Disputes over water will be an increasing source of international tension

Violence over water access is on the rise

Feb 28th 2019Print edition | Special report

IT HAS BECOME a cliché of doom-mongering: future wars will be over water. The forecast is old enough to face a sceptical backlash. Whatever happened, people ask, to the water wars? One answer emphasises the role water has played in past conflicts. In his autobiography, Ariel Sharon, who before becoming Israel’s prime minister had been a commander in the six-day war of 1967, wrote that it “really started on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan…The matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death.”

Another answer is that, though many conflicts involve water, it is rarely their sole motivation. That will remain true. But it also seems likely that water will be an aspect of ever more conflicts. A chronology maintained by the Pacific Institute, a think-tank in Oakland, California, of water-linked conflicts, shows a startling increase in their number in just the past few years (see chart).

The institute distinguishes between three types of violence. Sometimes water itself can be used as a weapon, as when China in 1938 breached dykes along the Yellow River to repel the Japanese army, or, just last year al-Shabaab, a terrorist group, diverted water from the Jubba river in Somalia, causing a flood that forced opposing forces to move to higher ground where they were ambushed.

Sometimes water is the trigger, as last year when conflicts over pasture land and water led to violence in both northern Kenya, and central Nigeria, where 11 people were killed in an attack by Fulani herdsmen on a farming community. Finally, water installations can also be the target of military action, as in 2006 when Hezbollah rockets damaged a wastewater plant in Israel, which mounted retaliatory attacks on water facilities in Lebanon. Last year, during ethnic strife in the populous Oromia region of Ethiopia, dozens of water systems were attacked.

Most water conflicts will be subnational disputes. But transboundary tensions are also likely to intensify. A study last year by the Joint Research Centre, a think-tank under the European Commission, used computer modelling to rank the rivers where these are most likely to flare up. Its scientists listed five: the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates and Colorado.

In all these instances, downstream nations fear or resent the effect on their waters of the actions of upstream countries. Egypt worries about the Grand Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, about 40km from the Sudanese border. India and Bangladesh fear that China’s water-diversion ambitions might one day turn towards the Brahmaputra as a source for China’s thirsty north. South-East Asian nations are concerned, too. Pakistan and India, in turn, squabble over the treaty they concluded in 1960 (to which the World Bank was also a signatory) on sharing the waters of the Indus.

In contrast, no treaty regulates the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where dam construction in Turkey has reduced flow in Iraq and Syria. The Colorado river is shared by seven US states and two in Mexico. After a 19-year drought, water flow has dropped by nearly 20%. In Mexico, the river that created the Grand Canyon and fed a vast marshy delta has, for two decades, been almost completely dry.