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Water and armed conflicts

Military experts classify the term military conflict into two categories:

  1. Armed conflict is a kind of armed confrontation between states or social groups in states to resolve economic, political and other conflicts through limited application of military force.
  2. War is a form of military actions by military forces of a state with the purpose of imposing its will upon contradicting party.

Armed conflict differs from war in limited nature of ultimate purposes set by parties. The purposes of armed conflict include transformation or preservation of existing affairs, change of military political situation for its own benefit, gaining economic benefit, political or strategic advantages.

According to UN world water development report launched on 19 March 2018 in Brazil, 3.6 billion people globally suffer from water scarcity and their number will grow to 4.85.7 billion by 2050.

Freshwater scarcity has already been the source of interstate conflicts and the number of such conflicts will increase. Today some countries are ready to fight for fresh water in a radical way. Among the causes of future water crises experts list climate change, growing water demand and water pollution.

People often are ready to fight for water with arms, and the situation has aggravated due to accelerate population growth and water use. UN experts express their concerns that water-related conflicts will multiply as water resources become exhausted.

The world has split into water-rich and water-scarce regions.

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and many other countries all of them have aired their discontent with water state-of-affairs and readiness to battle for their water rights with arms.

In Africa the hottest and driest continent water conflicts are not rare. The most troubled area is the Nile river basin the worlds longest river system.

In the basin, Egypt depends on upstream countries Sudan, Ethiopia and the countries of African Great lakes. Egyptian economy fully depends on Niles water, and 95% of water resources flow from other countries that makes Cairo dependable on the upstream countries. The Nile, more exactly the hydroschemes along the river, are the potential cause of military conflicts.

In 1994, Egyptian army entered Sudan to ensure control over Niles water. Later on, Egypt and Sudan united against Ethiopia, which decided to increase water withdrawals from the Nile.

In March 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed the Declaration of Principles for water sharing in the Nile basin. However, after long negotiations with Ethiopia, Egypt has refused to accept a compromise and called for the World Bank to act as a mediator.

In Asia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq compete for waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Turkey exercises control over headwaters of the both rivers that puts the country at an advantage over other countries. Water conflict between the countries has not been resolved, also because each of the parties pursues its own interests and strives to augment its water potential unilaterally. Euphrates is the main source for Syria, which suffers from strong water scarcity. Besides, Syria and Iraq as downstream countries have water of poorer quality.

Syria and Iraq have claims against Turkey and against each other. In 1974, Syria and Iraq were on the verge of war because of construction of a dam on the Euphrates in Syria. Only the intervention of the United Nations prevented the war.

In 1990, Iraq was short of war with Turkey, when the latter reduced flow of the Euphrates.

Conflict between the three countries was particularly tense in the 90s, when Turkey built the Ataturk dam on the Euphrates. The dam decreased the flow to the downstream countries. In response, Syria and Iraq signed a joint agreement on water sharing. Syria and Iraq consider the Tigris and the Euphrates as international watercourse and insist on equal sharing of river resources. However, Turkey has an opposite point of view.

Some experts think that water conflicts between Turkey and Syria, Turkey and Iraq, Iraq and Iran will be resolved in an armed way in the future.

Countries in the Middle East are located in one of the driest parts of the planet, where renewable water is very limited. Poor irrigation infrastructure in many Arabian countries makes things even worse.

Food security is a very serious problem in the Arabian world and almost dead-locked situation with water may provoke conflicts of different intensity.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the water factor is also significant along with terrorism and other security threats.

In the Indus River basin the Indo-Pakistani territorial dispute around Kashmir is directly related with water. The headwater of almost all rivers flowing through Pakistan, including the main watercourse Indus is located in Kashmir, with most of them in the India controlled territory.

Indus water conflicts have started as early as one year since the establishment of independence of India and Pakistan. In 1948, serious disputes occurred concerning irrigation water, and, finally, India cut water from canals irrigating fields in Pakistani province Punjab.

In 1960, the World Bank proposed the parties to sign the Indus Waters Treaty by dividing the basin flow between India and Pakistan. Thus, Pakistan could use water in three western rivers feeding the Indus, while India could use three eastern rivers. According to the Treaty, India was obliged not to disturb runoff of the rivers flowing through its territory and allocated for use by Pakistan. Nevertheless, India has repeatedly broken the Treaty.

In the Ganges River basin the parties of the conflict are India and Bangladesh. The conflict is related to both quantity and quality of water.

Upstream India diverts more water than allowed and Bangladesh lacks appropriate quantity of water.

Pollution of the Ganges is the main problem. The health situation in Bangladesh strongly depends on quality of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers.

In Eastern Asia the water use issues in the upper Irtysh already complicate relations between riparian countries. The headwaters of the Irtysh are in China, and then the river flows through Kazakhstan and Russia.

In the late 90-s Chinese leadership announced its plans to build a canal in the upper reaches of Irtysh to irrigate land in Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region.

According to Kazakh researchers data, after diversion of water for XUAR the Irtysh main course in Kazakhstan could change into swamps and stagnant lakes by 2020. This would have catastrophic effects on economy and environment in Kazakhstan and Western Siberia.

In Central Asia, since the collapse of USSR and establishment of independent republics in the region, water resources have become transboundary ones. This made old rules of hydroenergy resource distribution ineffective.

Countries in Sahel suffer from freshwater problems most of all. Only one person out of six has access to clean water there. As a whole, 80% of health problems and diseases in developing countries are related to lack of clean water.

Water scarcity, also due to poor water management, can become the source of intra- and interstate conflicts, including armed conflicts.

The need to differ between war and armed conflict is that absolutely different measures are taken and legal documents are applied in case of war in opposite to armed conflict. Diplomatic and economic ties between states can be cut in case of war, while in armed conflict these ties are maintained. This entails a number of legal consequences, first of all, related with protection of basic human rights and freedoms enshrined in relevant international legal acts.

Armed conflicts include war incidents, military actions and other military clashes of modest scale (low intensive) with involvement of militant groups. Border conflicts are a separate form of armed conflict.

There is a risk that an armed conflict may transform into war.

Databases on wars do not contain cases of water wars. Even in the Middle East with its very tense situation combining political and water tension there is only one controversial example of water as a cause of war.

In global practices riparian countries continued holding negotiations during both conflicts and peaceful periods. For example, the Mekong basin countries continued holding meetings of the Mekong Commission even in times of the Vietnamese conflict. In fact, water treaties prevented major conflicts, e.g. between Pakistan and India.

Water demand grows for various reasons and water needs to be re-distributed between sectors to meet this demand. However, such redistribution is often complicated. Each sector strives for development and assumes available water for it, without taking into consideration water supply for other sectors. Many countries even do not have infrastructure to transfer water physically from one to another sector. Food security largely depends on agriculture, which is the largest water consumer. Thus, it is necessary not only to ensure food production but also search for possibilities to minimize related conflicts at different levels both inter- and intrastate.

Sources (in Russian):

Morozova Ye.A. War and armed conflict differentiation boundaries / Journal Gosudarstvennoye i munitsipalnoye upravleniye. Uchyoniye zapiski SKAGS, 2016, 2
Suslova Ye. Quench our thirst: how do countries battle for water

Author: Rysbekov Yu. Kh., SIC ICWC