Water: A Source of Conflict and Instability


Just as human life depends on water for sustenance, nations require water to ensure stability. Unfortunately, water resources do not respect our national boundaries: The Nile River touches or flows through nine sovereign nations, three of which are currently facing water shortages. With the potential of hitting “peak water,” the transnational character of natural resources will strain security on national and international levels. To prevent future conflict, the international community needs to create a framework for settling water disputes that acknowledges a collective right to water, regardless of national boundaries.

In the Nile Basin, water disputes are ongoing. The Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia, currently under construction, is already creating water shortages in Kenya’s Lake Turkana region. With the potential to affect up to 300,000 of the indigenous population, which receive roughly 80% of their water from the Omo River in Ethiopia, the Gibe III places the regional welfare of a Kenyan tribe in the hands of the Ethiopian government. Although Kenya itself has not filed a complaint, a drastically destabilized population risks instability on both sides of the border. 

For example, in 2006, a cross-border agricultural dispute escalated into armed conflict between Kenyan and Ethiopian citizens. Already scarce resources were exacerbated by a drought, causing rural Ethiopian bandits to cross into Kenyan territory and raid a small village. The three-day conflict killed a total of 45, and required state intervention. This case symbolizes a paradigm for the future of water conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa: Water produced small-scale instability.   

Water rights continue to complicate peace agreements between Israel and Palestine. The average Palestinian uses a quarter of the water their Israeli counterparts use, with Israel itself facing crop-damaging droughts.  For Israel, the tension is between crop independence and responsible production. If Israel wishes to maintain its independence and regional hegemony, it needs to be able to produce food for itself. However, rationing Palestinian access to water only further disgruntles and radicalizes the population.

Two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, have already seen the small-scale impacts of water scarcity. In 2010, a protest for water rights in east Delhi turned violent as water supply was erratic for the previous three days. In Pakistan, tribes fighting for water access led to 102 deaths over the course of 2 weeks. The internal stability of both nations hinges on their ability to provide water to their respective citizens.

However, securing water is itself a cause for insecurity. India and Pakistan are currently in negotiations over the Wullar Lake project in Kashmir, a dispute that dates back to 1984. At the heart of the conflict is the possibility that India could divert crucial water resources from Pakistan by limiting its water sovereignty. Because diplomatic relations are already on edge and both nations are facing water stress within the next 15 years, failure to cooperate on water issues poses a significant threat to both regional and international security. The possibility of nuclear escalation grows nearer with every failed negotiation.

Each of these conflicts exposes a fundamental paradox of the nation-state system: Securing transnational resources for the survival of a nation leads to regional and international instability. At what point are we, as an international community, willing to let go of our nation-centric security framework for an environmentally based arrangement that stresses collective security? 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons