Wars over resources are not new. European colonialism was fuelled to a large extent over gaining control over resource-rich parts of the African, Asian and American continents. The 20th century featured many conflicts over control of oil fields. According to many experts, we now face a future where an increasing number of disputes are over the planet’s most essential resource – water.
What are water wars and why are they occurring?
Water wars are essentially conflicts over the control, management and distribution of water resources in different parts of the world. Although there have been conflicts over oceans and saltwater resources (e.g. fishing rights), the most severe conflicts are over freshwater. According to the UN, there are 263 lake and river basins and around 300 groundwater basins and aquifers across the world that cross international boundaries. Some of these, such as the Nile, cover several countries.
With water needed for drinking and sanitation as well as food production (agriculture accounts for almost 70% of water use) and energy supply, conflicts can escalate when political entities (e.g. states) compete for resources. They can also occur internally if state-level mismanagement of resources leads to a shortage.
Water wars are not new. In fact, the Pacific Institute has a database that details over 500 global water conflicts that have occurred from 3000BC to the present day. But they are increasing. Several factors including population growth, climate change, pollution and poor management of resources mean that we are facing a global water shortage which could be severe by 2040. As supply shrinks, competition over resources is likely to increase.
Where are the water conflict areas?
According to a study carried out last year by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, factors such as rising temperatures and population growth will increase the likelihood of cross-border water wars or “hydro-political interactions” by 75-95% between 2050 and 2100. There are five areas or “hotspots” identified as most at risk:
- The Nile – the world’s longest river is shared by 11 African countries. A recent dam project in Ethiopia has already caused a dispute with Egypt and ignited tensions in the region.
- The Ganges-Brahmaputra – river delta in the Indian subcontinent shared Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world and it has been predicted that climate change could result in the displacement of up to 6 million people.
- The Indus – Pakistan’s most important river has been an ongoing source of tension with neighbouring India.
- The Tigris-Euphrates – a source of dispute between Turkey, Iraq and Syria since the 1960s which has flared up in recent years due to droughts in the region.
- The Colorado – the river that flows between south-western US and northern Mexico. Has been affected by recent droughts, impacting on states such as Arizona which have also been experiencing depleting groundwater reserves.
These are the most at-risk places identified but there are several more where an increase in conflict could occur. It’s not just transnational issues either. Groundwater depletion has become so severe in some places, such as Beijing, that it risks igniting internal conflict.
What can be done about it?
If we are to avoid this century becoming characterised by escalating water shortages and water wars, it comes down to two things – international cooperation and better water practices. Research such as that carried out by the European Commission and the UN Transboundary Waters Assessment Program is hugely important in being able to identify and mitigate future risks. International projects such as the UN’s Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential and efforts by the Strategic Foresight Group are focused on mediating disputes, improving water management and effecting change.
Improving water practices is likely to be more crucial in the long-term. Even countries that don’t appear to be at immediate risk of water-related conflict fall a long way short of best practice in terms of management and use of water resources. With technology now becoming available to improve water recycling and conservation, detect large-scale leaks and even desalinate saltwater supplies, it’s important to do what we can to avert a crisis that could eventually have devastating effects for us all.