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Who Owns the Water?

‘What is in our country is ours and whatever we allow to go downstream, be happy for it.’ Ethiopian Position on Water from the Euphrates

“All options are open, cooperation is better than fighting.” Egyptian President al Sisi

“A river doesn’t just carry water, it carries life.” ― Amit Kalantri

When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

In this week’s 189th edition of “More than Meets the Eye,” we will look, at what I have felt for years, was going to be the undoing of much peaceful coexistence between contiguous states, especially in the Middle East. Most would attribute Middle East political unrest to religious disparities, petroleum production, or political power struggles. However, I have believed for years, that the scarcity of freshwater resources was going to be the lightning rod, for much-armed conflict throughout the world. Today, we sit on the precipice of such conflicts across the entire global landscape.

It is not my intent this week, to write about every potential water conflict, or even to try to unpack all the factors that go into creating an environment of potential violent conflict. I do, however, plan to provide an overview of where these kinds of conflicts exist, and how they are being disputed and reconciled.

In my estimation, the problem is not simply the complexity of the issues surrounding riparian rights. It also involves the actual existential scarcity of water resources in many places. As developing countries grow, their requirements for water resources increase algorithmically. For instance, it takes ten tons of water to produce one ton of grain. As demographic realities change, it is just a fact of life that the food and water requirements will increase as well. People can live without oil, but not without water.

The increasing potential conflicts over water are more about global growth and the need for more water than about poor infrastructures, poor institutions, or political differences. Water-related violence often occurs on the local, rather than on an international level as well, and the intensity of conflict is generally inversely related to geographic scale (Wolf, 1999). 

In places where we see water scarcity, which is largely in the southern hemisphere, there are potential water-related conflicts. In places where there is plenty of water, primarily in the northern hemisphere, water conflicts are rare. Between the years 1900 and 2007, the number of conflicts that have risen over water has gone from 22 to 83.  The simple reality is that the world is facing a serious water shortage. Countries will need to find new ways to deal with their neighbors in riparian matters that do not include war.  Based on extensive analysis of the world’s 263 international river basins, by the “Basins at Risk” project hypothesizing that “the likelihood of conflict rises as the rate of change within the basin exceeds the institutional capacity to absorb that change.” 

The Global Policy Forum, a United States-based nonprofit organization, with consultative status at the United Nations, uses the term ‘water-stress’ to describe situations in which each person in a country has access to less than 1,500 cubic meters of water each year. The term ‘water scarcity’ refers to situations in which each person in a country has access to less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per year. It is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in areas of acute water stress or water scarcity by 2025. That is a mere three and a half years away.

One thing is for certain, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to water. And, few of us recognize just how fragile the matter of water scarcity is, globally.


Approximately 97.5% of all water is either saltwater or water that has become polluted. Of the remaining 2.5%, nearly 70% is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. Less than 0.01% of all water worldwide is available for human use in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and easily accessible aquifers.

About three-fifths of water flowing in all rivers are shared by two or more countries—in 263 river basins in 145 countries, where two-fifths of the world’s population lives. (Wolf)  As a result, many countries are highly dependent on water resources that originate from outside their national territory. For example, 34% of water resources in India and 76% of water resources in Pakistan originate from outside these countries. (Renner) As another example, the Nile River Basin is shared by 11 countries that are mutually dependent on their water resources.

The World Bank estimates that people generally require 100 to 200 liters of water daily to meet basic needs (36.5–73.0 m3 of water per person annually). If one includes other uses of water, such as agriculture, industry, and energy production, the total annual average requirement of water per person is 1000 cubic meters. (Gleick) In 1990, 11 countries in arid or semiarid regions of Africa and the Middle East had less than 1000 cubic meters of freshwater available per person. Given anticipated major population increases, each of these 11 countries will have substantially less water per person in 2025.

One billion people do not have access to safe water—a problem that will likely increase as the world population grows from 6.8 billion people now, to about 9.0 billion by 2050. This problem likely will become especially severe in countries with high population growth rates that share a major source of fresh water with other countries. (Klare)

The idea that resource scarcity enhances prospects for conflict is an old one in the study of international relations. One finds arguments linking resources to conflict in most major schools of thought in the field, including Realism, Liberalism, and Marxism. 

Realists contend that states are often compelled to acquire resources through force, especially if resources external to state boundaries are essential for maintaining a state’s security and survival. Realists also emphasize the idea of relative gains and the security dilemma, that acquisition of resources by one state could be viewed by other states as threatening (or could lead to conflict directly if two or more states vie for the same resource). Liberals take a more optimistic view, asserting that markets can produce efficient trade for resources. States that are lacking important resources can simply trade for these goods in the international market. Finally, Marxists emphasize the importance of inequalities in economic systems. Resource scarcity can produce inequalities both globally and internally, which enhances the prospects for both interstate and intrastate conflicts. World-systems theorists, for example, emphasize the conflict that arises between states in the economic core and those in the periphery (e.g. Wallerstein, 1974).

I would like to simply catalog what this analyst sees as the world’s most serious water conflict scenarios, and then suggest a couple of realities surrounding each possibility. Each potential conflict is worthy of separate consideration, as each carries with it a unique set of variables and realities. For further understanding, check out this website: You will see a water conflict chronology dating back as far as 3000 BC. This is a fascinating study and is easy to read. It reveals how significant, struggles over water have been since man’s earliest recorded records. 

A short list of the most critical potential water conflicts globally:

  1. Continuing tensions are rising among Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Internationally supported negotiations have stagnated, and Egypt has said it will respond to any threats to its water supplies, raising concerns of possible conflict.
  2. Pakistan and India Indus River dispute. The Indus river, shared by India and Pakistan, has long been a point of contention. The countries divided up the rights to the river and its tributaries in the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. But tensions have flared recently. Pakistan says India has stopped water flowing into the Islamic Republic and accuses its neighbor of using water as a weapon in the ongoing dispute over Kashmir. Delayed monsoon rains have recently added to the crisis, with estimates showing that 40% of India’s population may not have access to drinking water by 2030. That would be close to 560 million lives affected. Will India sit on its hands while over half a billion lives are impacted? Probably not.
  3. Iraq’s ongoing water crisis with Turkey and Syria is complex. Both the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers find their headwaters in Turkey flowing south. Droughts, decreasing annual rainfall, changing weather patterns and pollution all play a role. The state has faced repeated criticism over its failure to properly manage water resources and further destabilizing the country. In late 2019, Iraq’s prime minister resigned amid mass protests, partly over the lack of access to electricity and clean water. Turkey, which profits from the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, has developed 19 hydroelectric power stations and 22 dams as part of their Southeastern Anatolia Project, which is commonly known by its Turkish acronym, GAP. The project is intended to increase the quantity of irrigated water available to Turkish farmers. A side effect, however, is that downstream Iraq and Syria have seen a decline of approximately 50 percent of water from both rivers since the 1990s – and the project is still four years from its planned completion date in 2010. Syria obtains around 80 percent of its water supply from these rivers, while Iraq is 100 percent dependent. 
  4. Armed conflict between Israel and Palestine over the Jordan River has been going on for more than 50 years, and it is getting worse. This sacred river for Christians, Muslims, and Jews is now facing a serious problem, as it carries not only less water each year, but the water itself is increasingly unclean.
  5. Although China ranks fourth in global freshwater reserves, it possesses the second-lowest per capita water supply of any country in the world. One of the most critical areas of shortage is the North China Plain, a region covering approximately 409,500 square kilometers (158,000 square miles). Despite the fact that one of China’s mighty rivers flows through this region, compared to the more humid south, north China’s limited water resources have been a persistent challenge to human communities inhabiting the plain for centuries. The Yellow River Valley and the North China Plain constitute one of the economic and social cores of China—generating over 20 percent of the nation’s grain supply and among the most densely populated regions in the world. However, water in the region has become an endangered commodity. The North China Plain accounts for less than 10 percent of China’s total water resources, despite sustaining over 30 percent of its population. Per capita, water availability on the North China Plain is 225 cubic meters (59,439 gallons) per year, while China’s average per capita water supply is 2,300 cubic meters (607,596 gallons). For the past several decades, per capita, water resources in North China averaged one-tenth the world average. Rapid economic development since 1978 has had profound consequences for the limited water resources of the North China Plain region. Water tables have declined by an average of 1.5 meters (1.64 yards) per year since 1990. In 1997, the river ran dry 780 kilometers (485 miles) upstream from the river mouth. At the same time, industrial, agricultural, and household pollutants have rendered water in downstream segments of the river unsafe for any use.

These are just five of the world’s most critical and potentially most violent water regions. How these disputes are reconciled will be a model for how many other potentially violent water scarcity crises will be handled. Let there be no doubt; in the very near future, water issues will become front-page news that will impact all of our lives, not just small segments of the world.



Sovereignty over water flows is hard to define and enforce, even though agreements between some riparian states have been reached. Clear identification of ‘ownership’ of water resources is problematic, but necessary in order to enhance political stability and international relations. Negotiation of agreements can take years. In the meantime, the ecosystem of a river may continue to be harmed or even destroyed, with the accompanying deterioration of the quality and quantity of water impacting the local population. The Indus treaty took 10 years of negotiations, while the agreements dealing with the Ganges took 30 years and the Jordan 40 years. 

According to the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, there have been 507 international disputes concerning water resources in the last 50 years. Only 37 of these have become violent, the majority involving Israel and its neighbors. Nevertheless, analysts warn that with ever-diminishing resources, overuse and exploitation of water, and rapidly rising populations, the threat of violence becomes even more serious. Peter Gleick, an international water expert and president of the Pacific Institute, told IRIN, “There is a long history of water conflict, and as water becomes more scarce, it will, indeed, lead to violent conflict in the future.”


Understanding these serious matters on a global scale will help us to navigate the complex waters that many of us will face in our lifetimes, as water scarcity issues are a real thing. I know most of us live in the northern hemisphere, and water has not been a limiting factor on any plane in our lifetimes, but the significance of water scarcity is increasing in the northern hemisphere as well.  A good example would be Germany. Germans have never had to worry much about water scarcity. But with rising global temperatures driving record heatwaves and prolonged droughts, demand for the precious resource is increasing. As they continue to draw increasing sums of water from both the Rhine and the Danube river, it is certain that their European brothers will begin to feel the strain of decreasing water levels as well. Germany uses over 25 billion cubic meters of water annually. That amount increases annually with the growth of new industries and agriculture.

The follow-up.

Oil traders work to avert shortages from U.S. pipeline hack…

IntelBrief: Cycle of U.S. and Iranian Attacks Continues…

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


Wolf AT, Natharius JA, Danielson JJ, Ward BS, Pender JK. International river basins of the world. Int J Water Resour Dev. 1999;15(4):387–427

Renner M. Troubled waters: Central and South Asia exemplify some of the planet’s looming water shortages. World Watch. 2010; (May/June):14–20

Gleick PH. Water and Conflict. Int Secur. 1993;18(1):79–112

Klare MT. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company; 2001

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