Water Shortages May Escalate Conflict Between Countries

© Kyle Obermann

Editor's note: Food security is the focus of this year’s World Water Week, the leading freshwater meeting currently underway in Stockholm. Because both food and energy are closely tied to internationally shared water resources, an important part of the conversation will be about turning competing demands for transboundary water resources into cooperation and sharing of benefits.

Conflict over water resources is not a new phenomenon. People have competed for access to clean water for themselves, their animals and crops since time immemorial, particularly in dry areas of the world.

However, as climate change continues to impact people across the globe, scientists predict that droughts will increase in many places. Many rivers will see an often unmanageable increase in flow as glaciers melt, followed by significant decreases as their sources dry up. This will have immediate effects on the amount of water available for human consumption, as well as agriculture and electricity generation.

According to the FAO, by 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions. This prediction has raised concerns that there will be increasing and escalating conflicts over water amongst countries that share water resources.

Most conflicts over water resources in the last century have been domestic in nature. However, there has been plenty of tension between countries around water (such as between Thailand and Laos with the recent Xayaburi dam project in the Mekong River, and between India and Pakistan over the Indus River). Although countries generally prefer cooperation over conflict when it comes to water issues, occasionally these tensions have escalated into full-on international conflicts, such as between Israel and Syria in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Rather than waiting for a potential increase in water conflicts, CI has been working with partners to create legal frameworks for managing shared water resources that take into account the entire ecosystem and the flows of water needed to keep it healthy and providing benefits to all involved countries.

Primarily, we are supporting national efforts to ratify (and bring into force) the U.N. Watercourses Convention, which provides a framework that countries sharing water resources can apply to their own particular circumstances. This framework lays out requirements for the use of shared water resources in an equitable and reasonable manner that considers protection of the ecosystem and sustainable use, and requires consultation before conducting any activities that may harm the other countries in the basin.

As opposed to an agreement that specifies water allocations per country, the type of agreement made under the framework of the Watercourses Convention allows countries to adapt the management and use of their shared water resources in the face of a changing climate, while still meeting basic requirements of cooperation. Currently 60% of international water basins have no agreement in place for shared management, and many of the basins that do have only a very basic one in place.

As water scarcity becomes a growing issue, we believe that well-designed and basin-wide agreements are critical to ensure that international cooperation will win out over conflict.

Lina Barrera is the director of biodiversity and ecosystem services policy in CI’s Center for Conservation and Government.