International cooperation over water far outweighs conflict

Researchers at Oregon State University have compiled a dataset of every reported interaction, be it conflictive or cooperative, between two or more nations where water was the driver of the interaction. Their analysis highlighted four key findings.

First, despite the potential for dispute in international basins, the incidence of acute conflict over international water resources is overwhelmed by the rate of cooperation. The last 60 years (1948−2008) have seen only 44 acute disputes (those involving violence), 30 of which occurred between Israel and one of its neighbours. The total number of water-related events between nations of any magnitude is also weighted towards cooperation: 759 conflict-related events versus 1 705 cooperative ones, implying that violence over water is neither strategically rational, nor hydrographically effective, nor economically viable.

Second, despite the fiery rhetoric of politicians − aimed more often at their own constituencies than at the enemy − most actions taken over water are mild. Of all the events, some 40% fall between mild verbal support and mild verbal hostility. If the next level on either side − official verbal support and official verbal hostility − is added into the equation, the share of verbal events reaches about 60% of the total. Thus, almost two-thirds of all events are verbal only and more than two-thirds of these led to no official sanction.

Third, there are more issues of cooperation than of conflict. The distribution of cooperative events covers a broad spectrum, including water quantity, quality, economic development, hydropower and joint management. In contrast, almost 90% of the conflict-laden events relate to quantity and infrastructure. Furthermore, almost all extensive military acts fall within these two categories.

Fourth, despite the lack of violence, water acts as both an irritant and a unifier. As an irritant, water can make good relations bad and bad relations worse. Despite the complexity, however, international waters can act as a unifier in basins with relatively strong institutions.

Aaron T. Wolf.
Sources of water-related conflict and cooperation in transboundary basins.

Excerpt from an article by Annika Kramer, Aaron T. Wolf, Alexander Carius and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, published in A World of Science, volume 11, number 1, January 2013