Skip to main content

Water Wars: A Look at Past Global Water-Related Conflict

By May 7, 2021September 6th, 2023No Comments

The climate crisis is upon us, and even the most staunchly prepared are predicting disruption to every facet of our lives. Water, a pillar of life on earth, cannot escape the erosion to its sustainable balance. Using AMPLYFI’s AI-driven insights platform, we have analysed documents from the Deep Web and found several concerning factors related to the water sustainability crisis. Here we explore water-based conflict in the context of this crisis. In the previous article in this series, we examined how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected sanitation and water sustainability.

The below word cloud indicates the most significant topics within the water crisis found by AMPLYFI’s platform. Highly significant topics such as water supply, scarcity and demand can all exacerbate water-related conflict.

From as far back as the Lagash-Umma border dispute in 2500BC to the 2019 departure of 50,000 people escaping land and water disputes from central Mali, water-related conflicts have been a constant amongst different societies worldwide. In the context of the water sustainability crisis, water-related conflict is worsening.

The 20th century saw many attempts to solve water disputes amicably, such as the 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, which aimed to address the Indus river’s use and its tributaries of Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. However, many of these efforts were more of an attempt to claim ownership rather than try to help all parties benefit continuously in harmony. They also did little to address large-scale factors that stand to jeopardise water availability irrespective of the extent to which each party holds their end of the agreement. Unsurprisingly, after several unauthorised damming projects amidst heightened global warming and population growth, efforts like the Indus Water Treaty seem to have barely solved the problems they were created to address.

Our analysis shows that more recently, in the period from 2010 to 2018, the global dialogue around water crisis-related topics has broadened in terms of geographic coverage and deepened in terms of intensity.

Recent diplomatic approaches to solving water disputes include the mid-2020 resumption of talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project on the Blue Nile. Set to be the largest hydroelectricity project in Africa upon completion in 2022/23, the GERD could solve Ethiopia’s electricity shortage problem that has seen up to 65% of its population remain off the grid. The project could produce up to 6,000 megawatts, over double the current total supply in Ethiopia. 

However, this project also stands to disenfranchise 150 million people in Sudan and Egypt. The United Nations Security Council and the African Union have both been involved in these negotiations. Nevertheless, with earlier treaties being ambiguous or lacking equitable contribution and consensus from all the relevant stakeholders, any substantial progress remains elusive. The contention over dam-filling limits and turbine testing schedules is likely to remain for at least the next two years. 

Amongst all these underlying issues, climate change remains a prevalent concern. Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, subsequently increasing saltwater intrusion, which is already a problem for farmers in Egypt. Additionally, the dam’s filling must be done during the rainy season, whilst supplementary construction works on the dam wall should coincide with the dry season. Any changes in the arrival time and length of these seasons could further complicate negotiations. 

Another case of water scarcity is emerging in South Sudan, with the five-year post-independence civil war destroying essential infrastructure. As of 2019, only 41% of people in South Sudan could access clean drinking water. Climate change has exacerbated the situation as rising temperatures shrink water sources supporting cattle rearing and crop farming. The situation has put those who travel long distances to fetch water at greater risk of kidnappings. In addition, continued violence has caused many to move to other areas, further increasing strain on water sources.

The drought conditions have left 7 million people food insecure in South Sudan, with at least 860,000 children and 21,000 likely in complete famine conditions. Persistent hunger means that many have resorted to kidnapping children, who are then sold for as much as 20 cows (approximately US$7000). 

There is also an emerging trend in which some countries “export” their water woes by moving sizable parts of their food production to countries with water sources that they can’t fully utilise due to infrastructural shortages. For example, Saudi Arabia has to date leased at least 376,000 hectares of land in Sudan for wheat and rice production as they scale back on home operations due to the depleted aquifers that were being used for irrigation. China and India have also made similar efforts, leasing large swaths of farmland in Ethiopia, since the cost of moving water from the water-rich south to the north (in China) is significantly higher than that of moving food production to agriculture-friendly areas in Ethiopia. 

As this trend continues, the countries leasing land may see a stagnation in their home efforts to solve water shortages. Countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia may become more heavily dependent on water sources, eventually marginalising some parts of the local population. Such developments may lead to conflict between the natives over the few remaining water sources. However, this isn’t the only way that the issues could transpire. 

When the available farmland reduces, foreign powers may pit local communities against each other and engage in proxy wars for the remaining water sources, subsequently creating more insecurity in those areas as food production firms back armed groups to secure their interests.