Water and Conflict

The United Nations Environmental Program just released a report in graphs, maps and graphics all of which tell the scary story of global water scarcity. Of course, less water means that it is a more valuable commodity, which in turn raises the potential of conflict. In places where the rule of law is not especially strong, the prospects for water resource conflicts are particularly grave.

Consider this map of Lake Chad as it was in 1963 and as it is today. The lake straddles the border between Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger.


And this is a similar map charting the disappearance of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.


Violence over water, though, is still the exception to the rule–at least for the timing being.

Most governments recognize that violence over water is seldom strategically workable or economically viable and the most hostile enemies have a capacity for cooperation where water is concerned. The institutions that they create to avert conflict have shown extraordinary resilience. The considerable time taken to negotiate the establishment of these institutions – 40 years for the Jordan agreement for example – bears testimony to the sensitivity of the issues.

If conflict is the exception to the rule, how do countries cooperate? Extensive analysis of 145 international treaties provides some insights. Perhaps surprisingly, in only about a third of cases does cooperation include volumetric allocations. In recent years benefit-sharing, such as hydroelectricity, flood and pollution control, and navigation, has received greater emphasis, perhaps because the requirements for negotiating volumetric allocations are so challenging. However, from a future water security perspective, there are problems in not dealing with volumetric flow. For example, the impact of climate change, human activity and an increasing population could, in the future, lead to volumes requested not being realized. (UNDP Human Development Report 2006).