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Neil Summerton




My aim is to offer a briefing on the subject of water and conflict. There is not time to go into too much detail on particular situations.


In the last 20 years, the spectre has been raised of ‘water wars’.  The focus of concern is that access to water as a key natural resource will become, is bound to become, a main cause of conflict – analogous to the significance in the 20th century of access to oil as a strategic resource and therefore a casus belli.


This has been given prominence at the political level, particularly by UN personalities:


·         In the 1980s, the late King Hussein of Jordan and Boutros Boutros Ghali are reputed to have said something to the effect that ‘the next war in the Middle East will be over water’. More recently, Ghali said unequivocally, “The waters of the Nile will be the cause of the next war in our region, not politics.” (Le monde, 28.1.2000, p. 27)

·         In 1995, the Egyptian Ismail Serageldin, when vice-president of the World Bank asserted: ‘…many of the wars of this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be about water’ (NY Times, 10.8.95) (Serageldin has subsequently advanced his career in international diplomacy very much in the field of water.)

·         Five years later, Kofi Annan as Secretary General was only a little more guarded when he said: ‘…fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and war in the future’.

·         On 28 February 2006 The Independent reported John Reid as saying that climate change would make water wars more likely and that British armed forces must be ready to tackle the violence.


In our times, the threat of apocalypse – whether it is BSE or avian flu or nuclear contamination or straightforward war – certainly sells newspapers.  And these statements by politicians and public servants have been given ready prominence by journalists.  Last January, in an surprisingly-long article in the Daily Mail, the main point of which was the wise advice that in the UK we should stop taking water for granted and start to think about more careful use, Sir Max Hastings spent some column inches on ‘tensions about supply [which] are…matters of life and death.’ (Daily Mail, 21.1.06).


The concern has been taken up by those operating in the margins between journalism, academia and public advocacy – notably by the British reporter, Adel Darwish[1], the South African, Marq de Villiers in the well-noticed Water Wars: Is the World’s Water Running Out? (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999) and the Indian, Vandana Shiva in her Water Wars: Pollution, Profits and Privatization (Pluto, 2002) and Globalization’s New Wars: Seed, Waters and Life Forms (Women Unlimited, 2005).


These sentiments have sparked a considerable academic industry.  Interestingly, this expert community is significantly sceptical about the concept – for the reasons which we shall shortly explore.


Freshwater – a global summary

Water is essential to biological life in the universe.  In our solar system, there is very little of it about.  The earth is distinguished however by being a very watery planet, as has been pressed upon us by the views from space that we have had since only the 1960s.  97.5% of that water is sea water.  Of the remaining 2.5%, much is locked up in the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, and large further amounts in the lakes of northern Canada. Of the unfrozen freshwater, 20% is in Lake Baikal.  It has been calculated that only some [0.75%] of the earth’s water is available for use by the 6.3 billion humans who now populate the planet – and, of course, that water must also suffice for the other biota who are dependent upon it.


This figure is sometimes used in environmental press releases to frighten us into thinking that freshwater is inherently scarce. This is however a potentially fallacious use of facts.  The relevant question is whether this 0.75% is sufficient to meet human needs – for health and hygiene purposes, for recreation, for the transport of detritus away from human settlements (30% of UK domestic water use is in toilet flushing), for food production, for industry and so on. (Water is of course also used by humans for other uses, such as, transport, fishing, recreation and a source of power.)  In this context, it should be borne in mind that 70% of human water use is in agricultural irrigation, and between 85 and 90% in dry areas of the world – in order to produce crops for human consumption, directly or indirectly (in the latter case in the form of meat). In recent times, irrigation has involved a great deal of wastage and evapo-transpiration through poor practices, in the developed world as much as elsewhere (eg, in the Murray-Darling basin in Australia and parts of the USA).


The phenomenon of evapo-transpiration reminds us that water is a renewable resource.  In the long run, we do not lose it - it becomes available for re-use through the water cycle.  But in the shorter run, human (and other biotic) use can seriously pollute water both with organic matter and hazardous substances.  And humans waste water and use it inefficiently on a massive scale.


The observation emphasises the point that in general across the world – whether or not water as a raw material is scarce in relation to population – water problems are those of human management, not basic availability, except in the most extreme desert conditions.


Water stress, in the sense that it is used in expert environmental and water discourse today, is a management concept.  Countries with high water stress are those using move that 40% of their available resources and those with medium to high water stress those using between 20 and 40%.  Yet there are some developed countries which fall into these categories and maintain adequate water provision, because they are able to manage the use of the resource.


What is clear is that climate change will exacerbate the difficulties of dry areas of the world.


Before turning to water conflict as such, it is worth noting two contradictory aspects of human water use:


1.  that since time out of mind water in all its aspects has been a major economic resource and a major source of utility for humans

2.  that humans have difficulty in viewing water in that perspective.  In most societies and most times, humans view water as something which should not be treated as an economic good or commodity.  Indeed, for some societies it is invested with spiritual significance.  This remains true in our own day and it is why the neo-classical economic approach to water espoused by many international institutions is encountering so much difficulty in many places in the world, and is indeed in itself a source of conflict about water.  This is why very many societies view water as so important that management and supply is regarded as a matter for public authorities rather than private entities.


International transboundary water tensions

Political boundaries, whether intra-national or international, rarely follow watersheds.  The UNEP estimated in 2002 that some 60% of freshwater globally flows through the 263 river basins which are international in character. These basins account for 50% of the world’s land surface and 40% of world population. In addition, groundwater aquifers straddle international boundaries, some of them major ones like the Nubian Sandstone aquifer in north Africa.  Pumping the aquifer has most impact at the well foot, but affects the aquifer as a whole, particularly where it is fossil water, ie, the aquifer is enclosed and not replenished.


Human use of water courses, depending on its extent and character, can seriously affect the condition and value of the water course downstream.  This is the case with both abstractions for whatever purpose and discharges, the former reducing water quantity downstream (unless the water is returned to the course, though even then it may be at a higher temperature as in the case of power stations) and the latter having potential for pollution impacting on downstream abstraction for drinking water and impacting flora and fauna (with implications for fisheries, for example, and the environmental character of the course downstream). There are obvious conflicts of uses:  eg, between non-returnable abstractions and related dams and weirs on the one hand, and navigation and fisheries on the other; and between discharges and downstream abstractions.  Interventions in the flow regime impact on downstream morphology and ecology.   Illustrations are the Yellow River in China which now does not flow at all in its lower reaches in some years because of upstream activities, and the Aswan Dam which prevents silt from reaching the Nile Delta making it less fertile and causing the land level to fall.


And it is not just a question of the use of the water course.  Activities on adjacent land also affect downstream quality, for example, agricultural practices resulting in the seepage of pesticides, nitrates and phosphates, which can have dramatic effects on downstream ecology and utility.  And in our day, the question of preserving environmental quality, ecology and morphology for its own sake has become the more important.


In principle, none of this is new, except perhaps the greater significance of protecting the water environment:  the widespread introduction of the water mill and pump in medieval Europe, with the related dams, weirs, ponds and races, and off-line fisheries, demanded the development of water law in order to regulate disputes between upstream and downstream parties.  This resulted from the fact that the watercourse was and is an important economic resource, and the upstream taker is always in a position to make the downstream taker or user poorer, as well as those who want to benefit from the water course as a vector of transport.  The function of the law was moderate these distributional impacts (an ethical consideration).


What is new is the sheer scale of intervention in the last two centuries, particularly in the form of massive dams both for drinking water and general urban uses, and irrigation schemes.  These have the potential for massive downstream impact. Fortunately, some of the most dramatic happen to have taken place within the boundaries of a single state – in the western USA, particularly on the Colorado River, and in China on the Yellow and Yangste Rivers.  If these interventions had happened in transboundary situations, they would have led to serious tensions – as is the case between Hungary and the Czechs and Slovaks in relation to major works on the Danube, between Egypt and Ethiopia in relation to Ethiopia’s desires for major hydroelectric schemes on the Blue Nile, and between Turkey and Syria and Iraq in relation to the damming of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. But, secondly, where the rivers concerned are transboundary, there is a tendency towards greater caution and recognition of the need for such interventions to be negotiated with downstream neighbours, precisely because of the risks of international tension and even conflict.  The international element can be a beneficial constraint, therefore.


The rationale for the spectre of water wars is precisely because of the economic and social importance of shared water resources and their significance for social well-being, and the potential for upstream countries, in serving their own interests, to beggar their downstream neighbours.  This is particularly so where water is scarce, and is likely to become scarcer both as a result of population growth and climate change. In this context, it is worth noting that the unsurprising point that the significant potential flashpoints over transboundary water are in drier areas of the world: between Israel and its neighbours above all, in the Tigris and Euphrates basin, in the Nile Valley, in the Indus valley, in the Aral basin, and in the area of Namibia.


There is insufficient time to deal with the detail of these cases.  But it is worth noticing in passing that while water is certainly a factor exacerbating tensions between Israel and its neighbours (in particular, the manner in which Israel has ensured that it controls overall water allocations on the West Bank differentially in its favour), it seems doubtful how far water is the root cause of conflict, as distinct from a means of pressure in the conflict – though one of the objectives in the 1967 war was to increase Israeli control over water resources in response to Jordan’s policy of increasing drawings from the Yarmuk river which flows into the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee. (These tensions are real:  I saw Israeli representatives defending their corner in the Mediterranean water conference in 1996[?] – anxious that nothing should get into texts which might conceivably weaken their position.)


But, more generally, the expert academic community which takes an interest in these matters tends to fall into the camp of the optimists, rather than the pessimists, so far as water wars are concerned.  Why so?


Peter Gleik and Aaron Wolf have noted from historical surveys that there have been very few wars specifically about water.  In fact, only one is cited:  that between Lagash and Umma in the Tigris-Euphrates basin in    BC.  While water is a source of inter-state tension, it appears that, in the great majority of cases, societies prefer to resolve these tensions by negotiation rather than by violence.  There are 263 international river basins, given the present distribution of national boundaries.  While in many of them there are issues of difference that need regulation, in very few of them, as already indicated, are there tensions which seem likely to result in resolution by violence rather than negotiation.  It has been noted:


In the last 50 years, only 37 disputes involved violence, and 30 of those occurred between Israel and one of its neighbours. Outside of the Middle East, researchers found only 5 violent events while 157 treaties were negotiated and signed. The total number of water-related events between nations also favours cooperation: the 1,228 cooperative events dwarf the 507 conflict-related events. 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, 62 percent are verbal, and more than two-thirds of these were not official statements.[2]


As another writer has concluded


The most vehement enemies around the world either have negotiated water-sharing agreements, or are in the process of doing so as of this writing. Violence over water seems neither strategically rational, nor hydrographically effective, nor economically viable. Shared interests along a waterway seem to consistently outweigh water's conflict-inducing characteristics.


Indeed, parties in conflict seem to be able to adhere to agreements about water, and seek to co-operate about it, in the midst of warfare.  Thus, the Mekong Committee exchanged data throughout the Vietnam War; Israel and Jordan continued ‘picnic-table’ water discussions from 1952 onwards while being in a formal state of war, and payments under the Indus agreement continued through two Indo-Pakistan wars.[3]


It is true that with the advent of the nation state, there were attempts to assert the absolute sovereignty of the nation state over the water flowing through its territory.  In particular, Albert Harmon of the USA in 1896 sought to enunciate that doctrine and has given his name to it.  But, in practice, there is a long tradition of making international agreements in relation to shared water resources.  UNEP suggests that there have been over 400 such agreements since 1820, excluding those relating to navigation and fisheries. 


There is now a multinational framework agreement on shared water resources – the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses adopted by the General Assembly on 21 May 1997. The Convention commits states acceding to it to use international water courses in ‘an equitable and reasonable manner…taking into account all relevant factors and circumstances’ and to consult with other states ‘in a spirit of co-operation’ (art’s 5 & 6) .  In using water courses, states are required to ‘take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other water course states’ and if such harm occurs ‘to eliminate and mitigate such harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation’ (art. 7).  There are duties of co-operation and exchange of information, and provision for arbitration.  This convention is supplemented by regional conventions, such as the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, agreed at Helsinki in March 1992.


There are two further factors to be borne in mind in this context. 


First, that in many respects, and unlike oil and many other raw materials, water is not a zero-sum game.  As noted, it is a renewable resource.  It is not ‘used up’ in the same sense as fossil fuel or iron ore is.  A considerable proportion of water used in irrigation is not returned to the stream or aquifer, particularly where inefficient operation results in much evapo-transpiration; and big reservoirs in hot climates are also subject to much evapo-transpiration.  But much water that is abstracted is returned to the stream:  the issue is the location and condition in which it is returned – this is true even when it is supplied at drinking water quality (UK metered sewerage bills are based on the assumption that 95% of the water that enters a property leaves it by the sewer).  Water is therefore capable of being in many respects a shared resource, not just between humans but with the environment.  Though it may involve some costs, upstream use does not have to beggar the downstream neighbour. The downstream neighbour will be prepared to allow upstream use, so long as the upstream user will allow and return water in adequate quantity and quality.  So there is the basis for mutually-beneficial agreement provided that the resource is managed.  This may in part explain why river basin agreements are so readily negotiated.


Secondly, in dry areas, and particularly in some of the disputed basins noted above, the real issue is not so much water security as food security. In the Nile Valley, for example, water is needed for food production, even more than for human consumption, industry or the environment.  This has led to the concept of the consumption by a state of ‘virtual water’, that is, the water used elsewhere to produce the food imported by a particular state.  It has been estimated, for example, that at the end of the 1990s the Middle East and North Africa were, through their grain imports, ‘importing’ water to extent of 40 billion tonnes a year – about 20% of the region’s annual water use and equalling Egypt’s annual water use.[4]  All countries which are net importers of food ‘import’ water in this way, and where they are importers of manufactured goods the production of which requires large quantities of water (eg, motor cars), they are also ‘importing’ the water concerned.  In purely economic terms, such imports of ‘virtual water’ may be sensible in very dry countries in view of the costs, including water costs, of domestic production.  They may also decrease the dependence of downstream countries on the good offices of upstream neighbours.  But the food security of the country concerned does then depend on the efficiency, effectiveness, equity and security of the international trading system.


Intra-communal water tensions

If water is a surprisingly minor source of international conflict, it should be noted that it is always been a frequent source of tension within society, an instrument of social control, and a locus of dispute about its management. This is not surprising in view of its position both as a necessity of life and as a significant economic resource. In some societies, for example, in some Muslim groupings and in Nepal, water also has an important religious status and usage.


This remains the case today. Two examples will suffice.


Where agricultural production depends on irrigation, arrangements for access to irrigation water are crucial, because of their impact on production, incomes and land values.  Ultimately, they critical to wealth and social status.  Control of the institutions determining access, timing and quantity is important and is a basis for class power.  These institutions are often of a traditional character and their workings are well understood by the local communities concerned. The same can be true where agricultural production is dependent on land drainage – in those parts of the UK which were dependent on collective pumping arrangements (eg, the Fens and the Somerset Levels), the landowning gentry for three centuries certainly regarded the land drainage boards and their predecessors as their preserve.


Secondly, water supply and sanitation arrangements are of great importance in the burgeoning cities of the developing world.  Here there are at least two aspects of tension. With much international help, very large sums were spent on water supply and, to some extent also, sanitation in established parts of cities in the 1980s.  These systems were and are heavily subsidised.  The beneficiaries have often been the urban middle class, who today receive a subsidised service which they are loathe to lose. At the same time, the urban poor, especially those in the favelas and peripheral shanty towns, are without easy access to water.[5]  Very often, they are dependent on water carriers to provide limited quantities at a far greater unit cost than is available from (often neglected and inefficient) piped supplies elsewhere in their city.  This form of supply is often subject to racketeering and the proceeds are expatriated, in the case of Latin America to banks in Miami.


Into this brew has been introduced over the last 20 years, for worthy motives, the neo-classical economic approach favoured by the grant and loan making West, particularly by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Specifically, it has been argued that there is little hope of improvement without introducing private capital and operation of water systems – public funds cannot bear the burden; charging the consumer the economic cost of providing the water; and, where possible, creating private property rights in place of communal control.  In fact, most people in the West regard water supply and sanitation as naturally monopoly public services, which should be subject to strong public control.  The instincts of people elsewhere are often even more strongly against ‘privatisation’, a loose portmanteau word covering a wide variety of arrangements, some of which are not strictly privatisation at all. But it serves as an extremely effective rallying point for opposition, much helped by rather incompetent financial and institutional arrangements for ‘privatisation’ in many places.


The locus classicus of these tensions has become the case of Cochabamba in Bolivia.  Here in the 1990s the Bechtel Corporation was introduced to operate the water service under a private concession. The terms were probably unwise from the public point of view, but in particular a doctrinaire attempt was made to impose a charge on 500,000 poorer people who supply their needs, as they have done for a very long time, by collecting rainwater themselves – a highly commendable practice in terms of sustainability. (The attempt to privatise the raw material was unusual; normally, it is the treatment and supply service which is privatised, though, even then, removing subsidies from that service usually means higher prices and therefore much political opposition.) The unsurprising result was such popular resistance that the contract was cancelled, to the delight of the people affected and post-Marxist academics who, equally unsurprisingly, have been attracted to the heady brew of problems which I have described (their particular bête noire is the so-called ‘commodification’ of water).  The water contract at Cochambamba has undoubtedly played an important role in the election of the new President of Bolivia on, among other things, an anti-privatisation ticket.


More generally, however, intra-communal tensions about water arrangements are commonplace, and sometimes erupt in violence. For example, efforts from the West to aid the Palestinians in recent years have tended to cut across traditional arrangements for allocating water on the West Bank, with consequent angst.  This not just a question of the developing world.  When the city of Los Angeles decided to meet its needs early last century from the Owens Valley (in terms of water, the ‘natural’ population of the Los Angeles area would be only a few thousands), the farmers of the Valley carried out a number of dynamite attacks on the pipeline, as well as attacks on the servants of Los Angeles who happened to visit the area.


Thus it can be argued that water is much more often likely to be the focus of intra-communal violence than international conflict.


Water as an instrument of conflict

Water can also be an instrument of war, whether directly through creating scarcity by pollution or through flooding, or in dry areas indirectly as a means of starving the opponent’s population into submission. While both the environment generally and famine as a tool of war are treated in international instruments, water is such is a subject which may perhaps have been given less attention than it deserves, though the International Committee of the Red Cross is certainly conscious of it. The view of one writer 12 years ago was that ‘the law of armed conflicts has devoted only few of its provisions expressly – and belatedly – to water.’[6]


Hague Law enshrines the customary rule against employing poison or poisoned weapons, which would include their use against water.  Insofar as water is public or private property, it would fall with the prohibition on destroying or seizing enemy property, unless such seizure is ‘imperatively demanded by the necessities of war’.  The 1977 Geneva Protocols protect objects indispensable to the survival of civilian populations, including specifically ‘drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works’, again with a proviso of imperative military necessity in respect of installations within territory under the belligerent’s control.  The same protocols prohibit attacks dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations as ‘works and installations containing dangerous forces’. Attacks against such facilities ‘est considéré comme infraction grave, c’est-à-dire comme crime de guerre…’[7]  Even damage to such installations as an unintended collateral of adjacent attacks is prohibited. It has been concluded therefore that ‘the protection water in times of armed conflict is an integral part of humanitarian law.’[8] More generally, water could be considered as protected from damage in armed conflicts by virtue of the whole series of measures of environmental protection which have been adopted internationally in the last 50 years, since water is manifestly an important environmental component.  The Geneva protocols of 1977 specifically protect the environment in time of war against extensive, lasting and serious damage[9], both for its own sake and because of its importance to human health and survival. The protection is greater under the protocol relating to international war than it is under the protocol relating to internal conflict.


Nevertheless, a question remains as to whether these general protections of water in time or war, and against the use of water as either a target or means of conflict, are sufficient.  Or whether more specific international law relating to water and conflict would be desirable.  In this context, it should be noted that the Committee of the International Law Association proposed for the Association’s New Delhi conference of 1974 eight articles on the protection of water resources and water installations in times of armed conflict.  There is, it has been suggested, unfinished business here.[10]



As explained at the outset, my purpose has not been much more than a summary briefing as a discussion starter.


Some analysis has emphasised the existence of two camps, a water wars camp and a water peace camp – the former comprising politicians, international administrators and journalists, the latter academics who have for the time being spoken largely to themselves.  One of the key questions is to assess who is right.








[1] John Bulloch and Adel Darwish, Water wars: Coming conflicts in the Middle East, (Victor Gollancz, 1993)

[2] Aaron T. Wolf, Annika Kramer, Alexander Carius, and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, ‘Water Can Be a Pathway to Peace, Not War’, Worldwatch Institute, June 2005 (at, accessed May 2006).

[3] While poisoning of wells is an operation of war as old as history, military forces are often cautious about the practice.  In the western desert in the Second World War both sides accused each other of doing so, but it appears that neither were.  Like breaching dykes and destroying bridges, it is a nice tactical judgment as to when one’s own interest makes it wise to employ the tactic (which is now outlawed – see below).

[4] See A J Allan, ‘Water and War’ (1.11.1998), posted on the International Committee of the Red Cross website at (accessed May 2006)

[5] Still, over a billion people in the world lack access to a safe water supply, defined as a standpipe or other source within one kilometre of their dwelling.

[6] Ameur Zemmali, ‘The protection of water in times of armed conflict’, International Review of the Red Cross, no. 309, pp 550 – 564, September-October 1995 (in May 2006, this text could accessed at   )

[7] Théodore Boutrouche, ‘Le statut de l’eau en droit international humanitaire’, Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, no. 840, pp. 887-916, 2000.

[8] Zemmali, op. cit..

[9] There is an interesting detail here.  The 1976 Convention prohibiting the use of techniques modifying the environment for military ends or all other hostile ends speaks of extensive, lasting or serious damage.  One wonders if the difference in drafting represents carelessness or diplomatic subtlety!

[10] See Barouche, op. cit..