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Special Report
Last Updated: 05/03/2010
Water Security: War or Peace?
Thomas Lawfield

Keywords: water security, water war, water peace, virtual water


The modern security discourse has taken on a number of new tenets, paradigms and issues previously considered beyond the realms of interest of traditional security studies. Nowhere is this more correct than in the study of water and security.[1] Indeed, the water discourse pushed ‘environmental security’ into the broader security lexicon[2] and established the notion that environmental scarcity and competition may induce migration and conflict.[3] Two broad themes have emerged within this discourse: first, a position that suggests that the water resource may be a source of conflict, and second that the water resource may be a tool for peace.

Structurally, this paper will critique both claims, effectively demonstrating that the threat of water war is exaggerated and that the parallel discourse of water peace, while well meaning, seems founded on weak conceptual grounds. In the hope of averting such pessimism, I then offer a number of policy direction prescriptions that may assist in using water as a tool for peace. I will focus throughout on interstate conflict, but will not lose sight of the literature speaking to the intrastate level.

However, it is first necessary to outline the definitional parameters of the question. During this paper I will use the following definitional pointers:

Water war is large scale armed conflict over the control of a water resource within or between states[4]

Water cooperation is the use of the water resource as a tool for peace either within or between states

Three methodological challenges exist throughout this analysis: first that much of the literature is highly speculative, predictive, and lacking in empirical evidence, second the geophysical and social context varies significantly between river basins, making general theoretical statements problematic, and third the debate is highly policy orientated – with most literature speaking to the world as it should be rather than what it These challenges are significant hurdles to effective analysis, and frame the following conceptual critiques.

The water war thesis

The water war thesis comes from a strong political pedigree. A number of key state heads in the Middle East and North Africa have made significant claims linking water and conflict. For instance, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1979: ‘The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.’[5] Likewise, former UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali pointed out that the ‘national security of Egypt…is a question of water’[6] Such sentiments have been echoed by two more recent Secretary Generals who have commented that ‘if we are not careful, future wars are going to be about water and not oil’[7] with a likelihood of ‘transforming peaceful competition into violence.’[8]

Such populist talk is matched by an attendant academic literature linking conflict and water in a state of ‘emergency’.[9] Some approaches look for a statistical correlation between the existence of international water courses and conflict. One author points out: ‘One fourth of water-related interactions during the last half century were hostile.’[10] In particular, these authors look for the existence of increased water stress (– induced by population growth) and conflict. This focus operates on the assumption that the greater the need for water, the greater the stakes that the state is willing to place on securing access to the water resource. As Postel makes clear: ‘The unprecedented degree of current water stress is creating more zero-sum situations both within and between countries.’[11] This gives a certain logical predictability to the trajectory of water conflicts – suggesting a direct correlation between those sites where there is a shortage of water and the incidence of conflict.

Such ‘irrefutable evidence’[12] takes on a highly geographical nature, where particular river basins and hydrological typologies are established as potential sites of conflict, such as in the case of the Middle East and North Africa, where the Nile and Jordan/Israel examples have emerged as a central flagship example for future war, conflict and instability induced by water scarcity. One paper confidently proclaims that "The largest and most combustible imbalance between population and available water supplies will be in Asia."[13] In addition, another report selects seventeen shared river basins and dam instances distributed globally where conflict is likely to occur.[14]

Explaining why water causes conflict has been straightforward – an explanation which reflects a "heightened competition for [finite] water between cities and farms, between neighbouring states and provinces, and at times between nations."[15] (italics added)

The causal explanation for such a link suggests that increased stress on the water resource occurs in two planes: an increase in demand, and/or a decrease in supply. Some authors place more weight on the argument that population growth (demand increase) will be the cause,[16] while others prefer a decline in supply explanation, such as the expectation that water availability per capita is expected to decline by twenty per cent by 2025.[17] In the spirit of Homer-Dixon, both scenarios induce stress on the water resource and link natural and human systems in a highly interdependent and mutually vulnerable relationship. The conflict scenario occurs when an attempt is made to maintain or increase supply to meet demand in a situation where demand is either static or increasing.

A primary assumption here is that the requirements of upstream and downstream riparian states are diametrically opposed – that the use of the river resource in one part of the system is inherently damaging to the interests of the other states within the system. Karaev makes the position clear, pointing out that "Interests are often diametrically opposed to each other and offer little flexibility in negotiating the terms of joint use of water resources."[18]

A secondary assumption here is that the state acts ‘rationally’ to external environmental pressures. It perceives its own needs and, (all other things being equal) perceives conflict as a correct form of action. As a highly realist assumption is an anomaly in an environmental security discourse otherwise dominated by a more liberal paradigm.

This is not just the agenda of securing an essential commodity but part of a wider discourse of water fanaticism left over from the ‘hydraulic mission’. This discourse holds that ‘not a single drop of water should reach the sea without being put to work for the benefit of man’ and that social, economic and political resources will be put to work to serve this end.[19] In such a context, water becomes a resource that is perceived to be worth engaging in conflict to secure and control.

Water wars revisited

In reality, water does not cause war. The arguments presented above, although correct in principle, have little purchase in empirical evidence. Indeed, as one author notes, there is only one case of a war where the formal declaration of war was over water.[20] This was an incident between two Mesopotamian city states, Lagash and Umma, over 2,500 years BC, in modern day southern Iraq.

Both the initial premises and arguments of water war theorists have been brought into question. Given this, a number of areas of contestation have emerged: "Questioning both the supply and demand side of the water war argument [...] Questioning assumptions about the costs of water resources [...and] Demonstrating the cooperative potential of the water resource."[21]

Why then is water not a cause of war? The answer lies in two factors: first, the capacity for adaptation to water stresses and, second, the political drawbacks to coupling water and conflict.

First, there is no water crisis, or more correctly, there are a number of adaptation strategies that reduce stress on water resources and so make conflict less likely. Unlike the water war discourse, which perceives water as finite in the Malthusian sense, the capacity for adaptation to water stress has been greatly underestimated. For instance, I will discuss in particular a trading adaptation known as ‘virtual water’, which refers to the water used to grow imported food. This water can be subtracted from the total projected agricultural water needs of a state, and hence allows water scarce states to operate on a lower in-country water requirement than would otherwise be expected.[22] This means that regions of the world that are particularly rich in water produce water intense agricultural products more easily in the global trade system, while other water scarce areas produce low intensity products.[23] The scale of this water is significant - Allan famously pointed out that more embedded water flows into the Middle East in the form of grain than flows in the Nile.[24]

In addition, there are significant problems around the hegemonic doctrine of the water crisis. Many authors point to relatively low water provision per capita by states, and suggest that this will increase the likelihood of a state engaging in war with a neighbouring state, to obtain the water necessary for its population. This is normally a conceptual leap that produces the incorrect corollary of conflict, but is also frequently a problem of data weaknesses around the per capita requirements. For instance, Stucki cites the case of the Palestinians being under the worst water stress, with a per capita provision being in the region of 165m³/year.[25] Unfortunately, such an analysis is based on false actual provision data in this region. Based on the authors work on water provision in Lebanese Palestinian refugee camps, the actual provision is over 90m³/month. Such a figure is highly likely to be representative of other camps in the region.[26] If this example is representative of trends to exaggerate water pressures in the region, then we should be sceptical about claims of increasing water stress.

Furthermore, given that many water systems have a pipe leakage rate of fifty per cent, combined with a seventy per cent loss of agricultural water, significant efficiency enhancements could be made to existing infrastructure. Combined with desalination options in many water shortage prone states, there is an overall capacity for technological and market driven solutions to water scarcity.[27]

Second, water wars are not caused by water, but rather an inability of politics. Barnett makes the case clear by arguing that water war would be a ‘failure of politics’ rather than the outcome of justified demands for essential resources.[28] In this way, it is not scarcity that is the driver in the Malthusian sense, but a political, and politicised issue. This is most noticeable where conflict occurs in areas where there are both political tensions and water resources challenges. For example, there are absurd and exaggerated claims of a linkage between Israel’s water management and surrounding states. In reality, conflict in this region is strongly influenced by political circumstance that speaks to a wider discourse around Israel’s position in the Near East. That environmental constraints and pressures are woven into wider discourses of politics is no indication that they are the cause of conflict, but rather more that they are an important contextual factor that may be mobilised for political reasons. For instance, in 2000 Lebanon started building a small pumping station on the Wazzani river which is used by downstream Israel. This rapidly became a media issue in Israel, probably due to the heightened security discourse surrounding water. Claims were made that the action was comparable to the 1964 diversion of the Hasbani, an Arab coalition move to harm the Israeli economy. However, the story diminished even faster than it emerged, when officials on both sides showed their dismay at the emerging media frenzy.[29] There are two key trends to note from this example: first, that wider discussions around water wars influence the articulation of war in reality, and second the water component of the conflict is not significant, rather it acts as a trigger for the utilisation of wider political narratives. In essence, water is merely a tool for political ends.

Third, war over water is illogical. States are not inherently belligerent, but act in self interested, utility-maximising ways. Rather, they engage in conflict if they stand to gain more than they loose. In the case of water, the costs of military engagement far outweigh the costs of cooperative engagement. For instance, Baskin points out that it would cost more for Israel to engage in war for the water resources of the West Bank than it would to buy the equivalent of the West Banks aquifers from elsewhere.[30]

Water war protagonists also present the weak argument that there is a unique situation in the Middle East of the possibility of state territories changing, with water related land grabs. ‘Victory may bring land that offers more resources – either water or oil.’[31] This is not the case. State territories have been extremely stable for over a hundred years – conflict that attempts to enlarge boundaries would problematise the very existence and legitimacy of the state itself. By contrast, if they stand to gain by establishing cooperative relationships with other states in the international system, they will. It is difficult to see how good water management, which frequently demands cooperation, can be conducted through the use of conflict.

That said, there are incidences of water related conflict on the intrastate level. For instance, in summer 2000, clashes involving thousands of farmers and police occurred in the Huang He river basin, China over government policy changes that meant a local dam runoff would no longer supply irrigation water for farmers but instead be used for urbanisation. In addition, in Pakistan there have been clashes between farmers in Punjab and Sind province over control of the Indus. But these are not resource pressure issues – rather water acts as one of many other triggers in a wider problem of social injustice and political discourses.

The water cooperation thesis

Given these conceptual and practical limitations, the link between water and war is at best contextual. However, water has an important role to play as a nexus of cooperation between states.[32] As such the cooperative approach is overwhelmingly the most frequent response to water challenges between states. Barnaby points out that "Cooperation [...] is the dominant response to a shared water resource"[33]

Indeed, of the 263 international water ways in the world, all are managed more or less peacefully. This is supported by a substantial body of legislative and transboundary institution building – for instance between 805 and 1984, global states signed over 3,600 water related treaties.[34] Equally, of thirty five cases of transboundary freshwater management, the most effective management strategy has universally been that of good relations.

Indeed, a cooperative international sphere, in which non escalatory options are privileged, is likely to go hand in hand with a more peaceful internal state. Additionally according to some, cooperation on the water issue could act as a nucleus for further cooperative acts in other spheres, triggering linkages between states at a multiplicity of levels and opening communication channels normally severed by conflict. This has considerable conceptual purchase as has been welcomed as a potential in policy circles, particularly as it fits well with a political agenda of inclusivity. As such, there has been a growth of alternative water management strategies that incorporate the crucial local and regional levels in addition to the state level of analysis, attempting to address wider social ills while at the same time meeting water needs. While ‘paradigm shift’[35] may be a slightly premature analysis there is certainly a change in attitudes towards inclusivity. And while water acting as a social and political panacea in the ‘developing’ world is unlikely, the potential for cooperation needs continued and sustained exploration.

Conclusion: Towards a water security-peace synthesis

This paper has convincingly demonstrated that in both the modern day, and the future, the threat of water wars is significantly exaggerated. Rather, water may be understood as a site of political challenges that are unlikely to result in war. Instead, water may be utilised as a tool of cooperation, which may potentially lead to synergistic benefits in meeting wider social justice challenges.

Given this, a number of recommendations may be made for policy:

1) Ensure that research is careful and that hegemonic discourses does not make the occurrence of war more likely

2) Develop policy concepts and mechanisms that directly link water and cooperation, such as in the development of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) that operate at both the local, state and interstate levels

3) De-couple water and national security discourses and re-couple with cooperative intercultural narratives

Separately, this paper has not discussed the significant topic of sea water issues, another water security arena to recently emerge. Given the serious implications of climate change, and its associated sea level rise, increased extreme weather events, and the proximity of high population densities in littoral zones, it is highly likely that the sea will become a new security theme following both human, environmental and national security discourses. Threats may be very diverse – such as in disputes over fishing rights with new fishing grounds opening up – (with premonitions demonstrated such as between Iceland and the United Kingdom in the 70’s), or may be over territorial rights opened up by sea ice melt, such as in the North West Passage, Canada, and how this will influence global trade. Again, wider political discourses will be paramount in determining whether water will drive conflict or cooperation, but this is a separate issue.


[1] It is not my purpose here to establish the historical trajectory of the environmental security discourse and the important inclusion of environmental constraints such as water resources as this is better discussed elsewhere. See for instance: Tarry, S., ‘Deepening’ And Widening: An Analysis Of Security Definitions In The 1990s. Journal Of Military And Strategic Studies. Vol. 2, no. 1, Fall, 1999. See also: Matthews, J., Redefining Security. Foreign Affairs. Vol. 68, no. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 162-77. 

[2] Stucki, P. Water wars or water peace: Rethinking the nexus between water scarcity and armed conflict. Programme for Strategic and International Security Studies. PSIS Occasional Paper 1. Number 3. p. 11. [online] <http://www.psis.org/pdf/PSIS-OccPap-2_2004-Stucki.pdf>, 2005.

[3] As Kaplan points out: ‘Surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation, soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution and possibly rising sea levels…[prompting]…mass migrations and in turn inciting group conflicts’. Kaplan, R. D., The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime And Overpopulation And Disease Are Rapidly Destroying The Social Fabric Of Our Planet. Atlantic Monthly. 1994, Feb, pp. 44-79.

[4] I will not include discussion of the important role that water can play as a tool of warfare. For instance, substantial military action in the Second World War focused on dam destruction with the aim of knocking out electricity supplies and human population centres. Likewise, in modern day Palestine, Israeli strikes have included strikes on water related infrastructure. See: Trottier, J., Water wars: The rise of a hegemonic concept. UNESCO-Green Cross International. p. 13. 2003.

[5] Quoted in: Starr, J., Water Wars. Foreign Policy. 82 (Spring). [online] <http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/archive/00002987/>, p. 18. 1991.

[6] Quoted in: Starr, J., ibid., p. 20. 1991.

[7] Annan, K., UN Secretary General. New Delhi, 15 March 2001 - Question and answer session after statement (SG/SM/7742) at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, (unofficial transcript). Off the Cuff. UN Secretary General. Office of the Spokesperson. [online] <http://www.un.org/apps/sg/offthecuff.asp?nid=157>.

[8]    -        Moon, B., Quoted In: Water in a changing world. United Nations World Water Development. Rep. 3. [online] <www.unesco-wwap.org/wwdr3/media-kit/documents/WWDR3%20low%20res.pdf>. 2009.

[9] Starr, J., op cit., p. 10. 1991.

[10] Postel, S., Wolf, A., Dehydrating Conflict. Foreign Policy. Sept./Oct., pp. 60-7. 2001.

[11] Postel, S., Wolf, A., Dehydrating Conflict. Foreign Policy. Sept./Oct., p. 64. 2001.

[12] Starr, J., op cit., p. 17. 1991.

[13] Postel, S., Wolf, A., op cit., p. 61. 2001.

[14] Postel, S., Wolf, A.,. ibid., p. 64. 2001.

[15] Postel, S., Wolf, A., ibid., p. 61. 2001.

[16]      - Withdrawing liquid assets: How demographic trends affect the freshwater supply. RAND Cooperation Research. [online] <http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/2005/RAND_RB9102.pdf>, 2005.

[17] Mostert, E., Conflict and co-operation in international freshwater management: a global review. River Basin Management. 1:3. p. 1, 2003.

[18] Karaev, Z., Water Diplomacy in Central Asia. Middle East Review of International Affairs. 9:1. p. 66. [online] <http://www.ciaonet.org/olj/meria/meria_mar05/meria05_kaz01.pdf>, 2005.

[19] See for instance: Molle, F., Mollinga, P., Wester, P., Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: flows of Water, flows of power. Water Alternatives. 2:3, p. 332. 2009

[20] Postel, S., Wolf, A., op cit., pp. 60-7. 2001.

[21] Adapted from: Stucki, P. Water wars or water peace: Rethinking the nexus between water scarcity and armed conflict. Programme for Strategic and International Security Studies. PSIS Occasional Paper 1. Number 3. pp. 11-21. [online] <http://www.psis.org/pdf/PSIS-OccPap-2_2004-Stucki.pdf>, 2005.

[22] Poor terminology considering that there is nothing virtual about it – the original term of ‘embedded’ is preferable but less popular. Allan, J., Substitutes for water are being found in the Middle East and North Africa. Geojournal. 28: 3, pp. 375-85.

[23] This, in turn, supports the neoliberal capitalist agenda, as it demonstrates the efficiency gains of international trade, and, at least in the case of water, is an interesting argument that runs directly counter to the demands of environmental wisdom which suggests food sovereignty to be ideal.

[24] Allan, T., Quoted in: Barnaby, W., Do nations go to war over water? Nature. 458. pp. 282-83, 2009.

[25] Stucki, P. op cit., 2005.

[26] Authors experience in the region, 2009.

[27] For instance, Starr observes that while Jordan could benefit from the exploitation of brackish groundwater resources in the Jordan River south of the Dead Sea using solar pumping and desalination technology, the start up costs of such a project prevent action. This, however, is not an option in countries where the economic status prohibits an otherwise perfect environmental circumstances. Starr, J., op cit., p. 23. 1991.

[28] Barnett, Destabilising the environment- conflict thesis, p. 21, In: Stucki, P. Water wars or water peace: Rethinking the nexus between water scarcity and armed conflict. Op cit., 2005.

[29] Amery misinterprets the case as suggesting water war was likely. In fact, the case is evidence of conflict being unlikely – the fact that the case for conflict was so tenuous should be taken as evidence for conflict being unlikely. This alternative position is all the more convincing given the high tension political context between the Lebanese and Israelis, that has meant conflict occurs over relatively minor frictions. Amery, H., Water wars in the Middle East: A looming threat. The Geographical Journal. 168:4. pp. 313-23, 2002.

[30] Baskin, G., The clash over water: An attempt at demystification. Palestine-Israel Journal. 3(Summer), pp. 27-35.

[31] With the exception of Israel, state boundaries have changed little since their formation. Maynes, C., The Middle East in the twenty-first century. The Middle East Journal. 52: 1. pp. 36-42.

[32] Much analysis confuses cooperation with peace – unfortunately an incorrect position. A definition that understands peace as the absence of conflict – ‘negative peace’ – is conceptually hollow given that such circumstances could also contain significant social injustices, political and economic repression and other violations of human rights.

[33] Barnaby, W., op cit., pp. 282-83, 2009.

[34] Postel, S., Wolf, A., Dehydrating Conflict. Foreign Policy. Sept./Oct., pp. 60-7. 2001.

[35] Mostert, E., op cit., p. 7, 2003.


Thomas Lawfield is an MA candidate at the University for Peace.
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