In 1995, World Bank official Ismail Serageldin warned that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water—unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.” Since then, the world’s water resources have come under ever-greater strain. At the same time, institutional frameworks for managing water resources remain weak throughout most of the globe. Only about a quarter of the world’s international river basins have adequate governance arrangements to prevent and resolve conflicts. Does this mean that we can expect the 21st century to be wracked by water wars?
The short answer is no: Few (if any) countries have actually gone to war over water in recorded history. But the longer answer is maybe: Water has played a clear role in many forms of conflict within nations, including violent skirmishes between villages in Guatemala, riots between ethnic groups in India, and legal disputes between U.S. states. In my new book, Subnational Hydropolitics, I find that water conflicts within countries break out because shared water resources are often linked to identity politics—but that these conflicts can be resolved by building platforms for cooperative decision-making among water users.
In recent years, compelling evidence has emerged of a link between severe water scarcity, migration, and instability. Cases like Syria suggest that severe drought can drive sudden mass movements of people from the countryside into cities or across borders. Under the right circumstances, a weak central government, civil unrest, or other tensions might allow drought-driven migration to spark a wider violent conflict.
When I began researching the history of water conflicts across a wide range of countries, I expected to find similar examples where severe water scarcity stoked conflict between water users. But instead I found the exact opposite. Moderate scarcity does create temporary tensions, as demonstrated by protests by farmers in India’s Krishna River basin during a mid-1980s drought. But severe scarcity typically—and surprisingly—leads to lasting cooperation.
Perhaps the best example is the Colorado River Basin, home to one of America’s longest-running interstate water disputes. The onset of a severe drought in the late 1990s served as the catalyst for an increasingly comprehensive set of agreements between the states using the river to share the burdens of water shortages—in contrast to previous decades, where despite generally higher water volumes, the states incessantly sued and fought each other in the courts and Congress. When it comes to water and conflict, scarcity is hardly destiny.
Instead, I found that water can quickly become a touchstone for a range of tensions over language, ethnicity, culture, and religion. When this happens, water can be the source of prolonged conflict and dispute within countries. Fortunately, my research also shows that even long-running water conflicts can be resolved when outside groups—including national leaders, research institutions, and NGOs—work together to build institutions at the watershed and river basin level. These institutions provide a platform above the political fray to help users of a common water resource make consensus-based, cooperative decisions that can make water use not only less contentious, but also more sustainable.
After analyzing cases of successful cooperation as well as conflict, I found that policymakers can help prevent and resolve subnational water conflicts by taking five key steps:
It’s tempting to believe that given the dire state of the world’s water resources, people will be more likely to fight over it in the decades to come. But there’s just as much reason to be hopeful as to be alarmed. Water conflict is far from inevitable—and with the right institutions and incentives, cooperation is far more likely.