Water shortages threaten global security

By 2050 almost 40 per cent of the world population will live in areas of high water stress, according to the OECD. As competition increases and the risk of conflict grows, Global Insight examines the growing danger of water insecurity.

Rebecca Lowe and Emily Silvester

The deliberate targeting of critical water infrastructure has become a regular weapon in the Syrian civil war. The pumping station in Aleppo ceased production in May, cutting off supply to half the city. Damage to the sewage system has compounded the problem, and waterborne diseases are on the rise. The regime and rebels blame each other, while three million people suffer. Some have resorted to drinking from puddles in the street.

Water shortages are not just a consequence of the three-and-a-half-year conflict; they were also a catalyst. Drought in Russia in 2010 led to restrictions on grain exports, causing the price of bread to surge across North Africa and the Middle East. The price rises aggravated tensions, sparking riots – and, ultimately, revolution.


‘These things need to be looked at in a constructive way, so it’s not enough to criticise. There has to be constructive assistance’


Cherif Mahmoud Bassiouni
Egyptian UN war crimes expert

‘Was the Russian drought the cause of the Arab Spring?’ asks David Grey, Oxford University Visiting Professor of Water Policy and former World Bank Senior Water Advisor. ‘No it wasn’t. But was it the trigger? Yes it was. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And what we are seeing now is water-related shocks in one place reverberating very quickly around the world.’

Where there is water stress and scarcity – particularly where the water supply is a transboundary one – there runs the risk of conflict. By 2050 almost 40 per cent of the world population (3.9 billion people) will live in areas of high water stress, according to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Indeed, the statistics don’t look good. Only 0.03 per cent of water on the planet is surface freshwater, on which most of life depends for survival, with the rest locked up in the sea (97 per cent), ground, glaciers and icecaps. With a four-degree temperature rise predicted by 2100, potentially having devastating consequences for the world’s natural resources, scientists agree there is serious cause for concern.

Speaking at the United Nation’s (UN) International Day of Biological Diversity last May, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outlined the severity of the problem. ‘We live in an increasingly water insecure world where demand often outstrips supply and where water quality often fails to meet minimum standards. Under current trends, future demands for water will not be met.’

Conflict, but no war

The idea that water scarcity could cause conflict, or even war, is not new. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proclaimed in 1991 that ‘the next war will be fought over water’, while his successor Kofi Annan said in 2001 that ‘fierce competition for freshwater may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future’. Interestingly, the English word ‘rival’ comes from the Latin ‘rivalis’, meaning ‘someone sharing a river’.

However, experts generally agree that both Boutros-Ghali and Annan were mistaken. Over the past two decades not one battle has been fought primarily over water. Indeed, some experts claim the last ‘water war’ occurred some 4,500 years ago, between the Mesopotamian city states of Lagash and Umma.

‘A war over water is about as remote a possibility as the chances of a meteor falling on your head,’ says Rafay Alam, founding partner of Pakistani law firm Saleem, Alam & Co, which specialises in energy and the environment. ‘Water is, and always has been, something too serious to fight over.’

Where clashes have occurred they have tended to be internal, between competing local groups such as pastoralists, irrigators and urban dwellers. Yet, as seen in Syria, water crises can both trigger and stem from social unrest. Intrastate conflict and poor domestic management can severely exacerbate transboundary tensions, hampering development further.

‘The real concern is what happens to societies and countries internally,’ says Dr Adeel Zafar, Director of UNU-INWEH and former Chair of UN Water. ‘If you have a fragile state where social and political institutions are in disarray, that’s where lack of access to water can play a significant role in destabilising countries internally.’

There are nine or ten transboundary basins of concern that could result in societal collapse, according to Zafar, spanning Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Increased competition and climate change may increase this number, however. Overall, there are 276 transboundary lake and river basins in the world, fewer than half of which are covered by treaties. Some 148 countries include territory within such basins, which account for an estimated 60 per cent of global freshwater flow.

‘Conflicts take many forms, including tensions over allocation of water, attacks on water systems in conflicts that start for other reasons, the use of water and water systems during conflicts, terrorism, and development disputes,’ says water policy expert Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute. ‘I worry that the risks of such conflicts is growing, not shrinking.’

Gleick’s concerns are shared, not only by countries, but corporations. Business leaders are swiftly realising the impact water insecurity can have on both their brand and bottom line. Since 2011 companies have spent more than $84bn worldwide to improve the way they conserve, manage or obtain water, according to Global Water Intelligence and data compiled by the Financial Times– and this is a conservative estimate.

Setting an example

The good news is that such risks are now being recognised. Water has been identified as one of the world’s top risks in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report for the past three years, and 2013 was named the UN International Year of Water Cooperation. More significantly, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, due to take over from the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, include effective water management and transboundary cooperation.


‘Was the Russian drought the cause of the Arab Spring? No... But was it the trigger? Yes. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And what we are seeing now is water-related shocks in one place reverberating very quickly around the world’


David Grey
Oxford University Visiting Professor of Water Policy and former World Bank Senior Water Advisor

‘We have high hopes with water featuring as one of the global goals to be agreed,’ says Ania Grobicki, Executive Secretary of the Global Water Partnership, based in Sweden. ‘This is very significant, as up until now transboundary cooperation was strictly off the table.’

Such hopes have been raised further that the UN Convention on the Non-Navigable Uses of International Watercourses, due to come into force in August, will help manage transboundary concerns. The Convention provides a statement of principle that nations should ensure ‘equitable and reasonable use’ of shared waterways and have an ‘obligation not to cause significant harm’ to transboundary states.

The Convention is no panacea: there is no enforceability mechanism; only 35 countries are parties; and most of the global powers are yet to sign up, including China, the US, India and Russia. But experts agree it is a significant step in the right direction. It is not only a valuable statement of intent, but can form the basis for other legally binding mechanisms, such as the Southern African Development Community Protocol of Shared Watercourses.

‘The Convention is a landmark development and the best possible outcome after 25 years of often very difficult negotiation,’ says Pieter van der Zaag, professor of integrated water resources management at UNESCO-IHE. ‘It is a pity that some experts don’t really grasp this and emphasise how empty the glass is, whereas in my opinion it is more than half full.’

‘Whether water is scarce or not, the complex nature of its availability, use and allocation requires strong mechanisms and institutions to negotiate and balance competing interests,’ adds Gerard Bonnis, Senior Policy Analyst at the OECD. ‘In cases where international water institutions exist, relations among riparian states are generally more cooperative than in basins without treaties or management mechanisms.’

Encouraging the US to ratify the Convention would significantly boost its impact and credibility – though the superpower’s meagre record of support for global treaties does little to inspire hope. The solution, says former UN Legal Counsel Hans Corell, Vice-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute Council, lies in public education and pressure. ‘My hope is that there will be more ratifications, but at the same time it is important that people understand the importance of international cooperation. People must be educated about these questions so they can understand and influence their leaders.’

Western democracies under the rule of law must lead the way, Corell stresses. ‘If they don’t set the example, how can they expect others to follow?’

China’s stranglehold on the Himalayan basin

Another global power unlikely to be setting an example anytime soon is China. Beijing has an advantageous monopoly over the major tributaries in Tibet, which supply fresh water for almost the whole of Asia, and is experiencing its own internal water crisis. In 2012, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated that ‘drought and water shortages are severe restrictions on the country’s social and economic development’.

Almost half of China’s electricity is coal-powered, which requires large amounts of water and has led to severe shortages across the country. Beijing’s response has been to employ water conservation measures and bolster investment in alternative power, such as hydroelectric stations run on water from the Himalayas. Such policies have a direct impact on China’s neighbours – notably India, which has the highest total water consumption of any country in the world.

China shares 111 rivers and lakes with neighbouring countries, but currently has only two minor water-sharing agreements in place. India, conversely, has water-sharing treaties with all its other neighbours who share major tributaries. The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan is commonly believed to be one of the most successful international treaties in the world, having survived two wars and multiple conflicts.

‘China could be a constructive player or destructive force,’ says Gleick. ‘It has major control over the headwaters of many important Asian rivers, yet is not showing the degree of cooperation that I believe major powers should show. It could be participating more effectively in developing comprehensive joint basin agreements.’


‘The Convention is a landmark development and the best possible outcome after 25 years of often very difficult negotiation’


Pieter van der Zaag
Professor of integrated water resources management at UNESCO-IHE

China’s construction of five major hydropower dams on the Brahmaputra River, which runs from Tibet to the Bay of Bengal in India, is at the centre of the battle for water between the two nations. The projects have the potential to divert up to a third of the Brahmaputra, although China claims it would only take one per cent of the run-off. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh voiced his ongoing concerns during talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Durban last April, expressing India’s desire for a water commission or formal treaty.

Grey, however, who is currently working with China ‘on rebranding and rethinking their position on the UN Convention’, believes concerns about the country are misplaced. ‘The China story is mostly misperception,’ he says. ‘China building dams on the Brahmaputra wouldn’t hurt anyone downstream. It would probably help with low flows to improve irrigation production.’ He adds: ‘China is doing its best to rebrand and be seen as a global player. It values its reputation very highly.’

Part of the reason China has not signed the UN Convention is because of a misunderstanding that it only imposes duties on upstream countries, Grey says. In fact, downstream countries can impact upper riparians, he explains, by making claims on the use of water that are enforceable in court: the ‘foreclosure of future use’ principle. ‘So both have a responsibility to come to a deal. In an international court it is likely the judge would argue that it would be unacceptable for a downstream country to proceed with projects without listening to the other’s wishes.’

Existential threats in the MENA region

The problems facing Asia are not as severe as those facing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), however. This region is the most water-scarce in the world. Current World Bank estimates predict that water availability in the region will fall by half by 2025 and will have reached absolute water scarcity by 2050.

With 85 per cent of freshwater in MENA being used for irrigation and population growth surging, the biggest impact of water shortages is on food production. Less water is available for agriculture, increasing dependence on trade for food supply. In an already volatile region experiencing some of the world’s fastest population growth, such interdependence may prove a spark for conflict.

Collaborative management is critical in order to reduce this risk and strengthen socioeconomic development. Yet in the current climate, where several states are on the verge of collapse and tensions remain strong, such collaboration is far from being realised. Of particular concern is the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over water resources from the longest river in the world: the Nile. Egypt relies on the river for 95 per cent of its water and has always been fearful of even a fraction of that supply being diminished.


‘If you have a fragile state where social and political institutions are in disarray, that’s where lack of access to water can play a significant role in destabilising countries internally’


Dr Adeel Zafar
Director of UNU-INWEH and former Chair of UN Water

However, that threat is now looming large with a massive hydropower dam development underway in Ethiopia. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is destined to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and one of the biggest in the world. The project is likely to greatly reduce the downstream flow of the Nile into Egypt and Sudan for the next three to five years, and could permanently alter the amount of water those countries are able to obtain from the river.

Speaking at the IBA Annual Conference in Boston in October 2013, UN war crimes and Egypt expert Cherif Mahmoud Bassiouni raised the issue of water sharing among Nile basin countries. ‘There are many issues in Africa that need to be addressed before they become serious,’ he said. ‘Just think of the distribution of the Nile waters and the conflicts that are likely to occur.’ According to Bassiouni, water sharing among Nile basin countries requires an integrated approach. ‘These things need to be looked at in a constructive way, so it’s not enough to criticise. There has to be constructive assistance.’

Neither Egpyt nor Sudan was consulted by Ethiopia about the potential impact of the dam and no environmental or social risk evaluation has been made publicly available. Ethiopia, which views the dam as essential to its political and economic development, has argued that GERD will have little effect on the water flow levels into the two countries, and has made assurances that the dam reservoir water will not be used for irrigation.

But Egypt’s fears have not subsided. In June 2013, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi delivered a speech urging Egypt to ‘stand united’ in the face of threats to the country’s water resources. Morsi stressed he did not want war, and that dialogue with upper riparian states remains the best means of resolving crisis, but said he would keep ‘all options open’.

‘For Egypt this has been perceived as an existential threat literally since the time of the Pharaohs,’ says Grey, who leads the international team facilitating dialogue on the Nile. ‘The time has come to repack that idea in their heads, and that is happening. It’s not easy, but Ethiopia is being patient and offering cooperative investment and joint operation of structures. It can’t wait much longer.’

A few days after Morsi’s speech, Ethiopia ratified a treaty designed to replace colonial-era agreements that allocated Egypt and Sudan the lion’s share of the Nile’s water. This new ‘Nile River Co-operative Framework Agreement’, signed by six Nile-basin countries – Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – establishes a permanent body to oversee river management. Both Egypt and Sudan have stated that they will not sign the agreement without modification.

A solution may be in sight, however. Ethiopia has agreed to allow an International Panel of Experts to scrutinise the design of GERD, with the idea that it could be a potential winner for all three countries – none of which have signed the UN Convention. ‘Under the radar there is much more communication and contact than appears at the surface,’ says Van der Zaag. ‘We have seen clear rapprochement of Sudan and Ethiopia, though there is potential conflict brewing between Sudan and Egypt […] There is more cooperation than you would expect.’

Cooperation seems less likely in another MENA hotspot, however. Turkey’s recent dam and hydropower construction, combined with a series of regional droughts, have dramatically reduced water flow along the Euphrates–Tigris basin. The two rivers run from eastern Turkey, through Syria to Iraq, and a lack of agreement over flow rates is far from being resolved.

The massive Southeastern Anatolia Development Project (‘GAP’ in Turkish) aims to use the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris for hydropower and irrigation, to meet the country’s growing electricity and agricultural demands. Syria and Iraq argue that Turkey’s GAP activities are in violation of international law, while Turkey has criticised their water management policies. Longstanding bilateral agreements between Turkey–Syria and Turkey–Iraq on water flow do exist, but have been ignored in recent years.

While Iraq and Syria are signatories to the UN Convention, Turkey is not only a non-party but was one of the three nations that opposed the resolution (alongside China and Burundi). Without the political clout to influence Turkey’s decisions, the only way for the downstream states to gain leverage may be to pursue their rights on the international stage. Indeed, in 2012 Iraq threatened to take its case to the UN. Based on Iraq’s historical use of the rivers – which has been prosperous, extensive and protracted – Iraq may find favour in an international ruling.

However, risk of conflict here remains strong, says Ravi Navayanan, Chair of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum Governing Council. ‘Here are three countries in various stages of development in a generally dry place on earth where water is a precious resource. So you can see that not very far into the future there will be arguments about that water. Something may be brewing here.’

Central Asia: the disappearing sea

Central Asia is underdeveloped by world standards and its territories lack a coordinated water management system. Although there are many security issues in the region – the ‘Stans’ are among the most autocratic and repressive countries in the world – the allocation of water resources in the Aral Sea basin has great potential to cause instability and unrest.


‘Many of these problems are based on distrust, and the root of that is lack of public information. If that can be assured it is a big step as both parties can start their discussions on the same footing’ Ravi Navayanan Chair, Asia-Pacific Water Forum Governing Council


Ravi Navayanan
Chair, Asia-Pacific Water Forum Governing Council

The Aral Sea basin, which sits on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is formed by two major transboundary tributaries, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. The two rivers flow into the Aral Sea from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan/Kyrgyzstan respectively, and are vital to the livelihoods of 43 million people. However, the lake – formerly one of the four largest in the world – has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects.

It is now under ten per cent of its original size, causing severe environmental, economic and health problems for local communities, and contains almost no life at all.

‘We already see significant tensions on water sharing between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,’ says Zafar. ‘These are closely tied to the water question as hydropower is a major component for energy. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have rolling blackouts because there is not enough energy.’

There are treaties in place between states on water sharing, but they are poorly implemented due to a lack of coordination. So far only Uzbekistan has ratified the UN Convention, and has called on Kazakhstan’s alliance in taking a stand against dam building upstream.

The situation recently came to a head with the two smallest and poorest Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (the upper riparians of the Amu and the Syr), revealing plans to build two of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams. This could be to the detriment of their larger and more powerful downstream neighbours, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which fear that the projects will reduce the amount of water they have for irrigation and industry.

Due to these divided interests, construction of Tajikistan’s colossal Rogun dam over the Vakhsh River was suspended in August 2012 pending a World Bank assessment. While tensions remain high, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have jointly called for the UN to review the potential impact of the dams, and voiced a desire for dialogue between the four states to resolve the issue cooperatively.

The key to success for such dialogue, stresses Eric Garner, Managing Partner of US law firm Best Best & Krieger and former Chair of the IBA Water Law Committee, is information and transparency – something easier said than done in regions lacking democracy and effective governance. ‘In terms of building really successful water security there are three important elements,’ he says. ‘Communication between states at the technical level, the legal level and the governmental level.’ The first of these is the most significant, he believes. ‘Technical work is the foundation for good water management and there really cannot be enough of it […]. You need experts to sit down and talk to each other, and establish some baseline from which the lawyers and governments can start to resolve these disputes. Without that baseline, you’re nowhere.’

Navayanan agrees. ‘Agreements require information available to both sides,’ he says. ‘The UN Convention is very clear about that. Many of these problems are based on distrust, and the root of that is lack of public information. If that can be assured it is a big step as both parties can start their discussions on the same footing.’

Sustainable future or perfect storm

The world has moved on from a pre-climate change era of excess, food, water and power. If hydroelectric developments can teach us anything it is that a new paradigm of international water management that recognises water as public good, rather than sovereign right, must be developed.

Combine water scarcity with political instability, increasing resource demands and climate change, and the ‘perfect storm’ for conflict can be created. Hotspots appear to be regions where territorial sovereignty is proclaimed by headwater states, agreements are lacking or disregarded, good governance and democracy are lacking, and transboundary coordination is limited.

The outlook is not entirely pessimistic, however. Historically the majority of transboundary water disputes have been resolved peacefully, and the doomsday prophecies of water wars are yet to be realised. That said, clearly more needs to be done. Transparency and access to information should be re-examined by all states who share water resources, and trust assured. Bilateral treaties should be implemented and enforced, and the UN Convention signed.

The risks are great – but the solutions are far from elusive. ‘Realising our interdependence is key to resolving water issues,’ says Van der Zaag. ‘Once we realise that we live in an interdependent world, we will hopefully refrain from making decisions that are short-sighted. Instead, we will look at the long-term gains of peaceful cooperation.’


Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter at the IBA and can be contacted at rebecca.lowe@int-bar.org. Emily Silvester is former IBA Content Editor