A new tool, launched by the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership, has identified a number of locations where there is a high risk of water-related conflict. The tool analyses patterns of violent conflict, as well as environmental, economic and social variables, across South and South-East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Trials of the tool suggest an 86 per cent success rate in identifying situations where violence will lead to more than 10 fatalities (although when testing emerging conflicts, 80 per cent of predictions were false positives, where violence was predicted, but did not occur).
The notion that water scarcity leads to violence is one that has generated plenty of alarmist headlines in recent years. The reasoning is that that climate change and an increasing global population will lead to increased competition for dwindling water resources, which, in turn, may lead to civil unrest or war. Areas where these “water wars” are most likely to erupt are those where people struggle to get access to fresh water and where transboundary water resources exist. These conditions create tensions between people and states as water becomes increasingly scarce.
It is hard to deny that water can play a role in certain conflicts. The creators of the WPS tool highlight situations in places such as Basra, in Iraq, where poor water quality led to protests last year. They also refer to Iran, Mali, India, Pakistan and Nigeria, where water shortages have variously led to protests and violent clashes. Water has played a part in these conflicts, but to identify water shortages as their sole cause would be to ignore the variety of social, economic and political factors that drive conflict. In Basra, for instance, increasing salinity in the Shatt-al-Arab was a significant driver of discontent, but so were infrastructure failures, electricity shortages, rampant corruption, high unemployment, economic stagnation, a lack of political responsiveness and a perception that foreign states were interfering in Iraq’s political system, at the expense of Iraqis.
This year’s protests in Iraq have seen far more violence than in 2018 and they were not caused by water shortages at all. Instead, they were triggered by the demotion of a popular counter-terrorism chief. Certainly, protesters are probably still frustrated by the state’s inability to provide basic services like water, but the water situation actually improved slightly in Iraq this year – rainfall was high and the summer less intense than usual. Protests happened anyway, spreading further and becoming more deadly than in 2018.
Similarly, India and Pakistan are plagued by water insecurity, which contributes to frequent protests by farmers. But these protests are also driven by the high cost of farm inputs, low crop prices and farmers’ indebtedness. The latest rounds of protests in Iran began after a huge increase in fuel prices. While water shortages played a part in fostering discontent, so did Iran’s ongoing economic problems.
On closer examination, at an intra-state level, conflict related to water is more a response to government inability to provide basic services for society, than about water itself. It is often a symptom of much wider problems. It is also important to remember that at an inter-state level, water is more often a tool for co-operation than it is for conflict. A report from 2018 examined inter-state relations between 1956 and 2006 and found that positive interactions over water had increased the chances that those states would enjoy peaceful diplomatic ties, as long as they were not already in acute conflict.
Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that inter-state “water wars” have ever been on the horizon. Between 1945 and 2008, there were only 44 acute water disputes (those involving violence) between countries, 30 of which involved Israel and its neighbours. In the same period, there were more than twice as many co-operative events between riparian states as there were conflict events. Two-thirds of the conflict events were verbal and more likely aimed at securing domestic popularity than anything else. Certainly, water may exacerbate conflict between states, but it is rare for water to drive conflict by itself.
Water shortages will continue to exacerbate conflict at both intra- and inter-state levels, but water as a prime driver of conflict is less likely than it may appear on the surface.