September 18, 2023

IntelBrief: Not a Drop to Drink: Water Scarcity Gives Rise to Local Violence, International Disputes

AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • As rising global temperatures destroy lakes, rivers, and glaciers, climate change is depriving vulnerable states of a singularly life-giving resource just as their growing populations demand more water for agriculture and basic survival.
  • Although interstate “water wars” have not yet become a reality, competition over dwindling shared water sources has already proven a major diplomatic challenge in the MENA region, as well as Central Asia and the Caribbean.
  • Most violence resulting from water scarcity has occurred locally, although tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile River remain a significant flashpoint.
  • African states like Guinea and Burkina Faso have subdued the violence underlying their own water scarcity with effective conflict resolution systems, while other states have compensated for scarcity with more efficient water management practices.

Given the singular role that water plays in sustaining life, it is no exaggeration to say that the impact of climate change on water availability is a chief civilizational concern. Besides denying communities clean drinking water, inconsistent rainfall and the loss of terrestrial water sources – from rapidly drying reservoirs to melting glaciers that have traditionally fed rivers – can be disastrous for food production, which accounts for approximately seventy percent of global water usage. As more communities recognize that they can no longer rely on their traditional sources of water, some have speculated that competition over this precious resource could drive states into war with their neighbors. Fights over water have already bred deadly armed conflict at the local and regional levels, particularly where agriculture and livestock are economic mainstays.

As pastoralists in West Africa and drought-stricken parts of the Sahel are forced to travel farther and into new territories to find places for their animals to graze and drink, they have found themselves at odds with settled farmers, whose growing practice is edging herders off shrinking strips of available land. Besides the immediate competition over natural resources, new migratory patterns may also place herders with different religious and ethnic communities at odds with one another, creating another potential point of tension. Adding to these burdens, water competition is just one springboard for violence in communities that may already be facing deadly threats from bandits and criminals, terrorist groups, and predatory governments or host-nation security forces.

All of this has led to particularly deadly outcomes in Nigeria – which has seen more deaths from pastoralist-farmer conflicts than any of the fifteen members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – and Mali, where farmers and pastoralists have taken up small arms that have flowed out of Libya to settle their grievances. Once unleashed, it can be difficult to ensure these conflicts do not spread into the wider communities. Yet even with the region’s high risks for both violence and water scarcity, not all Sahelian states share the same fate. Communities in Mauritania, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger have proven more adept at managing local conflicts, the UN Office on West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) has noted. Buttressed by agreements regarding farmers’ and herders’ rights and responsibilities, local conflict management committees have prevented these tensions from boiling over, according to UNOWAS. Some believe they can serve as a model for other conflicts with similar dynamics at play.

As this threat scales up to the international level, some critics of “water war” prognosticators believe the threat of water-inspired state-on-state violence has been overblown. As major global actors like the UN and the World Bank warned of dire water scarcity predictions across the world, a 2019 editorial in the International Journal of Water Resources Development suggested that these concerns were largely unfounded, given that some supposedly water-stressed countries had overcome their constrained resources through improvements in water management and planning. To make their case, the authors point to Singapore to show how, through more efficient water management and planning, the country has managed to avoid water stress for several decades and anticipates being able to do so for several more. The country had expected to rank, along with several Middle Eastern states, as the most water-stressed country in the world, according to the World Resources Institute. Yet this does little to explain why countries that fall short in managing their resources, or are deprived of them by more powerful neighbors, would not resort to war to get the resources they need in a state of emergency.

Compensating for its lack of natural water sources, for instance, Israel has also enjoyed notable success in utilizing techniques like desalination and wastewater recycling. Such methods provided more than half of the water used by Israeli households in 2015. Yet one cannot mention water rights in Israel without discussing its conflict with Palestine, where water is but one of the many contentious issues that inflame Palestinian tensions. In the occupied territories of the West Bank, Israel exerts unilateral control over water resources, which accounted for 40 percent of Israel’s water usage prior to the development of advanced water development technologies. This has created a vastly unequal system: not only must Palestinians who wish to develop their own wells and other water development projects first obtain Israeli authorization; but they are also far less likely to see their requests approved than Israeli settlers. Meanwhile, Palestinians also pay three times more for water than Israelis in the territories. Agreements from the 1990s that would have given the Palestinians greater control over this resource have fallen apart as bilateral relations tanked following the assassination of the conciliatory Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. While Israel reportedly offered to build a desalination plant for the West Bank amid this deterioration, the Palestinians allegedly rejected this offer out of fear that this would force them to renounce their claims to a disputed aquifer.

Elsewhere in the world, these concerns continue to ratchet up international tensions. Last week, the Dominican Republic shut down its border and sent military units to the area over an unauthorized construction project in Haitian territory along the countries’ shared Massacre River. The situation could be especially hard to curtail, given that the essentially non-existent Haitian government has minimal control over its national territory. The Haitian prime minister himself has said the state is not involved in the project. Earlier this summer, the already-shaky diplomatic engagement between Iran and the Taliban was threatened as their troops began fighting along their countries’ border in a dispute over the Helmand River. In Iraq, a spokesperson for the national water ministry also announced over the summer that the country’s water reserves had sunk to half the prior year’s levels, marking the lowest levels in Iraq’s known history. The ministry also expects the country’s two main rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, to completely dry up by 2040. The country’s problems hail not only from climate disruptions, but also management related to unauthorized water-use projects as well as dams in Türkye and Iran. In Central Asia, where energy ambitions related to hydroelectric dams also pose a challenge for resource sharing, tensions in 2012 led the president of Uzbekistan to explicitly warn his neighbors that water competition could “deteriorate to the point where … even wars could be the result.”

One of the most pronounced international disputes over water rights may be in Egypt, whose self-declared state of “water poverty” will only be compounded by threats to its Nile River claims stemming from an Ethiopian dam project. Nearing completion, what will soon be the continent’s largest hydroelectric dam has drawn severe criticism from Egyptian officials, as Ethiopia has signaled it will not abide by a century-old treaty that gives Egypt (and to a lesser extent, Sudan) substantial water rights over the Nile. While Ethiopia sees the electricity-generating dam as a means of vaulting itself into the ranks of the middle-income states, the project is so detested in Egypt that its politicians in 2013 suggested arming Ethiopian rebel groups to sabotage the dam or using their own military forces to bomb it. Prior to being deposed, Egypt’s former president, Mohammed Morsi, had also threatened Ethiopia with war over the dam, and though the current president once said a military response was inappropriate, following years of failed negotiations, Abdel Fattah El Sisi has reiterated that “all options are open.”