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date: 21 January 2020

Rethinking Conflict over Water

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: water, conflict, sub-national, collective action, natural resources

Water as the New Oil?

This article reviews current understanding of the linkages between water scarcity and conflict, with a particular focus on political versus armed conflict, and on the sub-national as well as international level of governance. By making these distinctions, this article argues that, while international armed conflict over water is both rare and unlikely, sub-national political conflict is pervasive and is likely to increase without a significant effort to bolster cooperative governance over shared water resources.

This argument is advanced in three sections. First, the three common presumptions cited above are critically reviewed, setting the stage for a second section, which reviews the empirical literature on water-related conflict. Third, gaps in the current literature are highlighted, particularly with reference to bridging the gap between scholars concerned with international and sub-national levels of governance. This article concludes by discussing the implications of current theory surrounding water-related conflict for major countries and regions of the world, as well as for environmental studies and related disciplines. Before turning to the substance of this discussion, however, it is worth describing more fully the paradox at the heart of the study of water and conflict: that despite the persistent attraction of the water wars hypothesis, very few if any armed conflicts have been fought exclusively over water.

In many ways, the water wars hypothesis represents a new application of old school geopolitical theory. In the late 1970s, a seminal study of relations between the countries that share the Nile River introduced the term hydropolitics to describe the role that shared water resources play in shaping conflict and cooperation between countries. Subsequently, the study of hydropolitics has blossomed as a sub-field of international relations, documenting a range of strategies that countries employ to manage shared water resources. Central to this literature is a logic that links water scarcity to conflict potential. In an influential statement of this premise, political scientist Frederick Frey argued, for example, that “Water has four primary characteristics of political importance: extreme importance, scarcity, mal-distribution, and being shared” (Frey, 1993, p. 54).

Yet this field of research has reached a surprising conclusion: inter-state armed conflict over water is vanishingly rare. So much so, in fact, that most scholars agree there are no indisputable instances of water wars in modern history. An authoritative study of all modern conflicts concludes that no war has been fought over water in recent history, while a 2003 study of some 1,800 water-related events during the past fifty years, identified only 37 documented instances of violent conflict (Wolf, Yoffe, & Giordano, 2003). In contrast, however, instances of conflict at the sub-national level over water are common and appear to be increasing. As one influential study observed in the late 1990s, “while no ‘water wars’ have occurred … what we seem to be finding, in fact, is that geographic scale and intensity of conflict are inversely related” (Yoffe & Wolf, 1999, p. 201). But why, exactly, would water wars be so rare, and sub-national water conflict so pervasive?

To answer this question, it is helpful to first better define water conflict. At one extreme, water conflict can take the form of organized violence; at the other, it can take the form of political disagreement. These different forms of “interactions” between water users are united by the fact that they are inimical to the cooperation that is essential for effective water resource management (Zeitoun & Mirumachi, 2008). Apart from intensity, water conflicts can be divided into at least four distinct types. The first, which I call infrastructural, arises from the construction of water-related infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs, and canals, and usually pits a narrow coalition of beneficiaries, often farmers in a particular area seeking water for irrigation, or urbanites seeking new water supplies, against a more diffuse coalition of opponents, including residents of displaced communities, environmentalists, and economic interests, such as fishermen or water transportation companies, impacted by project construction. The second type of water-related conflict, which I call allocative, arises from disputes over the allocation of water to different water users in a given geographic area and typically pits agriculturalists against urbanites, environmentalists, and major industrial water users. The third type, distributive, occurs when attempts by a water supply authority or utility to raise the price of water or to commodify previously un-priced water supplies sparks protest from economic water users, typically poorer farmers and urbanites. Distributive conflicts typically pit economic and political elites against disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. The fourth and final type, qualitative, arises when one water user group, often an industrial sector, degrades the supply of water for other groups. Qualitative conflicts typically occur between upstream and downstream water user groups.

These types of conflict can also be differentiated by two additional factors, namely the spatial scale, either sub-basin or basin-wide, and the institutional level, either local, national, or international, at which they take place. The spatial scale roughly determines the number of parties to the conflict; in general, the higher the number, the more difficult it is to resolve. The institutional level, however, determines the way in which interactions between these actors are conducted. And here the relationship is more complex: interactions between two national governments can be simpler, more direct, and more cordial than between two water user groups in neighboring sub-national jurisdictions like states or provinces. This ability to transform conflicts over water by linking them to other issue areas where cooperation can be achieved has successfully prevented inter-state conflict in many river basins around the world (Delli Priscoli & Wolf, 2009; Susskind & Islam, 2012; Uitto & Duda, 2002). It has been less successful, however, in preventing sub-national conflict between water user groups in a number of basins around the world.

Indeed, the question of whether and under what circumstances countries, states, provinces, and other entities that share water resources can transform water conflicts carries significant practical as well as conceptual applications. The United Nations estimates that one fifth of the world’s population lives in areas affected by a physical shortage of water, including virtually the entire Middle East-North Africa region, as well as large parts of China, India, and the United States. The groundwater basins that have, for the better part of a century, sustained intensive irrigated agriculture around the world are increasingly exhausted, even as demands on surface water resources continue to increase. As these demands have increased, conflicts between different uses of water, including for agriculture, environmental uses, and power generation, have multiplied, straining existing allocation systems. Against this backdrop, water scarcity has been implicated as a causal factor in civil unrest during the Arab Spring and large population movements from Central to North America, to name just two prominent examples. But as a careful study of the relationship between water and conflict reveals, there are no simple or unambiguous pathways from a scarcity of water to conflict and instability. Instead, there is a pressing need to re-think our conception of conflict over water, and better identify the conditions under which water can be a catalyst for cooperation.

Theories of Water Conflict: Geography, Scarcity, Institutions

Academic study of the relationship between water and conflict is relatively new, and current theories of linkage between the two fall into three broad categories that might be termed economic, physical, and institutionalist. Each of these is distinguished by a fundamentally different interpretation of relationships between the users of a common water resource, whether a well, a lake, or a river basin. A pure economic interpretation of this relationship holds that conflict over water can be readily prevented either through marginal cost pricing or by efficient assignment of property rights. On this view, there is no reason for conflict between water users even under conditions of physical scarcity, since those who value it most highly either pay more for the privilege of using it or compensate others for higher use of the common resource by buying usage rights. Other sources of conflict between resource users, such as pollution and harms arising from the construction of dams, can likewise be addressed through transfer payments from those who benefit from externalities to those harmed by them. Although even adherents of the economic view acknowledge numerous qualifications to these arguments, the economic view questions whether conflict over water should occur at all (Chong & Sunding, 2006; Debaere et al., 2014; Easter, Rosegrant, & Dinar, 1999).

In contrast, both physical and institutionalist interpretations support the idea that shared water resources are likely to catalyze conflict between users under certain circumstances. However, the two schools of thought differ in that adherents of the institutionalist view are generally more skeptical of the connection between water and conflict, stressing that water-related conflict occurs only under certain circumstances, while those who take the physical view argue that there is something special about water that makes it conducive to conflict. The physical school of thought has historically been the most influential, in large part because the economic view has difficulty accounting for certain characteristics of water that make it difficult to apply traditional economic rationing devices, such as pricing and property rights. The fugitive nature of water as a transient resource, constantly cycling between surface, sub-surface, and atmospheric deposition, has frustrated attempts to assign property rights to it since at least the time of the Romans (Geltzler, 2004). Furthermore, the complex connections between surface and sub-surface water make it difficult to monitor water use by individual resource users, making it difficult to enforce such rights (Feitelson, 2006).

The pricing of water to reflect its scarcity value, meanwhile, is subject to numerous objections concerning the public and quasi-public good aspects of water, and especially its fundamental importance in maintaining human health and well-being. As a practical matter, such objections make politicians around the world extremely reluctant to expose important constituencies, especially the urban middle class and farmers dependent on irrigation, to full marginal cost pricing of water. Consequently, water resources have long “lain at the limit of the sphere of applicability of the market as a social institution for allocating resources” (Bakker, 2003, p. 33). Given the limited applicability of a pure economic view in many real-world cases, alternative schools of thought concerning water-related conflict have gained the upper hand.

Partly reflecting these limitations, the physical rather than economic view of water conflict pervades the popular imagination as well as the academic literature; widely-repeated adages like “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting” reflect the logic that physical rather than economic causes underpin water conflict. Within the scholarly literature, perhaps the most compelling articulation of the physical view is Frey’s articulation of four distinctive characteristics of water, all of which may be expected to stoke conflict between water users (Frey, 1993). This physical view, and its belief in the distinctive qualities of water as a resource, has proven influential within two significant scholarly literatures, hydropolitics and neo-Malthusianism. Hydropolitics is, in effect, an application of the theory of geopolitics to the particular case of water resources that are shared between countries. As such, hydropolitical theory stands on the basic premise that the geographical position and natural resource endowments of nation-state states structure the prospects for conflict and cooperation between them. The seminal work in the hydropolitics literature, John Waterbury’s Hydropolitics in the Nile Valley, emphasizes the persistent incompatibility of interests between Egypt and Sudan arising from the former’s status as a large and relatively well-developed downstream riparian, and the former as a poorer, less-populous upstream neighbor eager to trap and divert a greater proportion of the Nile’s waters for its own uses (Waterbury, 1979). Subsequent work has continued to assert that the relative geographic position of countries is a crucial factor in shaping the prospects for international conflict and cooperation over water (Zeitoun & Allan, 2008; Zeitoun & Warner, 2006).

However, even as the hydropolitics literature continues to posit an underlying geographic structure to conflict and cooperation, it increasingly argues that upstream-downstream relationships do not exist in a vacuum, and that they are heavily mediated by institutional arrangements. Most recent studies in the hydropolitics tradition have been careful to temper any implication of geographic determinism, stressing that numerous confounding variables exist that mediate relationships between geography and the possibility of international conflict over water; (Gleditsch, Furlong, Hegre, Lacina, & Owen, 2006; Matthews & St. Germain, 2007; Oates, 1999). Such caution is well founded; real-world cases of water resource conflict are difficult to classify and compare across countries, and even in the paradigmatic case of the Nile River Basin, important periods of cooperation have existed between the riparian states, belying the notion of immutable conflict between upstream and downstream states (Tvedt, 2009; Waterbury, 2002). In a reflection of these empirical realities, the hydropolitics literature now centers on a theoretical debate concerning the relative importance of physical and institutional factors in shaping conflict and cooperation over shared water resources. But this useful discussion has hitherto been confined primarily to analysis of international relations. Fortunately, a similar debate focused at the sub-national level is occurring within a separate literature known as neo-Malthusianism.

Neo-Malthusians, who derive their name from Thomas Malthus’ famous prediction that population growth would inevitably create a critical scarcity of food supplies, depart from the prospect of physical water scarcity, and its potential role in stoking conflict between communities and social groups within states. Neo-Malthusianism owes much to the Marxist-inspired literature on political ecology, which addresses the role of asymmetric power structures and relationships in depriving certain social groups of access to scarce and critical resources such as water (Bakker, 2010; Mollinga, 2008; Swyngedouw, 1997). Accordingly, neo-Malthusians stress processes by which water resources are “captured” by particular groups or political actors, thereby stoking grievances among disenfranchised water users.

Fundamental to the process of capture is the use of political power, and often the co-opting of state institutions, to secure control over water resources. According to one influential description of the capture process, “powerful groups recognize that a key resource is becoming scarce and use superior institutional resources to grab it” (Homer-Dixon, 2000, p. 15). As this formulation indicates, the neo-Malthusian literature emphasizes the role of state capacity, and especially the ability of formal institutions to promote the rule of law and interest-bargaining between social groups, in stoking conflict over water (Bernauer, Bohmelt, & Koubi, 2012; Bohmelt et al., 2014; Kahl, 2006). Where such state institutions are strong, the neo-Malthusian consensus runs, water scarcity is less likely to lead to conflict. Both elements of the physical school of thought therefore accept the importance of institutional arrangements in shaping the prospects for conflict over water, but vary in the relative importance they assign to them in the process.

However, neither of these literatures goes as far in asserting the importance of institutions as the third and final school of thought, which I call institutionalist. While both the geopolitical and neo-Malthusian literatures generally address only whether or not shared water resources produce conflict, the institutionalist collective action literature has produced a detailed prescriptive theory of how institutional characteristics at multiple levels of governance together sustain robust, cooperative exploitation of shared resources without the aid either of state regulation or marketized property rights. In a seminal article, Elinor Ostrom and her collaborators demonstrated that cooperation over water can emerge in what is seemingly the most difficult of circumstances, namely a rural Nepalese irrigation system that depends on both upstream and downstream communities to work together, entirely without government supervision or regulation (Ostrom & Gardner, 1993).

Subsequent research in the collective action tradition has produced a more generalizable theory of institutional design for cooperative resource management. At the local level, rules must exist that clearly define resource users, establish compliance mechanisms, and maintain social trust (Ostrom, 1994a, 1994b, 2000). At higher levels of political organization, such as a municipality or a state, institutional arrangements must create the necessary space for community-level collective action to take place (Andersson, Gibson, & Lehoucq, 2006; Andersson & Ostrom, 2008). Finally, “cross-scale” institutions must exist to link actors at different scales of governance, such as that of a river basin shared by a diverse set of water users (Adger, Brown, & Tompkins, 2005; Berkes, 2002, 2006).

The collective action literature has so far developed mostly in isolation from both hydropolitical and neo-Malthusian schools of thought, and has often been given short shrift by scholars seeking to understand the relationship between water and conflict. As a result, the institutionalist view it represents has often played a lesser role in the debate over water and conflict than the physical school of thought. Nonetheless, the collective action literature offers a sophisticated framework for weighing the contribution of specific institutional arrangements in shaping incentives for conflict and cooperation over water at different levels of governance. Where institutions meeting these criteria do not exist, the collective action literature suggests that cooperative resource management will not ensue, and that, by extension, conflict between resource users is more likely. This predictive power is significant because it helps to explain the first half of the empirical puzzle laid out in the early in this article, namely that shared water resources are often a catalyst for cooperation rather than conflict.

Nonetheless, as applied to the case of sub-national conflict and cooperation over water, collective action theory possesses a significant weakness: it has to date been applied primarily to actors at lower levels of political organization, rather than the countries, regions, and provinces that typically share water resources at the scale of a lake or river basin. Although one branch of the literature, known as Institutional Collective Action (ICA), does address the problem of cooperation between sub-national units, it has to date, been primarily been employed to explain patterns of metropolitan governance in the United States and appears never to have been the subject of a comparative study (Feiock & Scholz, 2010; Ostrom, Tiebout, & Warren, 1961).

Accordingly, in the fourth section of this article, I apply the collective action literature more specifically to the case of sub-national water conflict, stressing the role of decentralization in creating both challenges and opportunities for sub-national cooperation and collective action over shared water resources. The next section sets the stage for this discussion by describing the applicability of physical and institutionalist schools of thought in light of empirical evidence concerning water-related conflict at both international and sub-national levels.

Water-Related Conflict at Sub-National and International Levels

The circumstances under which shared water resources lead to conflict are the subject of a large quantitative and qualitative literature. Yet despite its size and diversity, this body of research is unified by the finding that interstate armed conflict over water is exceptionally rare. The most comprehensive effort to quantify water-related conflict, the International Water Event Database, which includes some 6,400 water-related events from 1948 to 2008, identified no cases of outright warfare, and fewer than 30 cases involving interstate violence of any kind (De Stefano, Edwards, de Silva, & Wolf, 2010). Other large-scale empirical assessments bolster this conclusion by finding only a weak association between shared water resources and measures of both violent and non-violent international conflict (Brochmann & Gleditsch, 2012; Gleditsch, Furlong, Hegre, Lacina, & Owen, 2006; Toset, Gleditsch, & Hegre, 2000). Qualitative case-study assessments generally bear out these assessments, even for events commonly cited as examples of interstate water wars, such as the 1967 Six Day War, which is sometimes alleged to have been precipitated by diversion of the Jordan River (Shaheen, 2000). Indeed, researchers are more likely to caution against attempting to associate conflict with shared water resources (Dimitrov, 2002).

These broad empirical conclusions are bolstered by a close look at the conceptual underpinnings of the water wars hypothesis, which almost always proposes that water-related conflict is an outgrowth of water scarcity. Again in spite of a large and sophisticated literature assessing the relationship between scarcity and conflict, there is little evidence of a clear pathway linking shortages of water to an increased likelihood of violence, particularly in the absence of significant extenuating circumstances such as state collapse (Gleditsch, 2012; Landis, 2014; Nordas & Gleditsch, 2007). Although several authors caution that extreme climate change may induce sufficient scarcity pressures to provoke conflict, most assess the risk of conflict to be low, even in fragile regions like the Middle East and Central Asia (Bernauer & Siegfried, 2012; Kallis & Zografos, 2014; Feitelson, Tamimi, & Rosenthal, 2012). These empirically-oriented literatures, though diverse, all reinforce the conclusion that shared water resources are unlikely to lead to conflict except in the most unusual of circumstances.

Moreover, and even more perplexing, is the fact that, despite the costs entailed in securing cooperation between sovereign nation-states, the existence of shared water resources appears to be more likely to induce cooperation than to provoke conflict. Thousands of cooperative agreements exist to govern international transboundary rivers, even in river basins subject to acute water scarcity (Stinnett & Tir, 2009; Tir & Stinnett, 2012; Wolf, 1995). Even where conflict does arise between countries over shared water resources, many accounts suggest that the parties eventually settle differences by agreeing to cooperate in other areas (Delli Priscoli & Wolf, 2009; Susskind & Islam, 2012; Uitto & Duda, 2002). A number of observers, meanwhile, are optimistic that scarcity will increase rather than reduce the economic incentives for cooperation rather than conflict, and that “water is never worth the price of war,” at least provided that it can be traded (Fisher & Huber-Lee, 2006; Zarour & Isaac, 1993). Far from being a leading source of international conflict, the evidence suggests that shared water resources are instead an important catalyst of cooperation between nation-states.

But if conflict over water is surprisingly rare between countries, it is puzzlingly common at the sub-national scale. In the late 1990s, a widely cited study of water conflict observed that “while no ‘water wars’ have occurred … what we seem to be finding, in fact, is that geographic scale and intensity of conflict are inversely related” (Yoffe & Wolf, 1999, p. 201). This observation has subsequently been repeated by a number of more recent studies that document extensive water-related conflict between social groups, communities, and regions at the sub-national level (Bernauer, Bohmelt, & Koubi, 2012; Bernauer et al., 2012). Such conflict is particularly marked between upstream and downstream states, provinces, and regions (Gyawali, 1999; Postel & Wolf, 2001). Importantly, this sub-national conflict tends to be non-violent. Instead, it is often stoked by unfair water policies that stigmatize particular social groups (Conca, 2012; Torres-Rouff, 2006). This complex relationship bolsters the arguments of scholars who call for breaking down the traditional dichotomy between water conflict and cooperation, and constructing a spectrum of “interactions” instead (Zeitoun & Mirumachi, 2008).

Despite this growing body of empirical evidence, the conceptual and empirical dimensions of water-related conflict at the international level have been thoroughly described and analyzed, while water-related conflict at the sub-national level has been the subject of far less attention. Yet in many ways, the problem of conflict and cooperation over water is even more acute at the sub-national level, for while many river basins are shared between multiple countries, nearly all are shared between multiple sub-national administrative jurisdictions. While the spatial mismatch between political and river basin boundaries is frequently cited as a challenge to the cooperative governance of international transboundary rivers, its implications at the sub-national level remain almost entirely unexplored. There is a common, if implicit, presumption that achieving cooperation between sub-national political actors is considerably easier than between sovereign nation-states. Scott Barrett neatly summarizes this view in the context of climate change: “Resources that lie entirely within a nation’s territorial borders can be effectively managed; [while] shared resources are prone to overuse when countries pursue unilateral policies” (Barrett, 2003, p. 33).

The phenomenon of sub-national water conflict challenges this assumption that cooperative governance of natural resources is less challenging at the sub-national scale. Although no consistent cross-national data exist, examples of sub-national conflict over water include the Colorado River Basin in the United States, which has endured a “long and bitter feud” between the seven states that share its waters (Getches, 1984–1985, p. 414), as well as almost all of India’s major rivers, so much so that a senior Indian water resource official has warned that interstate “hydro-politics is threatening the very fabric of federalism” (Menon, 2003). Similar conflict has been noted in a wide variety of countries including Pakistan, Australia, and Nigeria. The existence of these cases across countries suggests that the existence of a single sovereignty is no guarantee of cooperation over shared natural resources.

The prevalence of sub-national hydropolitics thus presents a two-part puzzle for existing understanding of conflict and cooperation over shared natural resources. First, sub-national conflict over water in many cases occurs despite the existence of cooperative agreements specifically designed to prevent it. The waters of the Colorado River in the United States and the Krishna River in southern India were both apportioned by interstate agreements, for example, but have been the site of long-running inter-jurisdictional disputes that have defied multiple attempts at resolution by the central government. The failure of these institutions seems ripe for explanation: institutions, which range from formal organizations to informal social norms, serve to constrain the actions of individuals or groups, and can be expected to reduce the probability of conflict between them (Ostrom, 2005). Second, the degree of conflict and cooperation over water varies widely across countries. While interstate river basin disputes feature prominently in the politics of large countries like the United States, India, and Australia, the intensity of sub-national conflict over water is considerably lower in countries such as China, South Africa, and France. What explains this variation in both institutional performance and conflict propensity, and what does it tell us about why and how, in contrast to countries, states, provinces, and water users fight over water?

Sources of Sub-National Conflict Over Water

The prevalence of sub-national water conflict poses an obvious question: why should it occur, given that neighboring states, provinces, counties, and cities have much more in common than neighboring countries? This question is best answered by returning to the broader question of what cases conflict over water in general. As discussed in the previous section, early academic work on water conflict focused on the role of immutable factors like geography and scarcity in stoking conflict over shared water resources. A staple of the hydropolitics literature is the belief that conflict often results from geography, especially when one country lies upstream of another on a shared waterway. The neo-Malthusian literature, meanwhile, puts forward the belief that water scarcity is most often the root of conflict between users and groups who depend on a shared water resource.

While both geography and scarcity can play a role in shaping sub-national water conflict, understanding why and how it arises requires a shift in focus to institutions. In reality, the role of immutable factors like geography in sub-national conflict and cooperation is complex: the very different means by which sub-national borders are drawn, in contrast to those of nation-states, makes historical geography a more important factor in stoking conflict and cooperation than a simple upstream-downstream orientation. Moreover, the significance of physical water scarcity is entirely mediated by institutional arrangements for water resource allocation within a given river basin. Finally, and most importantly, a global trend toward greater decentralization has transformed the dynamics of water conflict between sub-national actors in a wide range of countries. Although sub-national hydropolitics is a function of geography, scarcity, and institutions, institutional arrangements ultimately determine whether sub-national actors engage in conflict or cooperation over shared water resources.

The basis of the argument, that geography explains conflict and cooperation over water, stems from the distinct geographic problem structure that often characterizes river basins. There are two basic configurations for political units, whether countries, states, or provinces, that share a given river basin (see Figure 1). Although in reality other configurations often apply, including cases where waterways form part of a political boundary but also create upstream and downstream riparians, these two basic configurations capture a key difference in the interests of political units that share a given waterway. In the first configuration, which I have here called Geometry I, the river forms a boundary between jurisdictions, making its waters a common-pool resource that is effectively equally shared. Actions taken by one unit, such as building a dam or releasing pollutants into the shared river, effectively affect both regions more or less equally. In a configuration characterized by Geometry II, however, jurisdictions are oriented such that an upstream region can take actions that affect only its downstream neighbors, creating the conditions for the upstream entity to harm its downstream neighbor.

This observation informs a core belief in the international hydropolitics literature, that Geometry II is inherently unstable and prone to conflict. This is most clearly indicated in the concept of “hydro-hegemony,” whereby a country exploits a favorable geographic position on a shared river in order to secure control of shared water resources (Zeitoun & Allan, 2008; Zeitoun & Warner, 2006). The importance of this geographic structure is supported by a number of studies that conclude that geographic contiguity, and especially an upstream-downstream orientation, is associated with a higher probability of conflict between riparian countries (Brochmann & Gleditsch, 2012; Furlong, Gleditsch, & Hegre, 2006; Toset, Gleditsch, & Hegre, 2000).

Rethinking Conflict over Water

Figure 1. River basin political geometries.

It would be a mistake to interpret these results as meaning that geography itself is the root cause of either conflict or cooperation. The orientation of political boundaries is not exogenous, but reflects the outcome of historical rivalries as well as the distribution of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, which are often the root cause of tensions and conflicts between neighboring political units. National borders are generally drawn by contingency over a long period of time, delineated and modified principally as a result of warfare or international negotiation (Tilly, 1985). Sub-national boundaries, on the other hand, are drawn primarily for reasons of administrative expediency at particular points in time, in effect capturing a particular historical period (Muthien & Khosa, 1995). Precisely because they are drawn more deliberately, sub-national boundaries can become focal points for sectional tensions (Bowman, 2007; Gibbons, 1987; Stewart, 1990). India’s post-Independence leaders, for instance, were influenced by the ethnic politics of the time to ignore geographic and economic factors in favor of drawing state boundaries on linguistic lines (Singh, 2007). The formalization of ethno-linguistic cleavages through delineation of state boundaries has produced an enduring brand of regionalism in Indian politics that often inhibits nation-wide policy formation and implementation (Mawdsley, 2002).

At the sub-national level therefore, political boundaries matter not in and of themselves, but rather because of the institutional divisions that they reflect. In many countries, sub-national boundaries are the basis of political representation, adding an extra dimension to the challenge of cooperatively managing waterways that flow across these boundaries. Daniel Elazar provides an incomparable description of this phenomenon in the United States: “the existence of the federal system forces most sectional problems into the framework provided by the existence of the states, where they are shaped into matters of state concern” (Elazar, 1987, p. 162). The direct way in which institutional arrangements like federalism influence sub-national geography means that the history of sectional tensions and cleavages is far more relevant in shaping the incentives for conflict and cooperation over water than is the physical location of a political unit upstream of another.

Much the same is true of water scarcity, which in both the hydropolitics and neo-Malthusian literatures is often proposed to be a source of conflict between water users. The explicit link drawn between water scarcity and conflict is suggested in the claim, made in an influential 1993 article, that “water and water-supply systems are increasingly likely to be both objectives of military action and instruments of war as human populations grow, as improving standards of living increase the demand for fresh water, and as global climactic changes make water supply and demand more problematic and uncertain” (Gleick, 1993). While at first glance compelling, this proposed relationship is open to both conceptual and empirical challenges. At the most fundamental level, the concept of water scarcity is in itself problematic. A physical shortage of water in fact means little by itself; with the aid of technology and other resources, many water users are able to adapt.

More meaningful conceptions of scarcity include economic scarcity, in which water users lack the financial means to obtain adequate supplies of water, and technical scarcity, where water users lack access to the necessary technology. These measures of water scarcity are dependent not on the physical supply of water, but rather on the resources and institutions available to a given set of water users (Ohlsson, 2000; Turton & Ohlsson, 2000; Yohe & Tol, 2002). Just as this institutionally-centered understanding of water conflict would predict, virtually all studies that find a relationship between physical water scarcity and conflict potential do so only when accounting for institutional factors, including state capacity and regime type, as intervening variables (Bernauer & Bohmelt, 2014; Raleigh & Urdal, 2007).

But an institutionally-centered understanding of water conflict brings into sharp focus another fundamental conceptual challenge, namely the fact that conflict and cooperation over water takes place at several levels of governance. These dynamics are animated by actors at both central and local levels, including government agencies, irrigators, provincial and municipal governments, and non-governmental organizations. Different countries structure the relationships between these actors in widely varying ways: while some political systems are highly centralized, others diffuse political power between central and sub-national governments, as well as between social groups. But across countries, three types of institutional arrangements tend to play an especially important role in shaping incentives for conflict versus cooperation: the division of powers between central and local levels of government, the balance between autonomy and cooperation for sub-national jurisdictions, and points of access for non-governmental interest groups.

These institutional arrangements, in turn, alter the calculus of collective action between the users of a common resource, and determine whether their incentives tend more towards conflict or in favor of cooperation. In particular, institutional arrangements that permit third parties, especially civil society groups, with political voice favor cooperation, because they create a constituency for negotiation and consensus building between different water resource users. The critical role of these bridging organizations, also called boundary organizations, stems from their ability to transfer knowledge and expertise and to arbitrate interests across levels of governance (Berkes, 2009; Brown, 1991; Cash et al., 2006). The varying ability of these bridging organizations to influence institution building across countries often explains why some countries manifest more sub-national conflict over water than others. Where institutions provide a means for bridging organizations, entities that span different levels of governance, to participate in the political process, sub-national actors are more likely to engage in cooperation.

However, sub-national officials also possess two general and often over-riding concerns that can serve to discourage such inter-jurisdictional cooperation. First, sub-national officials are apt to seek the support of highly-concentrated political constituencies, such as farmers or urban-dwellers, within their jurisdictions. Because of their concentration in a particular, and often relatively small, geographic area, these constituencies may advocate policies like long-distance water transfer that produce dense, localized benefits but broad, diffuse costs, many of which are passed on to neighbors outside the sub-national official’s jurisdiction (Gibson & Calvo, 2000; Macey, 1990; Samuels & Snyder, 2001). Second, because of their position in a hierarchy, which typically involves local, provincial, and national levels of government, sub-national officials possess an inherent interest in maintaining their autonomy from the central government. In many cases, the desire to maintain autonomy prevents sub-national officials from being willing to participate in cooperative water governance arrangements like river basin management organizations, because officials worry that these organizations might usurp their political prerogatives. While such reluctance is common across policy areas, it is especially pronounced with respect to water resource management, because water is a distributive good valuable to all constituencies; politicians are therefore reluctant to surrender the power to allocate and manage water. As economist Charles Howe has written, “It seems unlikely that nations, states, and all the special districts that currently have a say in water planning and management will surrender their prerogatives to unified river basin initiatives” (Howe, 2005, p. 29). In this respect, the challenges of securing collective action between sub-national jurisdictions over shared water resources are similar to those that obtain between nation-states.

But fully explaining this reluctance requires a more thorough discussion of how different countries decentralize power to sub-national jurisdictions like states, provinces, cities, and counties. Virtually all political systems divide the powers and responsibilities of government between actors at different levels, but they vary considerably in the degree of formal decision-making power, economic resources, and administrative responsibility granted to sub-national political authorities (Lijphart, 1999; Riker, 1964; Treisman, 2007). In most countries, these forms of decentralization coincide, but there are important exceptions. Despite being politically highly centralized, China is, from an economic and administrative perspective, one of the most decentralized countries in the world, and India, though a federal country, grants its central government with unusually strident powers, including the power for presidents to unilaterally dismiss state governments (Dziobek, Mangas, & Kufa, 2011; Rodden, 2004). These forms of decentralization affect water-related conflict dynamics in two important ways, each concerning the extent to which decentralization makes it harder to create and sustain cooperative governance institutions at the regional scale of a river basin.

The problem of dividing the powers and responsibilities of government between central and local levels highlights the first of these linkages between decentralization and cooperation in shared river basins, namely the constraints decentralization places on legal authority over water resource management. Water resource management is inherently a multi-dimensional policy issue, spanning some functions, like urban water supply, that are typically handled by local governments, and others, like flood control, that are often placed within the remit of central governments. This inter-sectoral character often means that water resource issues are placed among those “matters where the central government has no clear power [and] the states have, but because of territorial limitations cannot proceed singly” (Watts, 1970, p. 79). Indeed, this problem is especially marked for federal countries, which often constitutionally limit the power of central governments, and as a result, grant the central level only limited powers over water resource management (UNFAO, 2010). This constraint can create a vacuum of legal authority, within which multiple and overlapping sub-national policies make it difficult to build basin-wide institutions. In the United States, for example, the lack of a coherent federal water resource policy has led states to adopt widely varying water rights doctrines, frustrating judicial attempts to settle inter-state river disputes (Hundley, 1975).

The issue of legal authority is closely related to a second aspect of the relationship between decentralization and shared water resources, namely legitimacy and autonomy. In particular, the desire for sub-national political jurisdictions to maintain autonomy in the face of perceived over-reach by the central government is often manifested in struggles over control of natural resources like water. Though the degree of this tension varies across countries, and also ebbs and flows in response to changing political, economic, and social conditions, it is a defining feature of almost all federal systems (Riker, 1964). The goal of maintaining sub-national autonomy generally, albeit indirectly, discourages inter-jurisdictional cooperation. Joseph Zimmerman notes, for example, that in the United States, “The modus operandi of most states does not encourage extensive interstate joint ventures because states, as semiautonomous entities, naturally are reluctant to engage in such ventures due to the loss of exclusive control accompanying them” (Zimmerman, 2011, p. 201). This dynamic, where it obtains, distorts and generally reduces the incentives for sub-national jurisdictions to build cooperative institutions in shared river basins. As Martha Derthick notes in a study of U.S. river basin commissions, for example, “Most states appear to join commissions for defensive purposes … They seek defenses against one another as well as against federal action” (Derthick, 1974, p. 151).

However, there is nothing pre-ordained about conflict over water between sub-national actors in a decentralized system. Indeed, another feature of decentralized political systems offers a potential antidote in the form of opportunities for non-governmental actors and organizations to call for inclusive approaches to water resource management that reduce the chances of conflict. The characteristic fragmentation of political power under decentralization creates more hurdles for policy reform to clear, but it also creates more points of access for individuals and organizations that otherwise lack influence in the political process (Treisman, 2000; Tsebelis, 2002; Weaver & Rockman, 1996). The ability to seek such influence at different levels of government has proven especially critical in sustaining environmental movements. In both France and the United States, conservation organizations effectively exploited points of access at both state and federal levels to gain support for national water quality legislation in the early 20th century, for example (Birch, 2009; Paavola, 2006). The ability of environmental groups to influence the political process, particularly at the national level, is critical to sustaining support from politicians and bureaucrats for pursuing environmental objectives (Harrison, 1996; Scott, 2000). The advocacy of environmental organizations is also central to overcoming the tendency for concentrated economic interests to forge alliances with politicians and officials at the national level, to the detriment of inclusive and cooperative approaches to water resource management.

The importance of environmental movements and organizations has long been noted in specific aspects of water resource management, most notably in catalyzing opposition to dams and other water-related infrastructure projects in countries as diverse as Brazil, the United States, and India (Keck & Sikkink, 1998; McCool, 2012; Wood, 2007). In particular, the case of Brazil illustrates how civil society groups and organizations have played a critical role in shaping water resource management reforms, including the development of participatory river basin governance institutions. Non-governmental organizations proved crucial to overcoming bureaucratic inertia, channeling resources to agencies charged with implementing reforms, and formulating principles and objectives for governance at the river basin scale. Even more importantly, however, civil society groups bestowed legitimacy on water policy reforms and institutions through their participation and support. Because the reforms were intended in large part to coordinate a diverse set of public and private sector actors in pursuit of common goals, this legitimacy proved to be an essential element of institutional success and performance (Abers & Keck, 2006; Abers & Keck, 2009; Abers & Keck, 2013).

The case of Brazil thus suggests that when civil society is accorded sufficient influence in policymaking, it performs essential functions in the creation of institutions to promote cooperation over shared water resources, and, even more importantly, bestows legitimacy upon them in the eyes of political actors at different levels. Understanding the ways in which these aspects of national and local governance shape the prospects for sub-national conflict and cooperation over water points to several wider implications for the study of water conflict.

Implications: Future Study of Water Conflict

This article suggests that current understanding of water-related conflict is misguided in two fundamental respects. First, the prospects for conflict are related primarily to the role of institutional arrangements rather than immutable factors like geography and scarcity. Second, water-related conflict is likely more prevalent, and frequently more persistent, at the sub-national than international level. Understanding how and why sub-national conflict over water arises therefore requires careful analysis of sub-national political institutions, especially those concerning decentralization and the allocation of powers and responsibilities between central and local levels of government. It further suggests that in more decentralized countries, especially federal political systems, there are strong incentives for sub-national politicians to compete rather than cooperate with their neighbors over shared water resources. However, decentralization also offers opportunities for civil society organizations to shape more inclusive, cooperative approaches to water resource management. The extent to which they take advantage of these opportunities often determines whether sub-national conflict over water arises and persists over time.

This framing of the problem of conflict over water carries a number of theoretical and practical implications. First and most broadly, future academic study of conflict over water, and other renewable natural resources, should emphasize the role that shared natural resources play in sub-national politics. This shift in focus, from the international to the sub-national level, would also highlight the role of political institutions, particularly those which influence decentralization and central-local relations, in fostering exclusionary versus inclusive approaches to resource governance. Second and more specifically, future research may assess the extent to which countries provide opportunities for civil society to shape these approaches at local and regional levels of governance, a factor that this article has asserted is likely to critically influence prospects for conflict and cooperation over shared natural resources. Third and finally, further work in water-related conflict should focus its attention on particular countries and regions where efforts to foster a cooperative approach to water resource management must be prioritized.

Seen as a phenomenon that is rooted in institutions and that occurs at multiple levels, sub-national as well as international, conflict over water can be understood as something that is far from inevitable. At the same time, this understanding permits a basic assessment of which countries and regions are at greatest risk of increasing water-related conflict as pressures on resources, societies, and institutions grow. In particular, countries with high levels of decentralization but few opportunities for civil society and non-governmental access to the political system appear at highest risk. On this scale, authoritarian systems that combine practical decentralization with centralized political control, such as China and Pakistan, are especially susceptible to sub-national water conflict. For these countries, there is an urgent need to establish multi-stakeholder water resource management institutions that can address grievances between water user groups before they catalyze wider and more intractable conflicts.

But this analysis also bears lessons for mature democracies like the United States and India. In both cases, long-running water-sharing disputes over rivers like the Colorado and the Krishna have been characterized by conflict between key water user groups, often cities and agricultural regions. But in both cases, the gradual inclusion of civil society groups into water resource management and policy-making has helped to foster a more inclusive and cooperative approach to the governance of shared water resources. As drought continues to plague much of the American west, and several of India’s major cities face increasing water demand that far outstrips supply, inclusive and cooperative water resource management must become a higher priority for Washington and New Delhi. Conflict over water, particularly of the violent kind, is both rare and inevitable. But preventing it requires that we re-think our understanding of the sources of and solutions to water conflict, and at the sub-national as well as international level.


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