Water Wars: How Scarcity Exacerbates Conflict

Around the world, water scarcity is increasingly changing the face of conflict. Beyond its being essential to human survival – one can only live a few days without consumption – water is also required for basic hygiene and agricultural production. In 2013, the Global Water Institute found that 43 countries and over 700 million people were affected by water scarcity around the globe, with the ever-unpredictable effects of climate change likely to make matters worse. In places as varied as Sudan, Peru, Nigeria, Yemen and India, poor or inhibited access to water has contributed significantly to interstate and intrastate feuds. Whilst some regions are geographically predisposed to below average rainfall and warmer weather, the issue has been made dire in cases where governments fail to prioritize water retention policy and infrastructure, where private interests trump the public need, and when particular groups deliberately manipulate water access as a means of control.


In the arid region of Darfur in Sudan, disputes over select water and grazing land was a major factor that sparked the conflict in 2011. The Darfur conflict is widely reported as having started purely as a result of ethnic and religious differences, but if not for the heightened state of emergency created by a water shortage, the conflict would be completely different in character. Similarly in Yemen, over 19 million people are estimated to be without a clean and reliable source of water, which the World Bank suggests makes it one of the most water stressed countries in the world. On top of attempting to handle the Al-Qaeda in Arab Peninsula (AQAP) — the local terrorist organization that regularly performs terror attacks to undermine the stability of the state — Yemen is now facing the worst cholera outbreak in world history. The stress of water scarcity can be the difference between purely armed conflict, and a full blown humanitarian crisis.


The region of Kashmir, which straddles Pakistan and India, has been one of the world’s most fiercely contested territories for decades. Both India and Pakistan claim full sovereignty over the region. In water terms, it is a crucial area, with plenty of runoff accumulating from the world’s water tower, the Himalayas. Despite the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, the appropriate allocation of the resource remains fiercely contested, evidenced in India’s recent proposal of constructing a dam in the region, a move that would constrict flows before they enter Pakistan. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, described these developments as “instruments of coercion and war.”


But India is not alone in recognizing the vitality of water in crisis scenarios. Interest groups, governments, and non-state actors are scrambling to gain a monopoly across the globe. AQAP in Yemen offers supply to clean water in villages in exchange for support, sometimes helping to dig wells or build infrastructure. In a document leaked to the Associated Press in 2013, AQAP can be found expounding the benefits of extorting people’s basic requirements.


“Providing these needs will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours.”  


In Northeastern Nigeria, the Islamist clique known as Boko Haram is less subtle in its approach, having destroyed over 70% of the regions water infrastructure for similar conscriptive purposes.


Today, new battle lines are being drawn in the world’s water wars. Like parts of the Middle East and North Africa, states in Latin America are facing their own unique water challenges. However instead of terrorist factions, water is being splashed around disproportionately through government sanctioned privatization. In Peru, approximately 3 million people live in water scarce environments. International mining companies have been accused of polluting rivers and excessive extraction, which has led to various small skirmishes between the mining industry and local community groups, killing 51 people between 2011 and 2015. Additionally, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia have all had their own version of water induced civil unrest. Manuela Picq, a former Professor at Universidad San Fransisco de Quito has spoken publicly on the schism that water ownership has created throughout the region. “The call for water echoes a much larger collective desire for equal redistribution and shared responsibility.”


As with any valuable resource, the fight for water is heated, and often comes down to government discretion in creating policy and resolving disputes. Unlike other resources, water is essential to human existence, and access to safe drinking water is considered a human right by the United Nations. With this in mind, privatization measures such as those carried out in Bolivia in 2000, whilst the country was experiencing a drought no less, paints a vivid image of just how dangerously misaligned some government objectives are as it pertains to water. Returning to the Yemeni example, aside from the basic social and climatic strife facing the state, the government must also take some ownership over the crisis. In 2015, the Yemeni government cut funding toward water resources by 70%, an astounding decision given the state of water supply in the country. Further, the state’s capital, Sanaa, has seen it’s population grow at an unsustainably high rate, putting further pressure on the cities already stretched infrastructure.


Consistent across all these examples is the changing nature of the climate, and the unpredictability that brings. In a report published by the Scientific American, many states across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa will be required to spend 6% of their GDP on water. Many states are already dependent on their underground aquifers, and the melting of glacial ice will disturb regular weather patterns. These stresses, regardless of any amount of action combat climate change, will be a factor into the future. The focus must therefore shift from a question of avoidance, to the pragmatics of management. As surmised by Carl Bruch of the Environmental Law Institute, “how well a country or community copes with those stresses, depends substantially on governance.”


Whether it’s class warfare in Peru, terrorist tactics in Yemen, or territorial disputes of Kashmir, the access and control of water is affecting conflict the world over, and ultimately the onus falls on governments to recognize an essential truth: that water is an invaluable resource. State policy must reflect this value, otherwise, conflicts of the 21st century will continue to be defined by their relationship to water.  


Oliver Lees