Politicians, pundits, and the press regularly proclaim that water has become the new oil, and the world is on the verge of witnessing several water wars. Despite these repeated warnings for several decades, particularly since the late 1980s, there has not been any war over water. The world has never witnessed a water war in its recorded history.
There are 310 international rivers shared by more than one country. Countries like Egypt, Syria, Hungary, and Pakistan are highly dependent on the waters of these rivers, but their downstream location makes them vulnerable. Increasing demand, decreasing supply, and climate change-induced variability make water sharing among countries more challenging.
However, countries usually prefer to sign water-sharing treaties instead of waging war. Developed industrialised countries dispute over the water pollution, but that they can address with the help of new technology and investment instead of fighting a war, as it has been seen in the Rhine, Danube, Colorado, and Colombia river basins.
Water scarcity is more challenging than water pollution, however, Israel and Jordan, and India and Pakistan have even signed water-sharing agreements. The river basins, like Euphrates-Tigris or Amu Darya-Syr Darya, which are still waiting for the treaties to be signed, tension is high but that has not led to any military action.
Since last year, the world is back to fearing a probable war in the Nile basin, as Ethiopia is building a huge dam upstream, which threatens downstream Egypt’s historical dependence on the water. The US President Donald Trump in the last week of October went on to suggest that Egypt might blow up that dam. Notwithstanding Trump’s statement, a few days later Egypt went back to the negotiating table.
Why have countries not fought wars over water? In many shared river basins, powerful riparian countries usually control the sharing of the water. War is not an option for many smaller riparian countries to demand a fair share. For Cambodia to fight a war against China or similarly Bangladesh against India — technically possible — will be suicidal. So, instead of war, they negotiate and agree to an arrangement.
Honouring the agreements
In other cases, several smaller countries who don’t have financial and technical resources to build and develop their water for their use, need international funding support that they don’t usually get without a prior agreement with their powerful neighbours. In other cases, they give their rivers to their big neighbour to develop, as Paraguay has done with Brazil, Lesotho with South Africa, and Bhutan with India.
Some upstream countries are building dams on their resources and in some cases they don’t sign agreements with downstream countries who are historically dependent on the shared rivers. Turkey has built a series of dams on the Euphrates-Tigris while Ethiopia is building Africa’s largest dam on the Blue Nile raising money from their internal sources. However, a dam does not get built overnight, it takes at least 5 to 8 years. That long period of dam construction and filling up of the reservoir gives the possibility for downstream countries to get prepared for a new water situation, and also give time for riparian countries to negotiate and if possible, to reach an agreement.
While almost everyone loves to predict water war, the world is yet to witness one. Countries benefit by reaching an agreement, even if they think that deal is not fair, as that allows them to develop their shared water resources, which is extremely critical for development and food security.
International norm against weaponisation of water
Though countries have not fought any war over water, that has not stopped a few countries to target dams and other water facilities to gain military advantage, especially during wars. Dams and dykes were regularly destroyed during the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Even in the 1991 Gulf War, water facilities in Baghdad were targeted. But, as Charlotte Grech-Madin, in her recent thesis argues there is a growing international norm against the weaponisation of water in a war.
It is becoming taboo for the countries to target each other’s dams and other water facilities in a war. India and Pakistan, for instance, have fought several wars, but they don’t target each other’s dams as that will make it free for all. Though non-state actors like Serbian militia or Daesh have in the recent past targeted dams in the war, these attacks have been very limited in nature but overall such entities have also restrained themselves from destroying water facilities.
There is little doubt that water wars continues to be a myth, and water is rarely used as a weapon in a war. However, that doesn’t mean that global water scarcity is any less serious. As the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked in 2010, “More people die from lack of safe water than from all forms of violence, including war”.
Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.