International Water Conflict

Water is one of the most precious commodities for human beings. To some, it is the very lifeblood of the world. From time immemorial, the availability of water has determined the rhythms of daily life in many regions. The critical importance of water to the survival of the human race can be seen in the earliest civilizations whose growth and sustenance were closely tied to its water distribution systems. Many authors have located the importance of water in different religious observances.

In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the rivers of the earth, including the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, originate from the mythical Mount Meru, the living place for the gods. In the Christian tradition, the waters originate from the Garden of Eden, and that divides the world into greatest streams: the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. Islam also gives water its due importance. The holy book Koran describes that every living thing is made from water.

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As Caponera points out, it seems that in the Koran, the most precious creation after humankind is water.

There is a water crisis today. Water is not only a ‘commodity’, it is synonymous with life. All life on earth is dependent on water. If water is life, its possession bestows power. Water has crucial economic value, and it is a subsistence resource. Also, water has an emotional and symbolic value for certain countries and communities. The scarcity of water is increasing worldwide and its quality is continuously deteriorating. Water shortages reduce food production, aggrandize poverty, amplify disease and force people to migrate.

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The scarcity of water also undermines the state’s capacity to govern. Nearly half of the world’s population lives in international river basins. Sharing of the international rivers can therefore be a serious object of contention between riparian nations. For the last few years, ‘water war’ has been a topic of widespread debate. However, wars over river water are likely only under a narrow set of circumstances, as there are also more examples of water cooperation than water conflict among countries.

Nevertheless, the increasing scarcity of water raises doubt about the sustainability of these cooperative agreements over the international rivers. Water scarcity is particularly severe in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, owing to population growth, urbanization and industrialization. Whether the water crisis intensifies the dispute over the shared waters or whether it can be turned towards sustainable cooperative management of river resources, depends on many interacting processes.

In this book (International conflict over water resources), after analyzing the existing sharing mechanisms of the major international river systems in these regions, argues that the real solution lies in a comprehensive approach to river basin management. The scarcity of water is increasing worldwide and the quality of the water is continually deteriorating. The growing global water stress poses a threat to the survival and prosperity of present and future generations. The gap between the needs of the growing population and the diminishing fresh water resources is widening every day.

In the arid and tropical regions, where countries possess a very limited supply of water, it is not difficult to perceive the consequences. Water, a key necessity of life, can also cause friction between communities and countries, particularly in climatic zones where it is hard to come by. The over-exploitation of water resources might result in an acute shortage. From this perspective, it will be impossible for all the social actors to remain comfortable with the present or future prospects of the availability of the resource.

These actors will work purposefully and consciously for their own interests. Increasing competition can potentially destroy the existing social arrangements for water distribution in the society. Newly organized actors with conflict behaviors might emerge in the future or the incompatibilities between existing actors might grow in societies with a weak administrative structure and laden with ethnic and social dichotomies. Scarce water resources can potentially trigger conflicts between the state and its internal groups.

The development of water resources by the state by building dams, irrigation infrastructures, or industries in a particular region might be perceived by the local population as exploitation for the interest of others. Regional parties may be activated or environmental groups may be formed to challenge the actions of the state. If a particular group is involved in exploiting more than its ‘perceived’ share of water with the backing of the state, then this inter-group conflict may escalate into conflict between the exploited group and the state itself.

As discussed earlier, the construction of large dams for the ‘efficient’ use of water resources has created tension between the state and a group of its own citizens in the past few years. The growing demand for irrigation and energy activates the state agencies to plan and build mega hydro-projects, which displace large population and inundate vast areas. In many places, the project affected population takes up of the struggle against the state. The list of mega dams that have witnessed this sort of protest is very long.

The major ones include: Sanmenxia and Three Gorges in China; Madur Oya and Mahavali Project in Sri Lanka; Mangla, Nanela and Tarbela in Pakistan; Kaptai in Bangladesh; Arun in Nepal; Akasombo in Ghana; Kossou in Ivory Coast; Tana and Athi in Kenya; Itaparica and Tucurui in Brazil; Kainji and Niger Dams in Nigeria; Ataturk and Keban in Turkey; Lam Pao and Nam Pong in Thailand; Kedong Ombo and Batang Ai in Indonesia; Upper Pampanga in Philippines; Manantali in Mali; Savajina in Colombia; Brokopondo in Suriname; Caracol and Netzahualcoyotl in Mexico; and Nam Ngum in Laos.

India, currently in the forefront of dam construction, deserves a separate list of its own. The Indian hydro-projects that have recently led to protest movements by the displaced people are: Pong Dam, Subarnarekha Project, Nagarjunsagar Project, Srisailam Project, Lower Manair Dam, Upper Krishna Projects, Tehri Dam, Narmada Projects and Ukai Reservoir Project. Sometimes disagreement over the development and sharing of water resources may begin with competing groups inside a state, but the state’s perceived favour of a particular group brings the state as a party to the conflict.

Similarly, if the water source exploitation is perceived as the state’s intentional act on a particular region or people, a group identity may form, leading to conflict with the state. The construction of dams for hydropower generations in the northern part of Sweden to provide energy to the industries and factories in the South has become an area of disagreement between the Sami people of the North and the Swedish state. The Samis, who live in the forests in the Arctic Circle, accuse the state of favoring city dwellers at the cost of their livelihood and welfare.

Even though this dispute has not transformed into a violent separatist movement, the reactions to similar issues in South Asia have been quite different. Disagreement over the sharing of river water from the Indus river system has been one of the major causes of violent secessionist movement in the Punjab province of India in the 1980s and 1990s. This Sikh-dominated province has been traditionally provided with a water supply from the Beas, Sutlej and Ravi Rivers.

The demands of the downstream provinces of Rajasthan and Haryana persuaded the Indian government to construct canals and divert 60 per cent of Punjab’s water and energy to those Hindu-majority regions. This became one of the major motivations for the Sikh Party (Akali Dal) to ask for autonomy in the 1970s, which subsequently transformed into an extreme violent secessionist movement in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other side of the border, the dispute over the sharing of the same Indus river system water has also played a critical role in a major separatist movement in Pakistan.

The Pakistani part of Punjab, which is economically and politically the most powerful province in the country, takes advantage of its upstream location and consumes most of the waters of the Indus river system through the help of barrages and dams, ignoring the demand of the downstream Sind province. The perceived close tie of the federal government with the Punjab province has escalated this conflict between the Sind province and the Pakistani government. The link between fresh water resources and international conflicts can be investigated at least in two different dimensions.

First, in an interstate conflict, the deliberate targeting of water storage facilities may be directly responsible for inducing water scarcity or reducing the water quality of the opponent. Thus, water scarcity becomes part of a military strategy and military behavior. The British Royal Air Force damaged a few German dams in the bombing runs of 1943. Dams and dykes were destroyed during the Korean and Vietnam wars by the US bombing. Iran claimed to have hit a hydroelectric station in Iraq in July 1981, as part of the Iran-Iraq War. Dams, water storage and conveyance systems were targeted by the warring sides during the 1991 Gulf War.

Allied forces even had thought of a plan to shut off the flow of water to Iraq by using the Ataturk Dam in Turkey. Armies in Yemen (in the 1994 war) and former Yugoslavia (1991-95) used the water storage facilities as targets to create problems for their adversaries. In January 1993, the Serbian militia seriously damaged the Peruca Dam in Croatia. There are cases where in fact a human population is held hostage to political and military leaders. Manipulation with such basic human supplies in times of war should be an urgent issue for international humanitarian law, and it certainly would be unacceptable under conditions of peace.

However, the aim here is to concentrate on a second dimension of the relationship: the likelihood of changes in fresh water resource supply to cause or contribute to the emergence and/or escalation of conflicts among states. As discussed before, there has been a general decline in the quantity and quality of global fresh water resource. This leads us to consider scarcity of resources as a cause of conflict, in conflict theory language: an incompatibility between already existing parties. A common starting point in the analysis of many inter-state conflicts has been sought in the desire of the leaders of states to acquire territory.

In the post-Second World War period, it has become unfashionable and immoral to conquer territories of others. Nevertheless this has happened repeatedly, for instance, in the Middle East, in South and Southeast Asia and lately in Europe. Huth characterizes territorial dispute as ‘one of the enduring features of international politics’. But, why do states fight for each other’s territory? As Toset, Gleditsch and Hegre explain, ‘territory can be a symbol of self-determination and national identity, but it can also be a proxy for tangible resources found on the territory’.

Thus, access to water supply can be a motive of waging war. Under special circumstances it is a possibility that scarcity of fresh water resources may give rise to serious armed conflict. “Water is not transported across large distances, as is the case with oil or minerals, for instance. In the post-Second World War period, political actions are taking place more in order to satisfy the demands of the majorities of a country. ” (Barrett, S. 1994, p. 24) This means that stronger nations might be more in need of natural resources on the territory of other states, to meet the growing needs and desires of the home population.

In this way, ‘development’ might be seen to require the acquisition or exploitation of a larger share of jointly owned fresh water resource. The water on the surface of the earth is naturally organized within river basins. The river basins are the fundamental units of the fresh water world and the central feature of the ecology of the planet. Moreover, the river runoff is the most important source of available fresh water for human consumption. However, the rivers do not follow the political boundaries; nearly 260 rivers flow from one country to another.

More than 40 per cent of the world’s population is directly dependent upon the fresh water from these international rivers and about two-thirds of these people live in developing countries. The use or misuse of water in the upstream countries affects its quantity and quality in the downstream countries. Downstream nations can affect the flow of water by building large-scale dams, with effects spilling over the borders. The International Water Management Institute in Colombo projects that in 2025, 3 billion people will be living in countries facing water stress.

Water tables are increasingly falling in every continent. Many developing countries already face serious problems in meeting rapidly growing water demands. In order to meet such demands, further pressure is being placed on these ‘blue’ water resources, this over-exploitation resulting in acute shortages. Faced with such scarcity, water has increasingly become a source of social tension, bringing further competition and creating conflict which, together, have the potential to destroy the existing arrangements for water distribution.

Even though such tensions are omnipresent, they tend to be more complex and difficult where international rivers, lakes and aquifers are concerned. The Centre for Natural Resources, Energy and Transport (CNRET), now a defunct UN unit, brought out a Register of International Rivers in 1978. In that it listed 214 internationally shared rivers and lakes: 57 in Africa, 40 in Asia, 48 in Europe, 33 in North America and 36 in South America. The CNRET study has become dated because of significant changes in international geopolitical borders and names of countries and rivers in the last 25 years.

The names of some countries and rivers have also changed in this period. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia and Czechoslovakia has helped to increase the number of internationally shared rivers and lakes, and also the number of basin countries. For example, the Volga River is now international, and the Aral Sea is shared by at least four independent states. The re-unification of Germany and Yemen has made the Weser basin and the Teban basin national, contributing to a decrease in the number of international fresh water resources.

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International Water Conflict. (2017, Mar 10). Retrieved from

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