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date: 29 October 2020

Rethinking Conflict over Waterlocked

  • Scott M. MooreScott M. MooreBelfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University


It has long been accepted that non-renewable natural resources like oil and gas are often the subject of conflict between both nation-states and social groups. But since the end of the Cold War, the idea that renewable resources like water and timber might also be a cause of conflict has steadily gained credence. This is particularly true in the case of water: in the early 1990s, a senior World Bank official famously predicted that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water,” while two years ago Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney made a splash in North America by claiming that water would be “Asia’s New Battleground.” But it has not quite turned out that way. The world has, so far, avoided inter-state conflict over water in the 21st century, but it has witnessed many localized conflicts, some involving considerable violence. As population growth, economic development, and climate change place growing strains on the world’s fresh water supplies, the relationship between resource scarcity, institutions, and conflict has become a topic of vocal debate among social and environmental scientists.

The idea that water scarcity leads to conflict is rooted in three common assertions. The first of these arguments is that, around the world, once-plentiful renewable resources like fresh water, timber, and even soils are under increasing pressure, and are therefore likely to stoke conflict among increasing numbers of people who seek to utilize dwindling supplies. A second, and often corollary, argument holds that water’s unique value to human life and well-being—namely that there are no substitutes for water, as there are for most other critical natural resources—makes it uniquely conductive to conflict. Finally, a third presumption behind the water wars hypothesis stems from the fact that many water bodies, and nearly all large river basins, are shared between multiple countries. When an upstream country can harm its downstream neighbor by diverting or controlling flows of water, the argument goes, conflict is likely to ensue.

But each of these assertions depends on making assumptions about how people react to water scarcity, the means they have at their disposal to adapt to it, and the circumstances under which they are apt to cooperate rather than to engage in conflict. Untangling these complex relationships promises a more refined understanding of whether and how water scarcity might lead to conflict in the 21st century—and how cooperation can be encouraged instead.


  • Pollution and Threats to the Environment (Social Science)
  • Politics
  • Management of Land and Natural Resources (Social Science)
  • Sustainability

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