What is a Water Conflict?

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  • Written By: Dorothy Bland
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 07 May 2020
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A water conflict is a dispute involving access to water resources. Water is a precious commodity around the world, and most of the time, water is considered a renewable resource. In certain areas of the world, however, consumption levels can outpace the time needed for renewal, leading to water scarcity and causing tensions and disagreements to occur. Battles over water can arise over international boundaries or between countries, states, and territories as groups with different interest conflict over who has the authority to control or access a shared water supply. For many nations, access to fresh water has become an economic, social, and human rights issue.

Water battles are not limited to recent human over consumption, however; water conflicts have occurred for thousands of years. The earliest known water conflict occurred in ancient Mesopotamia between the bordering city states of Lagash and Umma. When Lagash diverted water away from its neighbor, the conflict turned violent.

Modern water related conflicts have the potential to be even more turbulent. One area of the globe where water battles typically occur is the Middle East — the most arid region in the world. Although the Jordan, the Tigris, and the Euphrates rivers are in the region, the amount of renewable water only accounts for about one percent of the total available supply in the world, leading to a situation where five percent of the world's population is competing for the same watersheds.

Lack of rainfall and droughts in the area contribute to the water conflict. Long standing religious and ethnic differences have helped to make the situation even more volatile for some regions. Notably, Israel and Palestine have had a number of conflicts over access to water.

In some areas of Africa, tensions arise among shared river and groundwater sources as countries push for greater quotas and develop projects that could affect other countries' share of water. For example, the Nile River winds through ten African countries before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. Egyptian civilization has been built up around the Nile, and the country has claimed historic rights to its use of the river. A current agreement is in place between Egypt and Sudan, which are downstream, but Ethiopia and other countries located upstream on the Nile are pushing for a more equitable sharing of water resources.

Over one billion people lack regular access to clean drinking water; global warming, population booms, and water pollution could cause further complications. As nations push for adequate access to freshwater resources needed for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, industrialization, and other activities, future conflicts may be inevitable.

In most cases, however, disagreements over water do not become violent. When they do, water is usually only part of a bigger issue, exacerbating tensions between parties already at conflict. To avoid water conflict, countries often attempt to peacefully resolve their issues through treaties and by complying with international water laws. To further eliminate tensions, countries are increasingly using water conservation methods that reduce the amount of water needed.

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