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Water Conflict

Author: Colonel Seakle KB Godschalk ~ Environmental Services, SANDF

( Article Type: Explanation )

Scarce water - source of conflict or opportunity for cooperation?
Fresh water is an important natural resource for the survival and economic development of humankind. It is also a scarce resource, despite statements like -The total quantity of water on earth exceeds all conceivable needs of the human population,- which was made by American hydrologist Robert Ambroggi.

The problem is that it is not always available, and not evenly distributed. Only about 1% of all fresh water on Earth is readily available for man to use, the remainder being encapsulated in ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow, as well as inaccessible underground sources. In Africa, the Congo River alone contains more than half of Africa's run-off and would be sufficient to supply all of Africa's water requirements. However, it is often unfeasible to distribute water from such highly concentrated sources to far-off areas. This results in many countries being highly water deprived.

Conflict over water?
Forty percent of the world population lives in more than 200 river basins that are shared by two or more countries. This in itself points to the potential for conflict over water. Since the beginning, humankind has been plagued by conflicts. Reasons for these conflicts vary but also include conflict over access to scarce resources potentially including fresh water. Fresh water as a source of conflict is peculiar in that it is a 'fugitive' resource, its availability is continuously changing over time and space.

'Wars of the next century will be over water.' - Ismael Serageldin, World Bank Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development during a water conference in Stockholm in August 1995


This statement caused popular media to develop sensational scenarios of countries going to war over water. Empirical evidence shows that until now no true water wars (where access to fresh water was the sole or main casus belli) have ever been fought. Some experts deduce from this that future water wars are highly unlikely. However, war is only the ultimate way of dealing with interstate conflicts, the extreme on a continuum of conflict resolution mechanisms. The strategic importance of an issue will determine whether a country will actually go to war over an issue if no other option seems to be available. Of course, as war is a very destructive and prohibitively expensive option, a country will weigh up all options as well as advantages and disadvantages before following this avenue. But in principle it must be accepted that a country might go to war over any issue that is of such strategic nature and affects its survival so fundamentally, that it has no other option (if all other avenues have failed) than to wage war over it.

Egypt is 95% dependent on Nile water, 86% of which originates in the Ethiopian highlands. 'If Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to the Nile waters, there will be no alternative for us but to use force.' President Anwar el-Sadat in 1980. 'The only thing that could make Egypt ever go to war again would be an attempt by Ethiopia or another power to divert the Nile.' Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1985, when serving as Egypt's foreign minister.

Homer-Dixon argues that water wars can only be expected when four conditions are met simultaneously. This specifically applies to a situation where a downstream country's main water supply comes from sources upstream, which are not under its control.

  • The degree of dependence of the downstream country on these external water resources. The higher the degree of dependence the higher the possibility of the affected country going to war over water.
  • The ability of the upstream country to affect the supply of water to the downstream country either by restricting the flow or by affecting the quality thereof. If the upstream country does not have this capability, it does not really pose a threat to the downstream country.
  • The degree and history of antagonism between the two countries. If they already have a history of antagonism, the likelihood of armed conflict over water resources is stronger.
  • The relative military strength of the two countries. If the downstream country is militarily inferior to the upstream country, it obviously has to seek alternative ways of addressing the problem.

If all these conditions exist in a particular situation, it is likely that a water war may erupt. According to Homer-Dixon, the Nile River is the only situation where all these factors are relevant and where a water war may perhaps be expected if the respective role players do not address the problem timeously and effectively. Even if true water wars may not be likely, water scarcity may contribute to tension between neighbouring countries. Conflict over access to fresh water is known to contribute to tensions between countries sharing the Nile, Tigris/Euphrates and Jordan rivers. Added to other sources of tension - i.e. political, economical and/or cultural - this could eventually lead to armed conflict.

The importance of dealing with situations of tension/conflict over access to fresh water resources must, therefore, not be underestimated. Measures should include increasing water supply (although this is in many cases not possible), reducing water demand (also difficult in situations of emerging economic development), and developing mechanisms to cope with water scarcity and changes in life styles.

Instituting Shared Water Management Mechanisms between water-sharing countries is essential for dealing with this challenge on a political and technical level. The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses as well as the Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems in the Southern African Development Community Region can serve as the basis for such arrangements.

'Water conflicts are inevitable if we continue to do nothing to prevent them from occurring' - Peter Ashton 2000