There is no evidence of coming ‘water wars’

Strikingly, the territory of 148 nations falls within international basins and more than 30 countries are located almost entirely within these basins. In all, there are 276 international basins. These cover around 45% of the Earth’s land surface, host about 40% of the world’s population and account for approximately 60% of global river flow.

International river basins

Source: International River Basin Registry, Oregon State University

The high level of interdependence is illustrated by the number of countries sharing each international basin (see table); the dilemmas posed by basins like the Danube, shared by 19 European countries, or the Nile, shared by 11 African countries, can easily be imagined.

The high number of shared rivers, combined with increasing water scarcity for growing populations, led many politicians and headlines to trumpet coming ‘water wars.’ In 1995, for example, former World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin claimed that ‘the wars of the next century will be about water.’ Invariably, these warnings point to the arid and hostile Middle East, where armies have mobilized and fired shots over this scarce and precious resource. Elaborate, if misnamed, ‘hydraulic imperative’ theories cite water as the prime motivation for military strategies and territorial conquests, particularly in the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

The only problem with this scenario is a lack of evidence. In 1951–1953 and again in 1964–1966, Israel and Syria exchanged fire over the latter’s project to divert the Jordan River but the final exchange, featuring assaults by both tanks and aircraft, stopped construction and effectively ended water-related tensions between the two states. Nevertheless, the 1967 war broke out less than a year later. Water had little, if any, impact on the military’s strategic thinking in subsequent Israelo-Arab violence, including the 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars, yet water was an underlying source of political stress and one of the most difficult topics in subsequent negotiations. In other words, even though the wars were not fought over water, allocation agreements were an impediment to peace.

While water supplies and infrastructure have often served as military tools or targets, no states have gone to war specifically over water resources since the city-states of Lagash and Umma fought each other in the Tigris−Euphrates Basin in 2500 BCE. Instead, according to FAO, more than 3 600 water treaties were signed from 805 to 1984 CE. Whereas most were related to navigation, over time, a growing number addressed water management, including flood control, hydropower projects or allocations in international basins. Since 1820, more than 680 water treaties and other water-related agreements have been signed, with more than half of these concluded in the past 50 years.

The historical record proves that international water disputes do get resolved, even among enemies and even as conflicts erupt over other issues. Some of the world’s most vociferous enemies have negotiated water agreements or are in the process of doing so and the institutions they have created often prove to be resilient, even when relations are strained.

The Mekong Committee, for example, established by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as an intergovernmental agency in 1957, exchanged data and information on water resources development throughout the Vietnam War (1955−1975). Israel and Jordan have held secret ‘picnic table’ talks on managing the Jordan River following the unsuccessful Johnston negotiations of 1953–1955, even though they were at war from the time of Israel’s independence in 1948 until the 1994 peace treaty. The Indus River Commission set up under the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan in 1960 survived two major Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965 and 1971. All 11 Nile Basin riparian countries are also currently involved in senior government-level negotiations to develop the basin cooperatively, despite continuing disagreement between upstream and downstream states.

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Botswana’s claims for water to sustain the Okavango delta and its lucrative ecotourism industry contribute to a dispute with upstream Namibia, which wants to pipe water passing through the Caprivi Strip to supply its capital city with drinking water.

In Southern Africa, a number of river basin agreements were signed when the region was embroiled in a series of local wars in the 1970s and 1980s, including the ‘people’s war’ in South Africa and civil wars in Mozambique and Angola. Although negotiations were complex, the agreements were rare moments of peaceful cooperation between many of the countries. After most of the wars and the apartheid era had ended, water proved to be one of the foundations for cooperation in the region. In fact, the 1995 Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems was the first protocol to be signed within the Southern African Development Community.

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