"For years and generations, wars have been fought over oil. In a short matter of time, they will be fought over water."
Water is critical for survival – not only literally, but also through its impacts on economies and societies. As global water demand has soared over the past decades, water crises have consistently featured among the World Economic Forum’s top global impact risks. The lack of access to water, at appropriate quantity and quality, for basic human needs and socio-economic development undermines billions of livelihoods. By impairing human security, thwarting development and fuelling displacement, water insecurity also poses significant risks for peace and prosperity.
Does that mean that Vice President Harris’ prediction that wars will soon be fought over water (rather than oil) will necessarily be true? History suggests otherwise: most scholars agree that water wars between nation states have been most notable through their absence. One key explanation for this finding is the relatively low value of water (per unit of weight), which makes it hard to capture and carry it off. Moreover, water is relatively plentiful – albeit distributed very unevenly around the world.
Yet the Vice President still has a point: access to water has been a major issue in many (violent) conflicts, notably in the Middle East. Moreover, a focus on international wars easily loses sight of far more frequent conflict over water resources at the subnational level, such as in the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions. Most importantly, the political economy of conflict over water might be changing: not only is demand increasing precipitously due to demographic and economic growth, the power over controlling water is dispersing as more and more countries become able to build huge dams – a function of the loss of de facto veto powers of financing that the World Bank (and its major shareholder) once held. Such major infrastructure projects, and the changes in the balance of benefits and power that they entail in many basins, are potential harbingers of conflict. And they are fuelled by the changes that climate change brings about – whether by altering water flows, increasing demand (notably for storage and irrigation) or incentivising ‘green’ hydropower production.
These changes imply that policymakers might be facing a prevention dilemma with respect to ‘water wars’: predicting the catastrophe in order to prevent it might carry a price in terms of political capital and legitimacy because the predicted catastrophe is subsequently prevented, exposing policymakers to the charge of misplaced alarmism. However, perhaps an even bigger problem is that the discussion over (the absence of) ‘water wars’ between nation states masks more mundane and structural violence over water, whose consequences for human security can, however, add to local, national, regional and international insecurity.
Water insecurity adds to humanitarian pressures by undermining health, food security and employment, and limiting economic opportunities. Losses in livelihood security may drive migration and fuel grievances in host communities. More generally, water insecurity can also undermine governmental legitimacy, which has been linked to water management since the dawn of written history in irrigation-focused kingdoms in the Middle East, Egypt and China.
Today, such impacts are often transboundary. Last year, New York Times Magazine produced a long, modelling-supported (and nicely animated) piece titled ‘The Great Climate Migration Has Begun’. It focuses in particular on northward migration pressures from Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’ fuelled by drought and sudden flooding, but it underlined that, whereas “[t]oday, 1% of the world is a barely livable hot zone. By 2070, that portion could go up to 19%.” To be sure, the relationship between climate change, migration and conflict is neither deterministic nor monocausal. Decisions to migrate (or protest, or fight) are motivated by many contextual factors, making it difficult to attribute them to climate change or water scarcity.
The relationship between water, climate and security is influenced by a host of governance factors. While bedeviling academic debates, this murky and indirect relationship also has a positive upshot: there are many governance levers that can be employed to prevent or limit the most socially and politically destructive outcomes of water- and climate-related risks.
Nowhere is the complex nature of the challenge clearer than in transboundary basins. This is not so much a question of water wars, but of the fragility and lost development opportunities that non-cooperation entails. Consider the Nile: even though the great majority of its riparian states have collaborated in the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative for more than 20 years (and made significant progress), a permanent institution for cooperation has proven elusive. In recent years, tensions have risen around Blue Nile flows (by far the most important contributor to the Nile) between downstream Egypt and upstream Ethiopia in particular, with midstream Sudan seeking to mediate and realigning as relations with both neighbours shift. At issue was initially the construction and now the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. Although the heads of state or government of the three countries eventually reached agreement on a Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the GERD in 2015, negotiations have since repeatedly failed to put that cooperative intention into practice, most recently at a meeting on 6th April 2021, in Kinshasa, seat of the current African Union president.
Similar difficulties between upstream and downstream countries are typical in contested basins such as the Indus (India/Pakistan), Brahmaputra (China/India), Amu Darya (Tajikistan/Uzbekistan), Helmand (Afghanistan/Iran) or Euphrates/Tigris (Turkey/Iran/Iraq/Syria) – to name but a few of the most disputed transboundary rivers and the main contestants . This is despite significant opportunities that transboundary water cooperation can offer for both upstream and downstream countries: dams constructed for hydropower production in upstream countries can, for example, simultaneously help control floods and increase the potential for downstream hydropower, flood protection and irrigation by stabilising water flows. They may also offer downstream countries opportunities for cheap electricity imports (as the GERD’s planners foresee for Sudan). In reality, however, such plans often lead to conflict with downstream neighbours, as these fear the consequences of flow changes and/or the potential political lever against them.
In some cases, including the GERD, there have even been threats of military action. Yet the biggest risk is not that such conflicts escalate into international wars, but that they undermine stability, with incalculable consequences. This threatens both upstream and downstream countries. Ethiopia’s internal strife, and in particular the government’s ongoing conflict with the Tigrayan elites that dominated its predecessors, could appear to offer leverage to downstream countries. This risk intensifies in the context of an ongoing border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia, and Sudan’s history of serving as a base for Ethiopian rebellions. Just the perception of such threats can easily harden conflict. Vice versa, the impacts of uncoordinated water releases either in the form of floods in Sudan or drought in Egypt could potentially undermine stability in these countries. Such developments could bring about significant regional instability – something that all governments should wish to avoid, but that they could fear their neighbours might be willing to consider. Yet even if such escalation is avoided and tensions can be contained, the mere continuation of political conflict implies significant opportunity costs in other sectors, hampering economic development as well as sustainable and equitable water use.
Most governments are well aware of the risks of playing with fire and will avoid it. Yet some might see themselves existentially threatened, and the mere perception of being unfairly pressed by rival riparians creates incentives to showcase efforts of defending national positions and red lines (rather than enlightened national interests). Cooperation thus often founders on the perceived political risks of water cooperation, rather than the lack of economic incentives (think Brexit and its aftermath).
The GERD illustrates this dilemma. Technically, there is significant potential for having all countries benefit. The politics of reaching a mutually agreeable solution have been difficult, however. As the dam’s name ever so subtly indicates, the Ethiopian government has invested a lot of political capital into making this a successful nation-building project, which is particularly critical now that the country is acutely threatened by violent conflict and political tensions with ethno-sectarian roots. The high political stakes that the dam has come to embody should not surprise Egyptians: Abdel Halim Hafez, one of its most famous musicians, once intoned with respect to Egypt’s own dam “we said we will build, and we built the high dam… O coloniser, we built it with our own hands.”
Yet rather than using shared sentiments to construct a common narrative of jointly building a bright future, distrust among the governments is probably stronger now than in a long time. This is despite considerable progress in negotiating, for many years, over the nitty-gritty technical details of a possible agreement (including dam filling, provisions for managing drought situations and dispute resolution mechanisms). Although the technical teams achieved several breakthroughs and found solutions to a number of contested issues, the three countries today seem to be further away from reaching an agreement than they have ever been before.
This state of play highlights a lesson that goes beyond the specifics of the GERD and the complex politics in the Horn of Africa. For many years, both basin governments and many international donors have sought to depoliticise questions of water cooperation, in the hope of finding technical solutions that leave all governments better off. In many basins and contexts, that is a good idea. However, it tends to run aground in those contexts where cooperation is most difficult because trust is elusive and technical efforts repeatedly fail or do not get off the ground at all. Where domestic national(istic) narratives clash, negotiating technical aspects and water-centered management solutions are unlikely to suffice because no contract is ever complete: there will always be instances of unforeseen events where efficient cooperation requires trust that the other side will not leverage every change in circumstances for unfair advantage.
In the Horn, that trust has so far proven elusive because national narratives are conflicting. Egypt’s dependence on the Nile and past dominance of the basin have prevented it from reshaping a rights-based narrative into one of mutually beneficial collaboration. Ironically, given Hafez’ poetry, it is colonial-era informed treaties from 1929 and 1959 that are the main source of this rights narrative. Ethiopia, by contrast, above all resents the (perceived) historical injustices of these treaties to which it was not part and which allocated practically all the Nile’s water to Egypt and Sudan. Overcoming this fundamental contradiction cannot be achieved through a technical agreement on water release – although such an agreement could be a step towards building a shared new narrative of mutually beneficial collaboration.
As this analysis shows, any outside support trying to mediate in the dispute requires careful diplomatic and political engagement that addresses political realities. This is also true of the other high-pitched water conflicts around the world. In our opinion, this demonstrates the need for foreign policymakers to engage on the issue and not leave it to the water and development communities alone to handle. That is by no means a call for the water community to disengage – on the contrary, their technical expertise is more necessary than ever. Yet given the interdependencies of water management with energy and food security, livelihoods, social stability and national identities, solutions must transcend the water sector. They must rely on a legitimacy of representing broader, enlightened national interests rather than more narrow, distributive sectoral interests – and defining those is the role of foreign policymakers (even if they do not always live up to that ideal).
Successful water diplomacy requires an integrated approach across technical and political divides, jointly undertaken by technical experts and diplomats and adapted to each basin’s specific needs. To support such processes, the World Bank has assembled a broad toolbox, from facilitating private discussions between decision-shapers to identifying mutually beneficial development paths and narratives, to reducing risks by offering guarantees or joint assessments. However, it often needs the political impetus and diplomatic skillset that foreign policy can provide.
Ultimately, transforming conflict over resources into expectations of mutually acceptable and, where possible, beneficial patterns of interaction is what diplomacy has always been about. Realising this potential for water resources is particularly important now that competition over water is rising in many regions around the world. To foil Vice President Harris’ predictions, water diplomacy needs empowerment – and thus greater constructive engagement from foreign policy actors.
Dr Benjamin Pohl is Head of Programme Climate Diplomacy and Security at adelphi, a Berlin-based independent think tank focused on climate, environment and development. Prior to joining adelphi, he worked at Leiden University and the University of Aberdeen as well as the German Federal Foreign Office.
Prof Susanne Schmeier is Associate Professor in Water Law and Diplomacy at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. Prior to joining IHE Delft, she spent seven years at the Gesellschaft fur internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and previously worked with the World Bank and Mekong River Commission, among other organisations.
Dr Sabine Blumstein is an Advisor at adelphi, a Berlin-based independent think tank focused on climate, environment and development. She previously worked as a researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and as a research fellow at the Centre for Area Studies at the University of Leipzig.
 See for example S.Solomon (2010), “Water. The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization”, New York: HarperCollins.
 In reality, there are far more stakeholders involved, and the conflicts of interest between different regions or sectors within any country may be just as pronounced as those between national governments. For example, the conflict over the Indus waters also features tensions between urban dwellers in Pakistan who want hydropower for air conditioning and reliable electricity prioritised, and farmers who are desperate to prioritise irrigation. Rather than taking domestic political risks, governments often have an interest in blaming an external scapegoat.