Resource scarcity - Water

Resource scarcity - Water

Much of the recent writing on security and climate change indicates that chronic fresh water shortages can often have adverse impacts on national, regional and international security, and can lead to conflict. Sources of fresh and clean water, which are not always confined by the political boundaries of states, are becoming increasingly scarce as the global consumption of water increases due to population growth and economic development. Should climate change adversely impact on fresh water resources, the potential for disputes would increase.

Water shortages usually affect rural communities more than those living in urban areas due to the heavy reliance on agriculture as the principal means of livelihood. Industrialised countries are usually considered to be better positioned to mitigate the consequences of water shortages due to their more resilient institutional capacity, which distinguishes them from less developed or poor states.

Aaron Wolf (2006), from the German Advisory Council on Global Change, wrote in 2006:

Surface and groundwater that cross international boundaries present increased challenges to regional stability because hydrologic needs can often be overwhelmed by political considerations. While the potential for paralysing disputes is especially high in these basins, history shows that water can catalyse dialogue and cooperation, even between especially contentious riparians.

Many commentators—for example Dupont and Pearman, Aaron Wolfe, and Podesta and Ogden—argue that while climate change may increase the likelihood of conflict between states over fresh water resources, it is more likely to result in international migration and internal conflict in developing countries.

Global water stress

The following is a map of global water stress, as measured by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2004. Some information on specific examples of water stress in the Middle East and in North Africa is provided below.


UNEP water scarcity index 2004

Source: United Nations Environment Programme, ‘Water Scarcity Index,’ 2004.

Water stress as a potential source of conflict: examples from the Middle East and Africa

The Middle East contains three per cent of the world’s population but only one per cent of available fresh water.  The prospect of climate change raising temperatures and affecting rainfall patterns may increase the likelihood of conflict over already stretched freshwater supplies.  Below are some examples of current disputes over freshwater resources in the Middle East and northeast Africa which may be exacerbated by changing rainfall patterns.

The Tigris-Euphrates basin:
The Tigris-Euphrates Basin has witnessed long-running disputes between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over water usage. The most intense disagreement stems from Turkey’s Southeast Anatolia Project (Turkish: Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi, GAP), which involves constructing 22 dams on the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, to use for irrigation and hydro-electric power generation.  Syria and Iraq rely on the rivers for both drinking water and irrigation and have seen reduced flows since GAP construction began. Turkey asserts that while 70 per cent of the water in the Tigris and Euphrates comes from its territory, GAP will use just 25 per cent of the total flow.  

In the early 1970s Syria dammed the Euphrates River to create Lake Assad; now used for irrigation and drinking water. When the flow of the Euphrates was reduced to fill the lake, Iraq complained and threatened to bomb the dam. This dispute was resolved by Saudi and Soviet mediation.

In the Middle East, disputes over water are often complicated by other security issues.  In this case, the south-eastern area of Turkey, in which GAP is located, is the main theatre of operations of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey has often accused Iraq and Syria of not taking appropriate action against the PKK in their territories.   Similarly, Syria and Iraq have historically taken issue with Turkey’s tacit alliance with Israel, while Syrian-Iraqi relations have largely been sour since the 1960s. 

The Nile Basin:
The waters of the Nile and its tributaries are shared by 10 countries with a combined population of 160 million people (expected to rise to more than 300 million in the next couple of decades).  Access to the waters of the Nile is regulated by the 1929 Nile Water Agreement, updated in 1959.  This agreement, which guarantees the bulk of the Nile’s water will flow into Egypt, was signed only by Sudan and Egypt, excluding other riparian countries (which were then generally colonies of the UK or France).  Egypt has largely opposed any moves by East African countries to utilise water from the Nile or its tributaries; claiming that it would be a risk to its ‘lifeblood.’

In an attempt to ease tensions over access to the waters of the Nile basin, a multilateral Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was signed by riparian countries in 1999. The stated aim of the NBI is to 'achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through he equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.'  The World Bank, when discussing the NBI, notes that 'cooperative development of the Nile offers great opportunity to unlock economic growth, promote regional integration, and realize stability.' The NBI could develop into an example of regional cooperation, mitigating the security risks associated with water scarcity and climate change. NBI states are currently negotiating a Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement.

The Jordan basin:
Water has been one of the central disputes in the Arab-Israeli conflict since Israel’s formation.  Tensions over the use of the waters of the Jordan basin have, in the past, led directly to small scale military conflict.

In 1953 Israel began the diversion of water from the Sea of Galilee, a project that would result in the National Water Carrier.  In 1964, Syria began diverting the Banias River to prevent it reaching the Sea of Galilee (and hence the Israeli National Water Carrier), to which Israel responded with tank fire and air strikes. These events were part of the compounding security situation that led to the Six Day War in 1967.

Water is one issue that will need to be resolved in any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria.  Some of Israel’s current freshwater supply originates in the two mountain aquifers in the West Bank, and a final status agreement will need to balance Palestinian requirements for water with guarantees of future supply to Israel.  Negotiations regarding ground water (including the digging of new wells by water-stressed Palestinians) were a central part of the ‘Oslo’ negotiations in the 1990s. 

Further reading:

S Lonergan, 'Water and war', Division of Early Warning and Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme, 2003.

Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 'A climate culprit in Darfur', Washington Post, 16 June 2007.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 'Climate change and water', Technical Paper VI, June 2008.

I Kaya, ‘The Euphrates-Tigris basin: An overview and opportunities for cooperation under international law,’ Arid Lands Newsletter, No. 44, Fall/Winter 1998.

Aaron T. Wolf, A long-term view of water and security—international waters, national issues, and regional tensions, German Advisory Council on Global Change, Berlin, 2006.

25 November, 2010

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