Water Wars: Fighting Over Earth's Most Precious Fluid

With global water use growing at more than twice the rate of human population increase in the last century, the issue of water security is quickly rising to the top. When it comes to life's most precious fluid, mankind has two very different choices: conflict or cooperation

(3BL Media/Justmeans) -- The first recorded water war occurred more than 4,500 years ago in modern-day Iraq, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Fought between the neighboring ancient city-states of Lagash and Umma over the region known then as "Gu'edena" ("edge of paradise"), the conflict started when the king of Lagash diverted water to canals, depriving Umma from a fresh water supply. This ancient "resource war" is one of the earliest known organized battles in history.

Throughout history, the Tigris-Euphrates river basin—a lush region known as the "Fertile Crescent" that helped Mesopotamia become the central power of the ancient world—has been the site of numerous violent, water-based conflicts. In 1720 BC, a grandson of Hammurabi erected a dam on the Tigris to prevent the retreat of rebels calling for Babylon's independence. In 355 BC, Alexander the Great destroyed the defensive weirs built by the Persians to block navigation. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, Allied Coalition forces destroyed Baghdad's water pumping stations. These are just a few examples. (The Pacific Institute has created an excellent "Water Conflict Chronology List," starting with the Sumerian myth that parallels the Biblical account of Noah and the Great Flood, up to a recent violent conflict between rival Indonesian villages over water access.)

Water scarcity and violent conflict

Today, the people who depend on the Tigris-Euphrates river system—residents of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait—are still at loggerheads over their shared water resource. "No river system better demonstrates the nature of hydrological interdependence," argue Kevin Watkins, an expert on human development and globalization, and Anders Berntell, the executive director of the International Water Institute (SIWI), in an op-ed that sharply draws the connection between water scarcity and violent inter-state conflict.{1}

What makes the situation more worrisome is the fact that the Tigris-Euphrates river basin is losing fresh water at an astonishing rate due to human consumption for drinking and agriculture. Researchers from University of California at Irvine, Georgetown University and NASA, using data gathered by the twin gravity-measuring satellites of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), found that 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of fresh water was lost from 2003 to 2009.

Above: Tigris-Euphrates Basin, September 7, 2006 (image: NASA)

Above: Tigris-Euphrates Basin, September 15, 2009 (image: NASA)

“GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India,” said Jay Famiglietti, the lead investigator of the study, which estimates that majority of the loss is due to groundwater being pumped out faster than natural processes can replace it. “The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.”{2}

This lack of coordination is also rooted in a longstanding competition between the nations that depend on this fresh water for energy, agriculture and human consumption. "In Turkey, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen as an underexploited source of power and irrigation," write Watkins and Berntell. "Viewed from Syria and Iraq, Turkish dams are a threat to hundreds of thousands of livelihoods, with farmers losing access to water. Underpinning the rivalry between states is the idea that sharing water is a zero-sum game: Every drop of water secured by Turkish farmers appears as a loss to Syrian farmers."{3}

Regional problems with global effect

While the Tigris-Euphrates may be the best illustration of hydrological interdependence, recent and ongoing transboundary impacts at many of the world's river systems threaten to destabilize several regions around the globe, many of which are already politically volatile. In 2006, Israel bombed irrigation canals that supplied water from the Litani River to 10,000 acres of farmland in Lebanon. Israel has leveraged its control of two key freshwater sources for Jordan and Palestine: Golan Heights, which supplies the Jordan River watershed, and the West Bank, which has three underground aquifers. In fact, the fight over the water of the Jordan River was one of the causes of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. "Forget oil: The most precious resource in the region flows in the River Jordan," argue Watkins and Berntell, noting that the region, where more than 90 percent of usable water travels across international borders, is "the world's most severely water-stressed."{4} Recently, Egypt has made military threats in response to Ethiopia's construction of a dam on the Blue Nile, recalling Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's famous declaration in 1979: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” Egypt is one of only three nations in the Middle East region that have abundant fresh water, along with Iran and Turkey. Around two-thirds of the Arab world rely on external sources for their water supply.{5} 

Looking eastward, India has not welcomed China's construction of dams along the Yarlung Zangbo River in western Tibet, which flows to the Indian subcontinent. Indian feathers were also ruffled when Chinese engineers suggested that they could divert the course of the Brahmaputra, one of Asia's most important rivers, which flows into the Ganges from southern Tibet, by using a "peaceful nuclear explosion." French journalist and Tibetan expert Claude Arpi suggests that this scenario is one of the reasons that China has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).{6} In sub-Saharan Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, which is economically dependent on water for irrigating coffee crops, has its genesis in water conflict. In the ongoing Sudanese War in Darfur, the Sudanese military and Janjaweed militias have focused attacks on water supplies to displace non-Arab inhabitants; in 2007, it was suggested that the discovery of a huge underground lake in Darfur could be key in ending the war by eliminating water competition. From the Middle East to Africa, from the Indian subcontinent to Asia, it is clear that many states are willing to go to extremes not only to protect their water security, but also to use water as a military weapon.

In March 2012, the U.S. National Intelligence Council released a report, "Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security," which identified North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia as key regions that will face "major challenges coping with water problems."{7} Drafted by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the report was designed to answer one question: How will water problems impact U.S. national security interests over the next 30 years? Its bottom line is a stark warning for American interests that has received barely any coverage by the major news media:

"During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives. Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems."{8}

Managing a finite resource for an exploding population

The Earth is a closed system. All the water on the planet—in the oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and even the snow and rain—is all the water there ever was or ever will be.{9} A tiny 2.5 percent of the Earth's water is fresh water, just 0.4 percent of which occurs on the surface, in the forms of freshwater lakes, rivers and moisture in the atmosphere. (Most surface fresh water is locked up in glaciers.) Considering the skyrocketing human population—a staggering 9.6 billion people by 2050, compared to just 3 billion people as recently as 1960—managing a finite water supply is a difficult and complex task. "By 2050, the demand for water could approach 100 percent of the available supply, producing intense competition for this essential substance in all but a few well-watered areas of the planet," writes Michael T. Klare, author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict.{10} Moreover, we cannot forget that humans aren't the only species that rely on water: Every single living thing must have it to survive. And while water is generally not a primary concern for most people living in the West, where accessing clean water simply means turning on a faucet, the same is not true in the developing world.{11}

Around 1.2 billion people, almost a fifth of the world's population, live where water is scarce, with an additional 500 million approaching similar circumstances. And another 1.6 billion people, almost a quarter of the world's population, live in parts of the world with ample groundwater, but no infrastructure to move it from rivers and aquifers.{12} The United Nations offers a stark prediction: "By 2025, 1800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions."{13} Worldwide, one out of every five deaths of children under five years of age is due to a water-related disease.{14} 

By 2050, fresh water availability in the Middle East and North Africa will drop by 50 percent.{15} In sub-Saharan Africa, where droughts are frequent and severe, water scarcity is a defining characteristic of daily life: Two out of three people there do not have access to a toilet. The region has the lowest percentage of sanitation coverage in the world and the highest concentration of water-stressed countries.{16}{17} Of the world's population without access to clean and safe water, 37 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa.{18} Managing the world's finite water supply and addressing declining access to clean water (not even to mention the steadily increasing demand on critical commodities like iron, copper and a host of precious metals) must be top-level societal concerns, not just in water-stressed regions, but also in the West.

Cooperation or conflict?

Watkins and Berntell ask an important question: "Are we heading for an era of 'hydrological warfare' in which rivers, lakes and aquifers become national security assets to be fought over, or controlled through proxy armies and client states? Or can water act as a force for peace and cooperation?"{19} Looking at the history of water conflicts around the world, the future may look grim. But the National Intelligence Council believes otherwise, stating in their report that "a water-related state-on-state conflict is unlikely during the next 10 years." Moreover, these water stresses may in fact lead to cooperation, not conflict. The Council points out: "Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts." But looking beyond 10 years, as "water shortages become more acute," their assessment turns into a grave warning: "Water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon to further terrorist objectives will also become more likely."{20}

The current facts on the ground are staggering. But there are solutions. "There is enough freshwater on the planet for seven billion people," notes the United Nations, "but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed."{21} The world's leading program to help stakeholders navigate water issues and prevent water conflict is the joint UNESCO–Green Cross International project entitled "From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential" (PCCP), launched in 2006 as part of the UN initiative to promote 21st-century water security around the world. Several interstate treaties have proved successful. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, for example, have been working on their shared water security since 1957 within the framework of the Mekong River Commission. The World Bank-brokered Indus Waters Treaty, a water-sharing agreement between India and Pakistan, survived the three Indo-Pakistani Wars. In 1999, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo signed the Nile Basin Initiative to cooperate on their shared water resource.

"The more than 3,600 agreements and treaties signed are an achievement in themselves," acknowledges the UN, but quick to point out that "a closer look at them still reveals significant weaknesses."{22} And with current tensions of water simmering across the globe, cooperation is far from guaranteed. In addition, even if cooperation wins the day, growing water scarcity will have an impact both on quality of life as well as economics—not just in terms of water privatization, but across the multitude of water-intensive industries, such as agriculture, food manufacturing and energy utilities. "At minimum, acute resource scarcity will lead the world into a period when the average prices for commodities—arable land, water, minerals, and oil—will skyrocket to permanently higher levels…[a]nd higher prices will, inevitably, lead to worsening living standards across the world," argues economist Dambisa Moyo in her book Winner Take All: China's Race for Resources and What It Means for the World.{23}

Watkins and Berntell offer a broad four-part solution: 1) governments must improve internal water policies that support efficiency and conservation; 2) countries must not act unilaterally and negotiate such things as river alterations and shared groundwater usage; 3) governments must establish intergovernmental river-basin institutions to identify and exploit opportunities for cooperation, including more involvement and aid from donor countries (the European Union in particular, can play an important role due to its success in building institutions that manage rivers like the Danube and the Rhine); and 4) political leaders must get involved in conversations that are "dominated by technical experts" in which "the absence of political leadership tends to limit the scope for far-reaching cooperation."{24}

These are excellent recommendations, as is the United Nations call for the addition to all the water treaties of "monitoring provisions, enforcement mechanisms, and specific water allocation provisions that address variations in water flow and changing needs."{25} But will governments follow these recommendations? Looking at the history and future possibility of water conflict brings up an even more fundamental question: Are humans essentially competitive or cooperative? One thing is for certain: At the rate that we are depleting the Earth's finite resources, we will soon find out.



1. Watkins, Kevin, and Anders Berntell. "A global problem: How to avoid war over water." International Herald Tribune. August 23, 2006. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/opinion/23iht-edwatkins.2570814.html.

2. NASA Earth Observatory, "Freshwater Stores Shrank in Tigris-Euphrates Basin." Last modified March 13, 2013. Accessed March 14, 2014. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=80613.

3. Ibid., 1.

4. Ibid.

5. "What role have natural resources played in the politics and economy of the Middle East?" Global Connections: The Middle East. Public Broadcasting Service. October 15, 2002. Accessed March 12, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/globalconnections/mideast/questions/resource/.

6. Arpi, Claude. Born in Sin: The Panchsheel Agreement: the Sacrifice of Tibet. New Dehli: Mittal Publications, 2004. Web. Accessed March 14, 2014. http://books.google.com/books?id=bR9CS0rSI-oC&dq. Arpi recently wrote about the possibility of China's diversion of the Brahmaputra by using a tunnel. See Arpi, Claude. "The 'feasibility of diverting the Brahmaputra." February 17, 2014. Accessed March 14, 2014. http://claudearpi.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-feasibility-of-diverting-brahmaputra.html.

7. U.S. National Intelligence Council. "Global Water Security." Intelligence Community Assessment. ICA 2012-8. February 2, 2012. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Special%20Report_ICA%20Global%20Water%20Security.pdf.

8. Ibid.

9. While the ability to "create water" by fusing hydrogen and oxygen molecules together is possible and may become feasible on a large scale in the future, those individual molecules are still finite within the Earth's closed environment.

10. Michael T. Klare. "The New Geography of Conflict." Foreign Affairs. May/June 2001. Web. Accessed March 17, 2014. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/57030/michael-t-klare/the-new-geography-of-conflict.

11. While water scarcity in the West is generally not as critical an issue as it is in water-stressed nations, the issue of fracking's negative effect on groundwater has sparked regional clashes in the U.S. and Europe. Additionally, there are longstanding regional conflicts across the Western world, such as the ongoing legal and political battle over water rights in the water-stressed American West.

12. Human Development Report 2006. United Nations Development Programme. 2006. Accessed Mar 12, 2014. http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml.

13. United Nations. "Water Scarcity." UN Water. Accessed Mar 12, 2014. http://www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/unwater_new/docs/water_scarcity.pdf.

14. The Water Project. "Facts About Water: Statistics of the Water Crisis." August 17, 2011. Accessed March 12, 2014. http://thewaterproject.org/water_stats.php.

15. United Nations. "Water scarcity among critical food security issues in Near East and North Africa." February 20, 2013. Accessed March 14, 2014. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47181.

16. Japan International Cooperation Agency. "The Challenge of Improving Sanitation in Sub-Saharan Africa: Finding a Way to Change People’s Behaviors and Build a Community without Water-Borne Diseases." June 6, 2003. Accessed March 16, 2014. http://www.jica.go.jp/english/news/focus_on/ticad_v/articles/article24.html.

17. UNICEF. "Water, Sanitation and Hygiene." May 29, 2013. Accessed March 16, 2014. http://www.unicef.org/wash/index_statistics.html.

18. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. "Water Uses." AQUASTAT.  February 17, 2011. Accessed March 16, 2014. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/water_use/index.stm.

19. Ibid., 1.

20. Ibid., 7.

21. Human Development Report 2006. United Nations Development Programme. 2006. Accessed March 12, 2014. http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml.

22. United Nations. "Transboundary Waters." International Decade for Action 'Water for Life' 2005-2015. Last modified March 17, 2014. Accessed March 17, 2014. http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/transboundary_waters.shtml.

23. Dambisa Moyo. Winner Take All: China's Race for Resources and What It Means for the World. New York: Basic Books, 2012. p. 2.

24. Ibid., 1.

25. United Nations. "Transboundary Waters." International Decade for Action 'Water for Life' 2005-2015. Last modified March 17, 2014. Accessed March 17, 2014. http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/transboundary_waters.shtml.

top image: "War Industry Needs Water," U.S. war propaganda poster (United States Library of Congress)