Water seems an unlikely cause of war, but many commentators believe it could define 21st Century conflict. A February 2013 article in U.S. News and World Report warns that “the water-war surprises will come”, and laments that “traditional statesmanship will only take us so far in heading off water wars”. A 2012 article in Al Jazeera notes that “strategists from Israel to Central Asia” are preparing for strife caused by water conflict. Even the United States National Intelligence Estimate predicts wars over water within ten years. Their concern is understandable—humanity needs fresh water to live, but a rise in population coupled with a fall in available resources would seem to be a perfect catalyst for conflict. This thinking, although intuitively appealing, has little basis in reality—humans have contested water supplies for ages, but disputes over water tend to be resolved via cooperation, rather than conflict. Water conflict, rather than being a disturbing future source of conflict, is instead a study in the prevention of conflict through negotiation and agreement.

To understand the problems with arguments about the importance of water wars, it is first important to understand the arguments themselves. Drinking water is fundamentally necessary for humans to survive, and thus every human needs a reliable source of water to survive. If people are denied access to water they face death, and thus are more likely to go to war—even a war with only a small chance of resulting in access to water is preferable to certain death through dehydration. In ancient times, this sort of calculus was not necessary, since migration allowed humans to travel to areas that had water if water supplies were exhausted or inaccessible. However, the development of nations, cities, and governments has restricted the extent to which humans can migrate in pursuit of clean water. Additionally, in some areas—notably, the deserts of the Middle East and Africa—water may be so scarce that migration is futile. Additionally, industrial growth has exacerbated water scarcity in some areas. Dammed rivers, water diversion for irrigation, the extraction of water from underground aquifers, and the pollution of water supplies has made water even scarcer for some, and, critically, climate change threatens to dry up many people’s sources of water. As water becomes scarcer, people without access to water resources face the choice of fighting or dying of dehydration, and water wars erupt. These wars are not necessarily world-encompassing conflagrations, but they are deadly conflicts between armed parties spurred by water scarcity. This logic of calamity driven by resource scarcity is in many ways simply an updated version of resource scarcity-based apocalypse that have been around since Malthus.

However, a casual look at dryer areas of the world suggests that Malthusian resource scarcity might finally be occurring. In East Africa, diplomatic rows between nations along the Nile grow increasingly heated, and lack of access to water fuels Somalia’s conflict and division. Many of the governments in this region have been or are currently being threatened by insurgencies, waging war against the government and thus the current system of resource allocation. Southern Asia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh all face issues with regards to water, and the Southern Asian region remains a source of conflict and instability. Even in the developed United States of America, drug wars rage in the Southwest of the country, a desert region supplied by rivers whose water is increasingly diverted for agricultural purposes.

Given these seemingly disturbing conditions, it is not surprising that the United States National Intelligence Estimate on Water, one of the most useful documents for understanding how nations think about water issues, predicts that beyond the year 2022 upstream nations are likely to use their ability to control water supplies coercively, and water scarcity “will likely increase the risk of instability and state failure, exacerbate regional tensions and distract countries from working with the United States on important policy objectives”. There is little doubt that climate change will deny people access to the water they need to survive, which seems a convincing argument that future conflict will occur to secure this valuable resource.

A Familiar Concern

However, this analysis does not take into account the economic, geopolitical, and governmental contexts that such changes will occur in. Economic growth, international organizations, and political leaders are powerful forces that dampen the tendency for water scarcity to cause conflict. The most powerful reason why the future does not hold water wars is the reason typically used to refute Malthusian arguments—technological and economic growth. Malthus correctly predicted the explosion in human population, and the amount of humans on earth would increase by five billion by the year 2000. However, the collapse of society Malthus envisioned failed to occur. The failure of human society to collapse was largely due to the economic and technological developments that occurred around the world. Economic growth allowed more access to resources, thus enabling people to invest in technology to increase their productivity. This investment in technology enabled incredible leaps in the productivity of farmers, thanks to devices like tractors, new practices in irrigation and crop rotation, and improvements in crops due to breeding and genetic modification. Although the data is somewhat inconclusive, estimates in literature reviewing the increase in farming productivity agree that farm productivity has increased many times over since the publication of the Essay on the Principle of Population, thus averting the collapse Malthus predicted.

A similar line of thought can be applied to water. Currently, many people access water from wells or rivers, sources that are susceptible to environmental changes. However, technological and economic growth allows for the development of aqueducts to service areas with little water, and the adoption of more efficient methods of using water (notably, watering plants with drip irrigation results in substantially less water loss), resulting in greater water availability. As evidenced by the development of the arid West of the United States, a lack of water does not necessarily mean that humans cannot survive, it merely means that technology and capital is required for survival. As nations continue to grow economically, they can acquire more resources and develop new technologies , such as water sanitation and treatment or desalination, to give their people better access to water, thus decreasing water scarcity over time. In fact, the University of California, San Diego’s Erik Gartzke notes that global warming is associated with a reduction, rather than increase, in interstate conflict. He goes on to note that while resource depletion associated with global warming may contribute to instability, the economic growth that is associated with it results in an overall reduction of crime. Gartzke concludes that the only way climate-induced conflict might come about is if efforts to stem global warming at the expense of economic growth lead to a loss of wealth, and thus conflict. Although water scarcity may be a factor that can cause conflict, the economic development associated with modern water scarcity results in more peace, not more war. As nations develop, they gain the technology by which they can mitigate the effects of climate change, and the capital with which to implement these technological advances.

Modern times are associated with increasing rates of water depletion, but also with a rise of international institutions, diplomacy, and conflict mediation. History has shown that these forces are not always powerful enough to overcome wars fought for political or strategic reasons (notably, the Iraq war was launched to destroy the military threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction). However, water scarcity is a problem related to economic development. Thus, wars associated with water scarcity are not based in the wishes of leaders, but rather a failure of environment or leadership. International organizations are able to respond to a nation’s failures, and leaders are generally willing to receive aid to complete tasks they have been unable to accomplish. Failures in water supply and distribution can be remedied with aid, which can install wells, aqueducts, and water purification facilities to improve access to clean water. Additionally, educational aid can help develop better practices for water use and conservation in an area of water scarcity. A large proportion of drinkable water is wasted or contaminated before it is available to those who need it to survive, a problem that can be solved through proper education and infrastructure development.

Examples of the power of aid to solve water issues are plentiful. In the United States, the state of California used federal assistance to construct an aqueduct from the wet North of the state to the arid South, allowing the city of Los Angeles to prosper as well as providing water to farmers along the fertile Central Valley of California. The international Non-Governmental Organization WaterAid approached the city of Takkas, in Nigeria. They installed wells, latrines, and instructed locals in best practices with regards to sanitation, resulting in a decrease in waterborne disease and an increase in water availability and thus quality of life. However, doubts about the long-term sustainability of water development projects remain since many nations do not have the capability to perform maintenance on the facilities provided to them. Thus, in terms of development, aid serves as a stopgap measure, providing critical water resources until economic growth allows nations to develop the infrastructure to indigenously refine and maintain water infrastructure. However, with regards to war, water aid is extremely effective, since temporary aid can be used to reduce tempers in the short term. Although a series of stop-gap measures is not substitute for indigenous production and maintenance of water supplies, stop-gap measures can prevent the humanitarian issue of water scarcity from causing international conflicts.

Although international aid and involvement are effective tools in development assistance, international aid is perhaps even more effective in aiding negotiations regarding the provision of water. Conflict over water is relatively easy to detect, since water scarcity builds over time. International tensions regarding water trigger a series of escalating diplomatic incidents and concerns that are easy to identify and thus resolve. Since the potential conflict is over a future where one or more parties lack access to water, rather than a nation’s immediate needs, international organizations can foster negotiations to solve the problem before it gets out of hand.

Not Water Wars, Water Deals

Perhaps the best example of international organization facilitating water resource allocation is the Indus Waters Treaty. The Indus River, a key source of water for Pakistan, has headwaters and tributaries in both Pakistan and India. When the partition between India and Pakistan occurred, there was great animosity between the two nations, which eventually led to a series of wars. One future source of conflict was the Indus River, a river whose resources were contested by two bitter rivals. While in the late 1950s Pakistan and India were not at war, there was great potential for water to play a role in future hostilities between the nations, perhaps exacerbating conflict. At the time, the World Bank was playing an active role in the region, seeking to aid the development of the new countries. They held substantial sway in the region thanks to their ability to provide loans to the new nations, and were therefore able to bring both India and Pakistan to the negotiating table to determine use of the river. Pakistan was concerned that India could use water as a weapon in future conflict, while India was concerned that Indians (especially those in the north of the country) would be unable to access water resources that had historically been theirs. Over a period of six years from 1954 to 1960, the World Bank helped orchestrate talks which determined which river systems were under control of India, which systems were under control of Pakistan, and how infrastructure necessary for the control of water in the river system was to be developed and funded. In 1960, thanks in part to development assistance provided by the United States and the United Kingdom, an agreement was found and the treaty was signed. After the signing of the treaty, three wars occurred, but the treaty was not broken, a testament to the power of the international agreement. Water allocation difficulties are a problem of developing nations, since developed nations can make up for scarcity with infrastructure. Thus, developing nations are most prone to water conflict, but they are also in the most need of staying in the good graces of the international community. Therefore, these countries are quick to negotiate with international organizations, making treaties and negotiation a powerful tool in addressing water conflict.

Furthermore, the involvement of international organizations can redirect anger, turning potential conflicts into political matters. In 2000, the World Bank compelled Bolivia to privatize the water provider in Cochabamba, a large Bolivian city, to fund the construction of a dam. This move proved massively unpopular, sparking widespread riots. This anger over the provision of water was not directed at the Bolivian government, but instead the anger was directed at the World Bank, an international organization that mainly interacted with Bolivia through financial, rather than physical means. The World Bank and the privatized companies it endorsed became the targets, and thus rage was harmlessly fired at an international organization, rather than targeted upon the Bolivian government. In this way, international organizations served as a scapegoat, absorbing criticism in the place of the government, which was left alone to maintain the peace.

The government of Bolivia, like many governments in region susceptible to water conflict, was not itself affected by the water scarcity. Governments have the power, resources, and authority to find and secure water in their country, and a water shortage is generally unlikely to severely affect those within a government. Rather, a water shortage is felt most acutely by those with almost no power, little money, and few resources. Water shortages hit the poorest hard, and the government is slow to respond since governmental officials are generally not impacted by such shortages. While this might seem at first consideration like a factor that is more likely to exacerbate water conflicts by allowing scarcity to rise undetected, it is ultimately a major dampener on the chances of water war. While individual citizens may protest their condition, and in extreme cases mount an insurgency, these actions are unlikely to have a substantial effect on the country. The most powerless in a country already have much to protest about, and the addition of water scarcity is unlikely to dramatically alter the frequency or fervor of protest. The government of a nation must expect that some citizens cannot be fully provided for, and therefore protests are inevitable. The propensity of water shortages to impact this segment of the population means that the net effect of water shortage will be relatively small, reducing the necessity of the government to respond to the crisis. Even an insurgency will be mounted by those with many grievances and few resources, which makes the insurgency comparatively simple to combat. Critically, the government has little incentive to start a war over water shortages impacting those the state is already failing—their protests are inevitable, and the shortages do not impact the government. While water shortages will of course trigger mass protest if enough of the population is impacted, the tendency of water shortages to prey upon the most vulnerable makes the onset of such mass protest less likely.

The idea of water wars fits many contemporary narratives well. In an era where we are forced to face the consequences of economic growth—pollution, climate change, and unrest—water wars seems a convenient instance of our failure to properly safeguard our natural resources. While it is easy to think of local consequences of the corruption of natural resources (for example, lung cancer resulting from air pollution), it is more difficult to give examples of widespread social change spurred by pollution. Despite a litany of international conferences issuing increasingly urgent manifestos demanding dramatic change, society has changed its patterns of consumption comparatively little, with seemingly few more widespread societal (rather than local) consequences. Although global warming threatens to destroy our way of life, society has not responded to the impacts of a warmer climate. Water wars seem to make up for this lack of action, since they are a powerful social problem easily attributable to the degradation of national resources. However, they have so far failed to meaningfully transpire, thanks to the very forces—the international geopolitical order and economic growth—that would presumably cause water wars in the first place. While the degradation of natural resources is a serious problem with modern society, the lack of water wars serves as a reminder of the power of the forces of peace and prosperity that are an inherent part of the modern world.