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From Water Scarcity to Conflict or Cooperation

From Water Scarcity to Conflict or Cooperation

Photo credit: Damon deMeno

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Link, P. M., Scheffran, J., & Ide, T. (2016). Conflict and cooperation in the water‐security nexus: A global comparative analysis of river basins under climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 3(4), 495-515.

Talking Points

  • Although it can be a factor that exacerbates conflict, water scarcity in transboundary river basins can also provide incentives and opportunities for greater cooperation between countries.
  • Socioeconomic, political, and cultural drivers all play a role in the transition from physical water scarcity to conflict or cooperation.
  • Large statistical studies cannot adequately account for the crucial cultural, symbolic, or political factors that may influence whether water scarcity brings about violent conflict or cooperation in a particular context.
  • The way governments and other institutions interpret and respond to water scarcity—for instance, as a security issue versus as a technological problem to solve—matters for whether it leads to violent conflict or to cooperation.


Climate change, coupled with population growth, is likely to intensify water scarcity around the world. Moreover, increased water use for agricultural and industrial purposes further exacerbates dwindling water availability. These changes affect water availability from a range of sources, including rivers, a source upon which many countries rely. Managing water use from rivers is especially problematic when those rivers are shared by multiple countries. According to the authors, the 263 transboundary river systems in the world act as a vital water source for 40% of the global population.

Bearing in mind these realities, it is no wonder that some perspectives consider water stress between river-sharing countries to be a significant factor in the escalation of conflict. The authors of the present research argue, however, that water stress does not necessarily result in violent conflict and that, when violent interstate conflict does occur, water is only one of many contributing factors. In fact, citing previous research, the authors assert, perhaps counter-intuitively, that water scarcity in transboundary river basins can even provide incentives and opportunities for greater cooperation between countries.

In this study, the authors explore how physical, socioeconomic, political, and cultural variables “interact to affect the likelihood and intensity of water conflict and water cooperation in transboundary river basins.” After an extensive review of previous research, they develop their own framework for understanding what they call the “water-security-conflict nexus.” This framework identifies relationships between three major dimensions: physical and socioeconomic drivers that establish water supply and demand; human interpretations and evaluations of water supply/scarcity, especially related to whether it is seen or framed as a security issue; and collective and/or institutional responses to these particular framings of water stress, ranging from war to major cooperation. The heart of the framework, according to the authors, is the central category of human interpretations and evaluations of water stress—especially whether it is framed as a security issue or not—which points to the importance of symbolism and cultural meaning, as well as questions about responsibility, in water conflicts. All of these considerations feed into whether a particular case of water scarcity is seen as a reason to wage war or as an opportunity to cooperate. The authors see this added interpretive/symbolic dimension of their framework as being an important link missing from large statistical studies that cannot adequately account for these cultural and political factors specific to each context.

The authors then turn to applying their framework to two regional cases considered future water security hotspots—the Nile River Basin and the Syr Darya/Amu Darya River Basin—to flesh out the relationships between the framework’s three different dimensions. With regards to the Nile River Basin, the authors highlight the region’s growing population, quickening economic development (especially upstream in Ethiopia and Sudan), and decreasing water availability, marked by some measure of uncertainty about the effects of climate change. There is the potential here for populations to perceive water scarcity as a threat to national security, as well as to human security, which could lead governments to dig into their positions in river basin negotiations and ultimately to bring their countries into conflict. A further complicating factor is Egypt’s potentially threatened status as the “hydro-hegemon” in the region and its political instability in the wake of the Arab Spring. Nonetheless, cooperative efforts have been successful in the past, notably the Nile Basin Initiative (an agreement among Nile Basin countries). Ethiopia’s erection of the Grand Renaissance Dam presents an opportunity for new agreements that could have the capacity, with the existence of strong institutions, to regulate the distribution of water and hydropower.

The Syr Darya/Amu Darya River Basin experiences different challenges but also yields opportunities for cooperation. The countries sharing the river basin—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—grapple with incompatible patterns of water demand and use upstream and downstream, causing flooding downstream in the winter and too little water for agricultural purposes downstream in the summer. Summer water shortages are only expected to worsen with climate change. These water availability challenges have been framed as threats to security, especially in a context where there are “persistent national rivalries and frequent attacks against ethnic minorities.” Furthermore, due to deep-seated mistrust and a win/lose framing of potential water allocation scenarios, countries see no incentive to cooperate. Any effort at water cooperation in the region, therefore, must not only determine water quotas but also address the broader political and security concerns of the various countries.   

Contemporary Relevance

Understanding how physical water scarcity can evolve into either conflict or cooperation is important to preventing future outbreaks of violent conflict as a result of water scarcity, especially at a time when the effects of climate change are only becoming more pronounced. This framework suggests—and the analysis of two case studies confirms—that water scarcity itself is rarely the heart of the problem. Social, cultural, and political factors play a significant role in shaping the path to cooperation or conflict. In particular, how water scarcity is interpreted—whether it is seen as a security threat or as an opportunity for joint innovation—matters for which path countries will take. Also, because water-related conflicts are usually about much more than “just” water scarcity, cooperative frameworks must take a more holistic approach to account for conflict factors other than physical water availability. Doing so, along with re-framing water scarcity in transboundary river basins as a shared environmental problem that requires joint problem-solving, can transform otherwise contentious situations into opportunities for cooperation.

Practical Implications

Applying the authors’ framework to conflicts where water plays a significant role, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can be useful to determine the viability of conflict resolution strategies. In July 2017, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority came to an agreement according to which Israel is to provide Palestinians with millions of cubic meters of water from a desalination process. This will ensure that Palestinians have access to drinking water, but, as the framework suggests, there are of course more factors at play in the conflict than availability of water. Increasing water supply alone will not prevent the outbreak of violence or instantly transform existing hostilities because this conflict runs so much deeper than “mere” water scarcity issues. Technological and engineering innovations and agreements are a good start, as they can overcome physical water scarcity and set a precedent for cooperation, but attention must also be paid to broader structural inequalities of which water access is one symptom. Bearing in mind the authors’ framework, international institutions and regional authorities should continue to try to shift the framing of water scarcity from yet another form of insecurity in the conflict to an opportunity for cooperation, while also considering the larger context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and other conflicts in the Middle East where water is a salient issue). These long-standing interpretations are difficult to challenge, especially in this conflict where water scarcity has been embedded in a broader history of injustice and insecurity. But what this research points out is that interpretations matter and, as persistent as they are, as human-made constructions, they can change—and in the process facilitate cooperation.

Continued Reading

Water Deal Tightens Israel’s Control Over Palestinians By Dalia Hatuqa. Al Jazeera, August 1, 2017.

Israel: Water as a Tool to Dominate Palestinians By Camilla Corradin. Al Jazeera, June 23, 2016.

The following analysis appears in the Special Issue Climate Change, Security, and Conflict in Volume 3 of the Peace Science Digest.

Keywords: water scarcity, climate change, conflict, cooperation

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