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Freshwater’s transboundary nature (in the form of rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers) means that it ties countries (or riparians) in a web of interdependence. Combined with water scarcity and increased water variability, and the sheer necessity of water for survival and national development, these interdependencies may often lead to conflict. While such conflict is rarely violent in nature, political conflict over water is quite common as states diverge over how to share water or whether to develop a joint river for hydropower, say, or to use the water for agriculture. For the same reasons that water may be a source of conflict, it is also a source of cooperation. In fact, if the number of documented international agreements over shared water resources is any indication, then water’s cooperative history is a rich one. As the most important and accepted tools for formalizing inter-state cooperation, treaties have become the focus of research and analysis. While treaties do not necessarily guarantee cooperation, they do provide states with a platform for dealing with conflict as well as the means to create benefits for sustained cooperation. This also suggests that the way treaties are designed—in other words, what mechanisms and instruments are included in the agreement—is likewise relevant to analyzing conflict and cooperation.


Scott M. Moore

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.