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  • Writer's pictureMaithri Aquatech

Water Security for Peace and Development

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

What do we understand by ‘Water Security’? It is defined as ‘the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks.’ If any region is deficient in clean, consumable water as per the demand or defined norms, then it is water insecure.

With the uneven availability of water across the world, some regions are very ‘water insecure’. 80 % of the world’s population is already exposed to high levels of threat for water security. More than 30% of the world’s people now live in countries that experience high levels of water stress, with droughts affecting around 50 million people and causing more than $5 billion in damage annually.

Less Water, More Violence?

It is often said that the Third World War will be fought over water. Judging from the current inequitable water conditions and related conflicts, this might well happen! The below table illustrates the rising incidence of conflict over a period of about 100 years.

Certain incidences and case studies from across the world suggest a strong connection between water insecurity and conflict/violence. In Middle East and African regions, a correlation has been observed between arid lands and areas where Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs)[2] operate. Case Studies[3] of Syria and Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia reveal that in all cases, factors influencing water stress, such as temperature rise, extreme weather, and depletion of groundwater had a detrimental impact on local socio-political conditions.

2007 onwards, the Middle East witnessed one of the most severe droughts since the 1930s. In Syria, this led to about 1.5 million people abandoning dry farmlands and moving to urban areas; evidence suggests that this migration coupled with low crop yields, food shortage and unemployment may have been among the prominent causes of the civil war there, in which 80,000 people died[4].

The effect of drought and related water stress conditions on livelihoods, especially in predominantly rural and agricultural areas, leads to breakdown in law and order as people turn to theft or maybe even VEOs for money. Studies indicate that discriminatory water policies implemented by the Assad regime and the Alawite elite also contributed to societal instability during the Syrian civil war.

Taking the instance of another highly water insecure nation, Yemen, the primary occupation of the country is agriculture; 90% of the water is used in agriculture. Therefore as the water supply diminishes, so does farming and food production; since over 75% of the population is engaged in agriculture, this leads to unemployment and low economic development[5]. Poor economy, unemployment, food and water insecurity, in turn, cause discontent among the local population, thereby leading to civic unrest and riots. Water infrastructure has been one of the prime targets in these riots, thereby leading to a further shortage of safe water! So this becomes a vicious cycle. Similar incidents have been witnessed in Somalia, Iraq, Syria and other countries also where wells and water facilities become targets of violence, most of which is perpetrated by water insecurity itself[6].

Sharing Water Resources

Apart from this, most water resources are transboundary in nature. In case of water inadequacy, the ‘sharing’ of water resources can also be a source of tension and conflict. Interestingly, the word ‘rivalry’ is derived from the Latin word rivalus, meaning “he who shares a river with another.” Globally, there are more than 250 watersheds that cross the political boundaries of two or more countries. Water inadequacy creates competition among countries and it is likely that the countries upstream will take steps like building dams or diverting river waters, thereby depriving the countries downstream, and creating a source of conflict.

The Tigris-Euphrates rivers are shared among Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Historically Iraq, though a downstream state, had been the top user of the river waters, but this began to change the 1970s when Turkey and Syria started constructing dams and irrigation systems. Availability of water to Iraq started depleting. This became a source of tension between the three countries[7].

Some other notable instances of interstate conflicts over shared waters include Jordan River conflict among Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the State of Palestine), Nile River-related conflicts among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan as well as in Central Asia (the Aral Sea conflict among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Closer home, India and Pakistan have had disputes over the sharing of Indus River water rights even though the Indus Waters Treaty was signed in 1960.

Within India, there has been a long-standing conflict over the Cauvery River water between the the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; recent dry conditions have brought it to the fore again. The states are not only engaged in legal battles, but also witness violent protests following decisions to alter water distribution between the two states.

All these instances point in one direction - the growing water crisis poses a threat to food security, livelihoods, law and order, peace and therefore development at localised, national and international levels. So there is a definite correlation between water security and peace and development. World leaders need to examine ways not only to reduce water stress but also increase cooperation rather than conflict over shared waters.


[2] groups that support and perpetrate ideologically-motivated violence

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