 2003.

[8] Giordano, M., M. Giordano, and A. Wolf. "The Geography of Water Conflict and Cooperation: Internal Pressures and International Manifestations." Geographical Journal. Vol. 168 Part 4, December 2002, pp. 293-312.