MA in Global Security, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom
HOW SHOULD WE UNDERSTAND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WATER SCARCITY AND VIOLENT CONFLICTS?
This article analyses the potential relationships between the scarcity of water resources and violent conflicts. Arguments provided in this paper will suggest that water-based conflicts, have neither theoretical nor empirical support.
Key words: water scarcity, violent conflicts, water war hypothesis, inequalities, co-operation.
Introduction. This paper investigates the potential relationships between the scarcity of water resources and violent conflicts. With the world’s increasing population and consequent increase in demand for consumption of goods, as well as for industrial production and agricultural needs, the scarcity of resources such as water becomes an important issue in international relations. Together with climate changes, which result in the drying of some regions, the question of water availability and its uneven distribution becomes more important . Although the matter of water-based conflicts has been widely discussed in the past, the true relationship between these two factors remains unclear. Scholars investigating this question divide into two groups: those who support the view that water scarcity may result in violent conflicts [2; 3; 4; 5] and those who suggest that environmental conflicts, and particularly those based on water scarcity, are hard to find in practice, and that other underlying causes, such as economic and political factors, are responsible for the escalation of conflicts [6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11].
The main research question is, therefore, whether there exists causal connection between water scarcity and violent conflicts and, if not, what factors are responsible for the widespread opinion of the existence of such conflicts. According to the arguments presented in the text, the position of those arguing against water-based conflicts seems to be more justified; namely, that environmental issues alone are not enough to trigger violent conflicts. The main argument against the water war hypothesis is the absence of empirical evidence on water-based conflicts and the fact that co-operation between states could prevent violent conflicts in the future. However, Starr  mentions that, according to historical trends, conflicts mainly arise on an economic basis and, as water is a scarce resource in particular geographic area, water shortages may in theory lead to conflicts.
The first section provides background information on water scarcity, violent conflicts and their possible relationships, together with discussion of the water war hypothesis and the basic arguments of both groups of scholars. The second section describes the problem of resource conflicts from the viewpoint of water war hypothesis supporters, while the third section provides the opposite view, proposing arguments against the relationship between water scarcity and violent resource-based conflicts.
I. Examining the water scarcity–violent conflict nexus. Clean water is fundamental to human life, included in all production and economic activities – energy and food production, transportation needs, waste disposal, technological development, and health issues. However, clean water resources tend to be unevenly and erratically distributed, leading some geographical areas to suffer from water scarcity. With considerable development of industrial and agricultural needs for water, water supply mechanisms are widely believed to become objectives of military action or to become tools of conflicts, as the human population continues to grow [1; 12]. As socio-economic and industrial factors increase the demand for clean water, and as global climate changes are likely to make the supply of clean water more uneven and scarce, the problem of possible conflicts on this basis is attracting more attention. Two schools of thought
are represented in this work, differing in their views on the possible relationships between water scarcity and violent conflicts [2; 13].
II. Arguments in support of the water war hypothesis. Acording to the viewpoints of authors discussed in this section, a relationship exists between water scarcity and violent conflict. According to them, in states or regions with scarce water sources, competition for water could be considered to be related to national security issues. According to Gleick, many examples of water-based conflicts have occurred in history. He states that water resources may become a reason for military expansion, and that the uneven distribution and usage of water may give rise to conflict and friction, on either local or global levels. Water- based conflicts are assumed to continue and grow in the future, due to growing populations and consequent increasing demand for water for consumption, industrial and agricultural needs .
Gleick provides several reasons for which water-based conflicts may arise. First, the accessibility of water resources may be considered to be political, economic and military objectives of some political or economic power. He compares oil to water, saying that the willingness to control oil resources has been a widespread reason for conflict in the twentieth century and that the same may be true for water resources in regions where the availability of water may provide political and economic stability and strength .
Second, water resources are described as potential tools of war. The extensive use of water for consumption, industrial, agricultural and energy needs makes water the objective or ‘instrument’ of a conflict . Therefore, the seizure of important water sources or the deprivation of potential opponents of water sources may significantly alter the balance of power in a conflict. Gleick provides examples of the bombing of hydroelectric dams during the Second World War, the Korean War and the Persian Gulf War.
Next, an uneven distribution of water sources is described as a potential reason for violent conflict. Although the relationships between natural resources, such as oil and metals, and violent conflicts have attracted significant attention, an uneven distribution of water may lead to an escalation of conflicts, as it is a resource with no substitutes.
Factors influencing the likelihood of water-based conflict include the extent to which water is available in the required amounts; the size of the population to be provided with water; and the level of technological development that allows for more efficient use of water resources . Furthermore, an uneven distribution of water resources required for agricultural or industrial needs may be a reason for conflict, due to growing population needs for consumption goods such as food. Thus, an uneven distribution of resources may not directly lead to an escalation of conflicts, but it may cause increasing gaps in wealth distribution and living conditions, which in their turn are more likely to trigger violent tensions.
Starr provides examples of Middle Eastern and African countries experiencing significant water resource problems, with no relevant remedy developed either by them or by the international community . He provides data showing that these countries suffer considerably from water shortages while facing increasing population trends. Furthermore, high mortality rates, particularly in African countries, are described, showing that the lack of easy access to clean water significantly increases the risk of disease, leading to high mortality rates . Therefore, the concept of ‘water security’ in such countries may be equated to the concept of national security; these states’ dependence on limited water sources makes them particularly vulnerable to attacks on these sources.
Cooley shows the possibility of violent conflicts arising from the uneven distribution of water by providing examples of conflicts in the Middle East, particularly those between Israel and Syria . He points out that attempts to solve water scarcity problems by one state may have negative consequences on neighbouring countries’ water supply, increasing the probability of conflict. For example, the Med Dead Canal project proposed by Israel would have resulted in significant cost adjustments by Arabian countries, particularly Jordan. Finally, the author states that water-based conflicts in the Middle East arise because of climate conditions and not for political reasons .
Myers discusses the environmental basis of political relationships and of violent conflicts in particular. He claims that the global consequences of human actions do not attract sufficient attention in international relations, which may eventually lead to ‘environmental degradation’ . According to Myers, environmental issues are connected to national security in certain circumstances. He claims that, as state authorities are to provide citizens with different types of scarce resources, including water, the unavailability of such resources may result in threats for national security through the possibility of resource-based tensions and conflicts . Thus, despite the fact that local and international environmental issues receive little attention from policy-makers compared to other political and economic issues, particular types of environmental issues, such as water-related ones, may significantly affect national and global security.
Overall, according to supporters of aforementioned hypothesis, environmental conflicts, and water-
based wars in particular, may exist in practice. Researches concur with their opinions that growing population needs, leading to increased scarcity of resources, intensify conflicts for natural resources, such as water. However, apart from theoretical propositions, no empirical evidence is provided that would strongly support their views.
Opponents of the water war hypothesis question the significance of the water scarcity-violent conflicts relationship [14; 10]. For instance, according to Homer-Dixon, conflicts based on renewable resources, such as water, are rare in history, being rather an exception than a rule . They suggest that political and economic reasons mainly affect the likelihood of conflicts, claiming that conflicts based on resources, and on water in particular, are likely to emerge in regions or states with bad economic situations or weak political power [6; 7; 14]. Such arguments seem reasonable, as countries that suffer from scarce water are mainly developing countries, located in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Arguments refuting a significant relationship between water scarcity and violent conflicts are described in the next section.
III. Arguments against the water war hypothesis. According to Katz, water-based conflict should not be ignored, as it remains a reason for political conflicts in particular situations . Moreover, as the global population grows and the climate changes, the issue of water scarcity becomes more important, due to increasing consumption, industrial and agricultural needs. However, Katz argues that water conflicts make little sense in economic terms, and that water conflicts tend to be overemphasized in public debates, taking into consideration the absence of water-based conflicts in the past and the frequency with which current conflicts are said to be water-based .
Such situations may result in an overemphasis of water conflict risk; meanwhile, the underlying mechanisms that escalate such conflicts may garner little attention. Moreover, raising attention to water wars may eventually result in the misallocation of resources, shifting them from development to prevention of conflicts . In other words, if conflicts are assumed to be water-based, but in fact have other underlying causes, resources may be spent treating the wrong problem. Consequently, as conflicts are solved or avoided, government authorities or other decision-makers may decide that they have been correct and successful in deciding the problem, drawing attention away from its real underlying causes.
In the study, Katz introduces the water war hypothesis . According to this, states may be willing to engage in war to gain or to preserve access to water resources. Support for this hypothesis comes from empirical evidence and case studies including the Israel–Syria conflict for the Jordan River, conflict between Israel and Palestine for Israel’s National Water Carrier, and the case in Kashmir, India.
Both theoretical and empirical parts of the hypothesis have attracted critiques. Gleditsch states that the hypothesis incorrectly considers threats and warnings of possible water conflicts in the future as evidence . Allan’s critique is based on water wars supporters’ statements that water is a resource crucial for life . According to estimates, water usage for direct needs represents a small share of water consumption, as agricultural and industrial needs take the larger part. Allan further claims that, according to estimates, significant changes in water supply can be attained through efficient irrigation techniques and crops, making violent conflict for water resources irrational . Gains from armed conflicts over water resources may not outweigh the costs of waging such conflicts. The scarcity of fresh water has also been put into question, under the assumption that people can cope with scarcities of important resources through the use of advanced technologies and market mechanisms.
Katz provides the strongest argument against the hypothesis: absence of empirical evidence . Indeed cases of co-operation for the joint use of limited water sources appear to be much more often than conflicts on the global scale, apart from in Middle Eastern and North African regions. According to large sample studies, a correlation between water and conflict may be found; however, no evidence was found of a causal relationship . Although some evidence exists of violent water-based conflicts, there is little or no evidence of a systematic and stable causal relationship between violent conflict and water scarcity. However, the statement that water scarcity may lead to worse living conditions, which in turn may indirectly lead to violent conflicts, seems more plausible and has been supported by empirical evidence.
Wolf investigated what impact the necessity of several states sharing water sources may have on the likelihood of wars and conflicts. The author claims that shared water resources do indeed lead to tensions, but not to wars . Indeed the existence of tensions on the basis of shared water resources rather leads to negotiations, dialogue and eventually to co-operative working arrangements between the parties involved. Wolf provides arguments according to which the future of water-based tensions may be considerably different from what has occurred in the past. The development of new technologies may allow for more efficient use of water, as well as for better co-operative negotiation and management of water-based tensions, thereby alleviating the risk of conflicts and frictions . It can be assumed that globalization
and the existence of international organizations and institutions (e.g. the World Bank, the United Nations) might positively affect a level of co-operation between states in resolving resource-based conflicts. Finally, the existence of alternative water sources, such as groundwater, may considerably change the nature of water-based conflicts or wipe them out altogether.
The above argument is closely linked to that describing the impact of technology development on conflict resolution, as accessing alternative sources of water production is directly related to the current state of technology. For example, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and UAE, located in a historically water-scarce region, was designed to co- ordinate states’ efforts to provide themselves with high-quality desalinized water for citizens’ needs and for energy production. In response to growing demand for water in the region, the capacity of desalination plants installed under the Gulf Cooperation Council has achieved nearly half the world’s production of desalinized water .
Amery investigated water scarcity-violent conflict nexus in the Middle East, claiming that there is rarely one overriding factor that leads to an escalation of conflict; the combination of several underlying causes, including economic, political and environmental factors, is more likely to result in conflict . Therefore, the factor of water scarcity cannot be investigated in isolation, but should be explored in connection with other related factors.
Similarly, Brown and McLeman argue that, despite the fact that water-based conflicts may arise in certain geographic locations, such as the Middle East or Africa, there is no strict connection between water scarcity and the likelihood of violent conflicts. Similar to the above study, they conclude that unavailability of resources, and water in particular, may trigger a conflict, but this is more likely to happen in poor developing countries, where bad political and economic situations also contribute to the escalation of conflict .
Furthermore, Dinar examines how asymmetry in power between two or more states may affect the distribution of water from a single source, namely a river, and concludes that it is hard to find evidence when one state is able to use its power over a water resource . From that we can conclude that the probability of water conflict is relatively low, even in the case of significant power asymmetries between states.
Gehrig and Rogers investigated the relationships between water scarcity and violent conflicts, taking into consideration other factors that may influence the likelihood of conflict: socio-economic, institutional, political and environmental . Developing countries that tend to have poorer living conditions and to be less economically developed may experience resource-based conflicts due to their authorities’ inability to provide citizens with resources. The social and wealth inequalities that tend to be present in developing states lead to uneven distribution of resources, increasing citizens’ dissatisfaction and increasing the likelihood of resource-based tensions. Institutional and political factors, which may adversely affect peace and stability, include weak government position, institutions and organizations that interfere with the correct functioning of government policies, such as criminal organizations, and lack of transparency in governmental policies .
The above factors, according to Gehrig and Rogers, may increase the probability of resource-based conflicts, which tend to emerge in developing rather than developed states. Finally, environmental factors, such as a particular region’s vulnerability to natural disasters or specific climate conditions, influence the probability of conflict . However, according to authors, environmental factors alone may not be enough to lead to resource-based conflicts; socio-economic and political factors have been shown to significantly impact violent conflicts. Furthermore, a distinction between local and international conflicts has been made. According to authors, resource-based conflicts are more likely to emerge within a state than between states . In developing countries that face social, political, economic and environmental problems, water-based and other types of resource conflicts are likely to arise due to the combined negative effects of such factors. Moreover, weak governments may not have adequate resources or political power to prevent resource-based conflicts arising on their territories. Conversely, international conflict on the basis of resources, and water in particular, is less likely to emerge due to the existence of powerful states that may prevent conflicts that do not satisfy their interests, and also to the existence of multinational organizations and the norms of international law.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), water conflicts
are irrational and may be efficiently solved through co-operation between states . As water is essential for human life and for many types of production, uneven allocation of water sources and access to clean water may indeed give rise to tensions, which may develop into violent conflicts. However, direct conflicts
over water resources are more likely to emerge within a state. For example, in 2006 the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (People’s Republic of China) resulted in the forced movement of millions of citizens from the region of the Yangtze River . As these displaced people then faced significant challenges in terms of land, food and job insecurity, the building of the dam resulted in local conflicts between displaced citizens and government authorities .
On the international level, tensions between states that share water sources may adversely affect economic development, thereby increasing poverty, political instability and migration. Despite the fact that water-based conflicts are likely to arise for the reasons described above, a better way to address water scarcity is through co-operation. For example, central Asian countries that share the Aral Sea water basin– Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan – are co-operating under UNESCO, World Bank and the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea programs to restore the drying water reservoir . On the local level, co-operation between government authorities, private business and ordinary citizens in terms of fair allocation of rights, resolving conflicts and disputes may successfully resolve resource-based conflicts. Appropriate governance of water resources is required on a long-term basis. On the international level, co- operation between states is required. This may be achieved by the development of common informational systems and data and common resource management and legislative systems.
To summarize, according to authors’ opinions discussed above, environmental conflicts, water-based ones in particular, have neither theoretical nor empirical support. An uneven distribution of water and related issues may result in tensions, but not in wars or violent conflicts. Authors converge in their opinions that conflicts have different underlying causes, such as economic or political instability. In addition, tensions arising because of water scarcity may be alleviated by co-operation among the parties involved, rather than by violent conflict.
Conclusion. Overall, there exist different causes for violent conflicts, among which the scarcity of resources is one. Taking into consideration arguments presented by different groups of scholars, the existence of conflicts arising through the uneven distribution or unavailability of water resources seems to be unjustified, both theoretically and empirically. Despite the fact that increasing consumption needs lead to increasing scarcity of resources, water in particular, other factors, such as a poor economic situation or political instability have a considerably stronger effect on the causation of violent conflicts.
Nevertheless, environmental factors should not be considered irrelevant when discussing the causes of violent conflicts; the unavailability of any vital resource such as water may contribute to tensions and conflict, although it is rarely the sole trigger for them. Moreover, it has been argued that conflicts over water resources may not be justified economically, and that an alternative and rational way to resolve the problem of uneven distribution of water or the problem of shared usage of water sources is by co-operation between the parties involved.
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Р.Б. Амангелдин. Шеффилд университетінің магистрі, Шеффилд қ., Ұлыбритания
Су тапшылығы мен қақтығыс арасындағы қарым-қатынасты біз қалай түсіну керекпіз?
Бұл мақала су тапшылығы мен қақтығыстар арасындағы қарым-қатынасты зерттеуге арналған. Аталған мақалада келтірілген дәлелдер су тапшылығы негізіндегі қақтығыстардың теориялық және эмпирикалық дәлелі жоқ екендігін болжайды.
Түйін сөздер: су тапшылығы, қақтығыстар, су соғыстары гипотезасы, теңсіздіктер, ынтымақтастық.
Р.Б. Амангелдин. Магистр Шеффилдского университета, г. Шеффилд, Великобритания
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