The Water Wars Myth
When a pop meme is used to explain complex geopolitics, we miss the chance to nurture cooperation and find instruments of peace.
By Giulio Boccaletti
“Water shortages are brewing wars,” warned the BBC last year. People who worry about climate change are drawn to this dramatic, high-stakes idea. After all, persistent droughts and destructive floods are symptoms of a changing climate, and it seems irresistibly intuitive to claim that when water becomes scarce or unpredictable, states will go to war with each other to secure it. But by paying so much attention to an exaggerated, simplistic scenario (even with good intentions), we miss the true risks of water shortages and the solutions at hand.
Take the current conflict in Ukraine, described by some people as a conflict over water: Russia intervened, they say, to ensure Crimea would get water that Ukraine has been holding back since 2014. But alleged causes of the ongoing invasion also include economics, identity, history, security, and an unhinged dictator.
This does not mean that water is immaterial. Water infrastructure can be a target in war, as when Russian forces cut off Mariupol from its water supply to conquer the city. Water can also be weaponized, as both Ukrainian and Russian forces have done by breaching dams to flood the landscape and shift the odds in the ground fight. And, of course, localized conflicts can ignite over water when institutions collapse, as when Russian-backed separatists took over parts of the Donbass region in 2014, cutting in half the Soviet-era integrated water system that served it. History is littered with examples of times when water, or the infrastructure designed to manage it, played some role in war. But that is not the same as being the cause of an international war. Attributing wars to water scarcity implies that material conditions inevitably determine armed conflict, when in fact military aggression is almost always a matter of choice.
Blaming war on water absolves politicians of their responsibility and deprives people of their agency, undermining efforts to resolve the very conflicts water is supposedly driving. There are 310 river basins straddling national boundaries, covering nearly half of the earth’s land surface and home to half of humanity. Many of those rivers are under stress today. Focusing on them as possible theaters of war—as the “water wars” story would have it—diverts us from seeing them for what they could be: 310 instruments of peace. In fact, cooperation rather than conflict is the most common response to a difficult water situation.
In contemporary culture, the thesis of a war over water has a modern archetype: the Arab–Israeli conflict. The Jordan River, more than 300 kilometers long, is fed by tributaries in southern Lebanon and Syria and flows into the Sea of Galilee. From there it receives water from two more tributaries on its eastern bank—the Yarmouk and the Zarqa—and runs along borders that, after the armistice in 1949, separated Israel and the West Bank on one side from Jordan on the other.
In the early 1950s, both Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan began drawing from that system to support economic development. Jordan announced plans to divert the Yarmouk. Two years later, Israel began construction of its National Water Carrier, a system of pipelines and canals that would draw water mainly from the Sea of Galilee. These developments were not meant as threats, but they set the stage for what happened next.
By 1956, with Israel’s Carrier system still under construction, Egypt had blocked Israeli ships from passing through the trade route of the Suez Canal. Amid growing tensions, in 1964 Egyptian president Gamal Nasser convened a summit of Arab states—a meeting notable for the birth of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Famously, participants declared that the continued economic development of Israel would displace more Palestinians and pose an existential threat to the Arab world.
One way to constrain Israel’s development was to divert the Syrian headwaters of the Jordan River, reducing the amount reaching the Sea of Galilee by about a third and limiting what Israel could draw for its Carrier system. With construction of the system finally completed, Israel declared the diversion an infringement of its sovereign rights. Things escalated, and in May 1967 Nasser’s troops surrounded Israel. During the Six Day War that followed, Israel destroyed the Syrian diversion and took over the Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Sinai, vastly extending its control over the region. This not only secured control of the Jordan River but gave Israel access to the aquifers below the West Bank. Its National Water Carrier had even more room to grow.
Water clearly played a key role in this conflict. The Arab attempt to divert the headwaters weaponized the river’s sources. But water was not the cause of the conflict. Water in the Jordan valley has always been scarce. It took the carving up of the Middle East, Israel’s quest for statehood, Arab nations’ refusal to recognize it, and Egypt’s desire for Arab unity and expansion to fuel war.
Besides, the very same war offered an important, if incomplete, example of how difficult water conditions could facilitate peace. Following 1978 negotiations at Camp David, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor as president of Egypt, resurrected an old water plan, offering Israel its Nile waters to develop the Negev desert in the hopes of finding a workable compromise for regional stability. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and nothing came of the offer, but the attempt showed how water scarcity could be a precursor to cooperation rather than a cause of conflict.
Despite this, the “water wars” thesis held sway, attracting serious public attention when Sadat claimed that water was “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again.” In 1985 Sadat’s former minister of state for foreign affairs, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (later the secretary general of the United Nations), reprised this statement, claiming that the next war in the Middle East “will be fought over water, not politics,” a thinly veiled threat to states along the Nile.
Then, in 1995, during a speech to water experts in Stockholm, another Egyptian, World Bank Vice President Ismaïl Serageldin, claimed that “if the wars of the 20th century were fought over oil, “the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.” Serageldin wasn’t literally predicting a water war; he was drawing people’s attention to the importance of water management. This time the alliterative phrase was picked up widely by media, including the New York Times, Newsweek, and CNN.
ublic fascination with the idea of a water war led academics to investigate its empirical basis. Scholars dug into the past to find evidence of military conflicts between nations over water. The very first water war in recorded history was described in the Stele of Vultures. The stele is a Sumerian monument from about 4,500 years ago whose fragments are at the Louvre in Paris. It tells the story of what could be called a water war between Umma and Lagash, two city-states in lower Mesopotamia, between Baghdad and Basra in modern Iraq. But the geographer Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University, a prominent expert in water-related conflicts, wrote that if this was the first water war, it was also the last.
Overwhelmingly, the evidence that Wolf and others have collected shows that cooperation, not conflict, is the recurrent theme when nations share a water source. The most famous example of this took place in the Indus River valley. More than 3,000 kilometers long, the river rises in western Tibet and Kashmir, flows through the Punjab in India and Sindh in Pakistan, and finally empties into the Arabian Sea.
One of the most egregious legacies of the British Raj was that, at the time of independence for India and Pakistan in 1947, this river basin was split between the two countries with no regard for the infrastructure that had turned it into the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. Most of the irrigated land went to Pakistan, but the infrastructure that ended up in India could stop the flow to its neighbor almost entirely. With no rules of engagement and no history of joint management, the newly formed states faced severe tensions over water, among other things. Ethnicity itself caused a crisis. In what has been called the biggest migration of the century, an estimated 15 million people moved across the new border in a matter of months. Hindus moved to India and Muslims to Pakistan while community ethnic cleansing left a long trail of victims and hatred along the migration paths.
It was an inauspicious start to separation, but the two countries had no choice. They had to manage the shared river, and that is what they did.
In 1960, after protracted negotiations, Field Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India signed the Indus Waters Treaty. The treaty divided the tributaries of the river between the two countries, established a World Bank infrastructure financing package to reengineer the river in service of both, and, crucially, adopted mechanisms for arbitration so that neither country could pose an existential threat to the other. It was imperfect, as all international agreements are. Yet it was a treaty between two countries that would soon become nuclear powers. Remarkably, it has withstood the test of time, surviving the conflict of 1965, the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, and the Kargil conflict of 1999. It stands to this day as an extraordinary monument to cooperation between rivals that work together on the river, even when at war over other things.
Popular culture has drawn the wrong lesson from history. A fear of “water wars” is a misreading of water events. From the Jordan to the Indus to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, shared among Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, the lesson is always the same: Even the most difficult of neighbors can find a route to cooperation over water. This does not make it easy, nor is it inevitable. But a failure to cooperate does not lead to armed international conflict. Instead it produces persistent water insecurity and suffering. Unmanaged scarcity can cripple economies; uncontrolled floods can destroy communities; both can lead to migration.
The focus on “water wars” blinds us to the opportunity for cooperation and the need to encourage it. In the first few months of 2022, skirmishes have broken out between Taliban and Iranian forces where the Helmand River crosses the border between Afghanistan and Iran. The Taliban reacted to alleged attempts at dredging additional canals. Iranian farmers, in turn, protested over perceived threats to the water flowing from Afghanistan. These are not “water wars,” though; localized skirmishes are not unusual when individuals or communities fight over water, but they happen precisely because states have been unable to develop effective cooperation.
Afghanistan is struggling with a severe drought and insufficient infrastructure to manage its own water resources, risking a famine of unprecedented scale. Over the last few months, a flood not of water but of people, mostly fleeing the Taliban and hunger, has been crossing the border out of the country. The high number of refugees is putting further pressure on Iranian communities, which then react with anti-Afghan protests, compounding tensions. The management of water resources is central to overcoming these problems. It is a cure for conflict, not a cause.
What these neighbors need are better institutions to support cooperation, reliable data to manage the river, and institutions to negotiate joint river management as the flow changes over time. Cooperation is the key to survival. From the Helmand, the Jordan, and the Nile to the Mekong between China and its neighbors downstream to all the other international rivers worldwide, water offers an opportunity to cooperate across borders. In the face of climate change and deteriorating water security, the real challenge is not war but successful cooperation. That, above all, will safeguard the future of the shared waters of the world.
June 9, 2022