Water Conflicts

Compiled by:
Simon J. A. Mason (Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich), Tobias Siegfried (hydrosolutions GmbH)

Executive Summary

Conflicts over the use and management of water can occur on the local, national or regional level. They may involve water for domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial uses. Water conflicts tend to only escalate into violent conflicts under certain conditions, e.g. when institutions and policies fail to channel diverse interests towards mutually acceptable outcomes of the key stakeholders. Climate change is likely to increase the challenge, the reason why sustainable water management and peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms need to be enhanced.

What are Conflicts?

Conflicts can be defined as incompatible interaction between two or more actors. The key question is whether conflicts lead to violence, or whether the differences are managed in a non-violent manner, e.g. through dialogue, institutional and legal mechanisms.

Water as Cause, Tool or Target of Conflicts

Conflicts can be caused by tensions over the different uses and management of water, the focus of this introductory sketch. Such conflicts can be referred to as conflicts over the control of water resources, as well as development disputes. Conflicts caused by other factors (e.g. socio-political grievances), however, can make use of water systems as a military or political “tool”. Water infrastructure can also become a military “target” (PACIFIC INSTITUTE 2011).

While we focus on the “causal” aspect below, it is important to note that conflicts are never caused by one factor alone, and that there is no deterministic relationship between a specific physical availability of a resource and social conflict. If managed well, scarcity of water resources can also lead to cooperation between different social groups (MASON & MULLER 2007).

Physical and Economic Water Scarcity

It is useful to make a difference between physical and economic water scarcity. If a region is experiencing physical scarcity, the upper limit of the annually renewable water for different uses (human and ecosystem uses including) has been surpassed and backstopping options such as groundwater mining from non-renewable resources are not available or already exhausted. In the case of economic water scarcity, sufficient amounts of water are available, but economic, human and institutional capacities for allocating it are severely limited.

Water for Different Uses

As we focus on water control and development disputes, it is useful to make a difference between water for agriculture (approx. 70% of global withdrawal), for industry (20%), and for domestic uses (approx. 10%) (see also water use) (MOLDEN 2007). While the quality of water is vital for drinking water, the quantity aspect is predominant in the agricultural sector. Water related conflicts can occur on local, national, regional and global level:

Local Level

Examples of conflicts at the local level are tensions over the use of a water well, or between pastoralists and modern irrigated agriculture. In subsistence agriculture, where traditional conflict management systems have been eroded and new ones not firmly established, local water related conflicts can turn violent. In the case of the Woiyto valley in Ethiopia, there has always been competition over live-sustaining resources amongst the local agro-pastoralists, peasant cultivators and hunter-gatherers. However, these were generally low intensity and managed by traditional conflict management mechanisms. With the introduction of agribusiness and programmes sponsored by the regional government, the conflict dynamics changed. In 1997 clashes between agribusiness and agro-pastoralists related to grazing land and access to watering points led to loss of life on both sides (ARSANO & BAECHLER 2002).

National Level

At the national level, the question of land use and water rights, as well as infrastructure development, may lead to conflicts, yet these are generally dealt with in a non-violent manner. Rather than violent conflict, the challenge is more one of lack of sustainable development, or development on a national level that leads to conflict on a local level (LUZI 2008; MASON et al. 2009). Both local and national water related conflicts are more likely in economically water scarce countries, as it is more a challenge of infrastructure and management, rather than about water quantity per se. In the case of Darfur, increasingly limited water and land resources, possibly also due to climate change, were factors that escalated tensions. In the words of UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon (2007): “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.“ Nevertheless, even though the change in resource basis was a contributing factor, the main reason for the war in Darfur was the centre-periphery disparity in socio-political development in Sudan, and faulty management policies (MASON et al. 2008). In physically water scarce countries, such as North Africa and the Middle East, policy tensions often arise over the question of using local water resources to produce food on the national level (self-sufficiency approach), or rather to import food internationally (economic efficiency approach).

Regional Level

On a regional level, conflicts often arise over shared river basins or transboundary groundwater. Tensions at this level tend to be more diplomatic and economic, than violent. In the case of shared surface water, disputes often arise over the quantity and timing of upstream releases in relation to downstream demands. International conflicts in the Nile Basin (MASON 2004; ARSANO 2007), Mekong, Jordan, Euphrates/Tigris and Syr Darya and Amu Darya (SIEGFRIED & BERNAUER 2007; MCKINNEY 2003) are examples. As conflicts are never only about one issue, water issues may be intermingled with other political issues (e.g. in the Middle East).

Global Level

At the global level, water in the form of food (“virtual water”) links the world availability of water with the global food trade. Countries that are physically water scarce (e.g. more than 75% of river water withdrawn) tend to be more affected by regional and global water tensions. While they have the financial and institutional capacity to import food, many of these countries try to avoid over dependence on the global food market, for fear of countries like the US misusing their market dominance (see IWMI map below).

                IWMI 2008

Areas of physical and economic water scarcity. Source: IWMI (2008)              


The largely unseen nature of groundwater as well as the complex hydrogeology and flow paths often make conflicts over access and control of these resources more diffuse as compared to the case of surface water. In the case of groundwater irrigation for agriculture, the resources provide important means to buffer against climate variability and are thus key income-smoothing assets. If utilised in an unsustainable way, falling groundwater tables increasingly deprive typically the poor of having access to the resources, potentially causing economic hardship. If it is not managed adequately, this may result in social and political unrest or even conflict (SIEGFRIED 2004).

Climate Change

Climatic change will impact water availability globally. However, the direction and magnitude of regional changes in future precipitation is often not well known. Especially in the dryland regions of the globe, less frequent, higher intensity precipitation events are expected. For global temperatures, there exists a near uniform consensus on increasing trends as a function of present and future greenhouse gas forcing (CLIMATE INSTITUTE 2010).


The uncertainty prevalent in key climate boundary conditions for water resources significantly hampers our present day understanding of future water availability and the identification of target regions for focused adaptation. From the policy-making perspective this is troublesome, especially when viewed from the perspective of significantly increasing population stress in many economically marginal regions.

Nevertheless, it is very likely that the world will see increasing water-related disputes in the future as we transition into a period by mid 21st century where an expected 4.5 billion people experience significant levels of water stress frequently. At the same time ecosystems and their services will be increasingly under pressure due to the dispute between water allocation for human use and the natural environment. The challenge will be how to deal with these conflicts in a non-violent and sustainable manner (STRATEGIC FORESIGHT GROUP 2011).

References Library

ALLAN, J.A. (2001): Virtual Water. Economically Invisible and Politically Silent: A Way to Solve Strategic Water Problems. In: International Water and Irrigation Journal 21 4, 29-31.

ARSANO, Y.; BAECHLER, G. (2002): The Transformation of Resource Conflicts: Mechanisms and the Case of the Woiyto River Valley in Southern Ethiopia. In: BAECHLER, G. (Editor); WENGER, A. (Editor) (2002): Conflict and Cooperation – The Individual Between Ideal and Reality. Festschrift in honour of Kurt R. Spillmann. Zurich.

ARSANO, Y. (2007): Ethiopia and the Nile. Dilemmas of National and Regional Hydropolitics. Zurich: CSS/ETH Zurich. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

BAN KI MOON (2007): A Climate Culprit In Darfur. Washington: Washington Post. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

CARIUS, A.; DABELKO, G.D.; WOLF, A.T. (2004): Water, Conflict, and Cooperation. Policy Brief – The United Nations and Environmental Security. (= ECSP Report, 10). Nairobi: UNEP. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

CLIMATE INSTITUTE (Editor) (2010): Water. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

IWMI (Editor) (2008): Areas of Physical and Economic Water Scarcity. UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

MASON, S. (2004): From Conflict to Cooperation in the Nile Basin. Zurich: CSS/ETH Zurich. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

MASON, S.; MULLER, A. (2007): Transforming Environmental and Natural Resource Use Conflicts. In: COGOY, M. (Editor); STEININGER, K.W. (Editor) (2007): The Economics of Global Environmental Change. International Cooperation for Sustainability. Cheltenham & Northampton.

MASON, S.; MULLER, A.; SCHNABEL, A.; ALLURI, R.; SCHMID, C. (2008): Linking Environment and Conflict Prevention – The Role of United Nations. Zurich: CSS/ETH Zurich &Swiss Peace. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

MASON, S.A.; HAGMANN, T.; BICHSEL, C.; LUDI, E.; ARSANO, Y. (2009): Linkages Between Sub-national and International Water Conflicts: the Eastern Nile Basin. In: BRAUCH, H. (Editor); BEHERA, N. (Editor); KAMERI-MBOTE, P. (Editor); GRIN, J. (Editor); OSWALD-SPRING, U. (Editor); CHOUROU, B. (Editor); MESJASZ, C. (Editor); KRUMMENACHER, H. (Editor) (2009): Facing Global Environmental Change: Environmental, Human, Energy, Food, Health and Water Security Concepts. Volume 4: Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace. Berlin.

MCKINNEY, D.C. (2003): Cooperative Management of Transboundary Water Resources in Central Asia. In: BURGHART, D. (Editor); SABONIS-HELF, T. (Editor) (n.y.): In the Tracks of Tamerlane. Central Asia’s Path to the 21st Century. Washington D.C..

MOLDEN, D. (Editor) (2007): Water for Food, Water for Life. A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. London: Earthscan, Colombo: International Water Management Institute. URL [Accessed: 18.07.2011].

OECD DAC (Editor) (2005): Water and Violent Conflict. (= Issue Brief). Paris: OECD Development Assistance Committee. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

PACIFIC INSTITUTE (Editor) (2011): Water Conflict Chronology, The World’s Water. URL [Accessed: 18.07.2011].

STRATEGIC FORESIGHT GROUP (Editor) (2011): Blue Peace. Rethink Middle East Water. Mumbai: Strategic Foresight Group. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

WORLD WATER ASSESSMENT PROGRAMME WWAP (Editor) (2009): Water in a Changing World - Overview of Key Messages of the United Nations World Water Development Report 3. Water in a Changing World. Paris and London: UNESCO & Earthscan. URL [Accessed: 19.10.2012].

Further Readings Library

Reference icon

BATES, B.C. (Editor); KUNDZEWICZ, Z.W. (Editor); WU, S. (Editor); PALUTIKOF, J.P. (Editor) (2008): Climate Change and Water. Technical Paper of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva: IPCC Secretariat. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

This extensive technical paper addresses the observed and projected changes in climate as they relate to water, discusses impacts of climate change and water resources on sectors and systems, analyses regional aspects of climate change and water resources, discusses climate change mitigation measures and water, and policy implications. It is the sixth paper in the IPCC Technical Paper series.

Reference icon

STRATEGIC FORESIGHT GROUP (Editor) (2011): Blue Peace. Rethink Middle East Water. Mumbai: Strategic Foresight Group. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

The objective of this extensive report is to provide a comprehensive, long-term and regional framework for thinking about water in the Middle East (Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Turkey), in order to engage political leaders, media and the public in harnessing and managing collaborative solutions for sustainable regional water management.

Reference icon

WORLD WATER ASSESSMENT PROGRAMME WWAP (Editor) (2009): Water in a Changing World - Overview of Key Messages of the United Nations World Water Development Report 3. Water in a Changing World. Paris and London: UNESCO & Earthscan. URL [Accessed: 19.10.2012].

Key messages of the world water development report No. 3 (2009). The World Water Development Report (WWDR), the only report of its kind, provides a triennial, comprehensive review and authoritative picture of the state of the world's freshwater resources.

Reference icon

HOUSE, S.; CAVILL, S. (2015): Making Sanitation and Hygiene Safer - Reducing Vulnerabilities to Violence. In: Frontiers of CLTS: Innovations and Insights 5. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies. URL [Accessed: 15.06.2015].

This issue of Frontiers of CLTS focuses on the issue of safety and vulnerabilities to violence that women, girls and sometimes boys and men can face which are related to sanitation and hygiene. It points out areas in which CLTS methodologies, if not used skilfully with awareness and care, can run the potential risk of creating additional vulnerabilities, for example as a by-product of community pressure to reach ODF. It also looks at good practices within organisations to ensure that those working in the sector know how to programme to reduce vulnerabilities to violence and to ensure that sector actors also do not become the perpetrators of, or face violence.

Case Studies Library

Reference icon

ARSANO, Y. (2007): Ethiopia and the Nile. Dilemmas of National and Regional Hydropolitics. Zurich: CSS/ETH Zurich. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

This study deals with the national and regional dilemmas of hydropolitics in the Eastern Nile Basin countries of Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea. The study demonstrates that while the sharing of water resources and a common cultural heritage serve as unifying factors among the peoples of the Eastern Nile basin, the colonial legacy and vestiges of the Cold War, combined with unilaterally determined national strategies for water resource development, have created incompatible legal norms that remain a continuing source of regional tensions.

Reference icon

SIEGFRIED, T.U. (2004): Optimal utilization of a non-renewable transboundary groundwater resource. Methodology, case study and policy implications. Dissertation. Zurich: ETH. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

This dissertation contributes to the concept of a common management scheme to avert excessive prices for water and deterioration of the resource on the whole in the North-West Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS) which is one of the largest groundwater systems of the world and providing water in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. It warns on increasing costs of deteriorating ground water level and attraction of saline waters.

Awareness Raising Material Library

Reference icon

CARIUS, A.; DABELKO, G.D.; WOLF, A.T. (2004): Water, Conflict, and Cooperation. Policy Brief – The United Nations and Environmental Security. (= ECSP Report, 10). Nairobi: UNEP. URL [Accessed: 24.07.2011].

This short paper elaborates on characteristics of water-related violence, where and how it occurs but also underlines how common water interests can stimulate cooperation. The policy brief is aiming at the UN system by concluding that it should establish a program of preventive diplomacy focused on water.

Important Weblinks

http://www.isn.ethz.ch/ [Accessed: 24.07.2011]

The research papers presented in the Environment and Conflict Transformation series stem from the ECONILE and "NCCR North South, Research Partnerships for Mitigating Syndromes of Global Change" projects. The various papers available online focus on conflicts over the use of renewable resources and the environment, and how such conflicts can be prevented, or transformed into cooperative relations.

http://www.colorado.edu/ [Accessed: 18.07.2011]

This glossary of a training program on intractable conflicts from University of Colorado provides definitions of terms related to conflicts and conflict resolution.

http://www.climate.org/ [Accessed: 24.07.2011]

This informative site from the Climate Institute provides practical information about the impact of climate change on water and various further references.

http://worldwater.org/ [Accessed: 18.07.2011]

Since the 1980s, the Pacific Institute tracks and categorizes any events related to water and conflict. The open website presents the water conflict chronology in form of a list, a map and a timeline.

http://www.riversnetwork.org [Accessed: 09.04.2013]

This open-source platform has dedicated itself to spread knowledge and awareness about the river basins of the world. It provides geographically specific information as a basis for improving sustainable management of rivers.