State University of New York Institute of Technology
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Water, WaterStress and Water conflict

In the past, politicians, academics and journalists have frequently predicted that disputes over water would be a source of future wars. Commonly cited quotes include: that of former Egyptian Foreign Minister and former Secretary-General of the United Nations Boutrous Ghali, who forecast, “The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics”; his successor at the UN, Kofi Annan, who in 2001 said, “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,” and the former Vice President of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, who said the wars of the next century will be over water unless signicant changes in governance occurred. The water wars hypothesis had its roots in earlier research carried out on a small number of transboundary rivers such as the Indus, Jordan and Nile. These particular rivers became the focus because they had experienced water-related disputes. Specific events cited as evidence include Israel’s bombing of Syria’s attempts to divert the Jordan’s headwaters, and military threats by Egypt against any country building dams in the upstream waters of the Nile. However, while some links made between conflict and water were valid, they did not necessarily represent the norm.

The only known example of an actual inter-state conflict over water took place between 2500 and 2350 BC between the Sumerian states of Lagash and Umma. Water stress has most often led to conflicts at local and regional levels. Tensions arise most often within national borders, in the downstream areas of distressed river basins. Areas such as the lower regions of China's Yellow River or the Chao Phraya River in Thailand, for example, have already been experiencing water stress for several years. Water stress can also exacerbate conflicts and political tensions which are not directly caused by water. Gradual reductions over time in the quality and/or quantity of fresh water can add to the instability of a region by depleting the health of a population, obstructing economic development, and exacerbating larger conflicts.

 Water resources that span international boundaries, are more likely to be a source of collaboration and cooperation, than war. Scientists working at the International Water Management Institute, in partnership with Aaron Wolf at Oregon State University, have been investigating the evidence behind water  and war predictions. Their findings show that, while it is true there has been conflict related to water in a handful of international basins, in the rest of the world’s approximately 300 shared basins the record has been largely positive. This is exemplified by the hundreds of treaties in place guiding equitable water use between nations sharing water resources. The institutions created by these agreements can, in fact, be one of the most important factors in ensuring cooperation rather than conflict.

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