Water A Tool For War or Peace

By Khadeja Masaud.

In 1995 World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin claimed that “The wars of the next century will be about water”. For the sake of improvement in living standards and global climate changes made water supply and demand more problematic and uncertain. History is well stocked with precedents of competition over shared freshwater resources. This uneven division of shared water is geopolitical reality of dispute for example in areas like Middle East, Southern Asia and America. Water tensions mostly appear in Southern and Central Asia, Central Europe and Middle East and these areas have almost 500 decades long history related to water conflicts. Areas such as South Asia, Central Asia and Middle East are facing insufficient water crisis. These regions  are highly dependent on water for economical and agricultural development. This situation is resulting in  water related issues into high politics.

Realpolitik is a concept about power politics which is considered being a root cause of conflicts. Water issues can be fit into geopolitical or realpolitik (traditional International Security) if it gives a source of economic or political strength. Chances of water related conflicts in a strategic rivalry can increase due to scarcity of water. The relative power of basin states and last but not the least an easy access to alternative fresh water resources. Middle East is a clear example where fresh water supply has strategic implications. For example, Jordan river basin is shared by many antagonistic states (Lebanon, Israel and Syria). During 1976 wars the major factor which directly fueled the war was an attempt by member states of Arab League in early 1960s to divert head waters of Jordan river away from Israel.


In 1995 world bank vice president Ismail Serageldin claimed that “The wars of the next century will be about water”.


The Nile river is also an international river shared by many nations. It flows through some of the most important arid areas of Northern Africa and is most important for agricultural production for Egypt and Sudan. A rising possibility of additional water demand and development in other nations could reduce the amount of water supply already available to Egypt has greatly arose tension in the arid regions. In 1979, the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat said “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water”.

Famous Indus water treaty between Pakistan and India considered being one of the most successful agreements of water conflict. However recent debate on climate change and unpleasant political relation between two develop concerns about this treaty.

In political conflict water has been both target and tool of war in history. The governmental organizations may lack ability to develop effective agricultural or energy policies due to no access to technology, capital and know/how and leads to shortage or under development of fresh water resources. These inequities of water resources can lead to more severe and serious issues such as growing level of poverty and misery. These issues although do not lead directly into a violent conflict but can be a reason to fuel an international dispute, for instance any shortage or gap of fresh water resources will increase the number of refugees who cross borders and decrease the capacity of nation to resist economic or military activities by neighboring countries.


Indus water treaty between Pakistan and India considered being one of the most successful agreements of water conflict.


To meet the increased demand of food production, a state is highly dependent on its sources of irrigation water but any political or physical obstacle can be a resistant in expansion of irrigation. For example, in case of Sudan it is one of few nations which have great opportunity and capacity to increase irrigation system because of a large piece of arable land but all can be possible in theory (In theory Nile river water is sufficient for Sudan’s arable land). In reality situation is opposite to fulfill the theoretic idea. Sudan meets to renegotiate the treaty of 1959 with Egypt to withdraw more or additional water from river Nile. Some cases of major hydroelectric dam projects were being a reason of tension between Brazil and Argentina. Zambia and Zimbabwe also have same situation of water tension. These kinds of situations can be a reason of cooperation or peace but the chances of conflict are also in numbers. Pakistan also needs to develop its irrigation system according to demands.

In South Asia Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan cover 3.26 % of the world’s surface area and are home to about 21 % of the world population. But, they possess only 6.8 per cent of the world’s replenish able water resources. Besides, against the world average of 7,000 cubic meters, South Asia’s per capita availability of water in 1995 was only 2,665 m3, indicating a possible shortfall of water in the future. According to a survey, South Asia as a whole will have a surplus of 2,737 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water by 2025. But, the distribution is not even. Among the four countries, only Pakistan will have a shortfall of 102 BCM by 2025. This does not mean that other countries will have abundant of water for their consumptive and non-consumptive uses. High rates of population growth, industrialization, and lack of effective management of available water have added to the increasing problem of water supply in the region.

During 1946 to 1999, there are 157 international water treaties, 7 military sports, 436 non-military agreements, 56 hostile acts and 37 total military acts. There is a zero-formal war over water basins which means nations fight for access of water and they do use water as a tool or weapon during war but water resources have been  the only reason of conflict.

Global climate change has effect on water availability in many ways. Especially in terms of uncertainty linked with water management and supply. For example, rainfall, runoff, storms and floods all are substantial components of fresh water resource problems. In south Asia Pakistan needs to control over deforestation problem.

In nutshell, water is already a driving force of conflict among nations, although they are not directly involved in formal wars, but due number of factors such as growing population, growing supply and demand situation has increased the competition for limited water supply. These waters related disputes are seemed, to lead towards political confrontations and negotiations than toward violent conflict. While tracing back history related to water disputes, it is the need of time to work upon reduction of chances of water conflicts in future. Hydrologists and water resources specialists must have to work hard to reduce these risks of conflict.

International law and international legal experts have to work to understand the link between natural resources needs, water rights and national sovereignty. The scholars related to military and academia need to understand  the threats of wide range and tools for preventing these conflicts.

Khadeja Masaud, a graduate in International Relations, her area of interest is conflict, strategy and development.

She can be reached at facebook at khadeja.masaud

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