WATER SECURITYShared Water Resources: Source of Both Peace and Conflict

By Ruby Russell

Published 6 April 2022

From the Euphrates to the Mekong, dams that ensure one country’s water supply risk leaving others parched. But shared water resources can be a source of peace as well as conflict.

Early in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow announced that it had bombed a dam on the North Crimean Canal. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukraine erected the dam, blocking a vital water supply to the occupied territory and resulting in severe water shortages. 

The war in Ukraine is not being fought over Crimea’s water supply. But the Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology details examples of wateras a weapon, casuality or trigger of conflict going back millennia. Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict at Uppsala University in Sweden and former UNESCO chair for international water cooperation, says Crimea’s water supply is another example of this. 

Yet shared water resources can also be an opportunity for cooperation. Even in Crimea, had the international community engaged Russia and Ukraine in how to solve the humanitarian issue of water, it might have “given them a possibility or a forum to negotiate, to discuss how to address this issue, and also solve other issues,” Ashok says. 

Water Tensions 
Some 40 percent of the global population lives on rivers that cross international borders. And with the climate crisis leaving more regions suffering from drought, how to share these essential resources equitably has raised high-profile tensions around the world.

In February, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam finally switched on, despite ongoing objections from Egypt and Sudan, who have long feared the dam’s impact on their farmlands further down the Nile. 

Dams springing up along the Mekong River in China, meanwhile, have been blamed for drought in Thailand and Cambodia. And tensions between rivals India and Pakistan have been rising over their shared waters in the Indus River basin. 

The Water Peace and Security online tool built by the World Resources Institute and others, shows a map of our planet peppered with tensions over water that threaten to turn violent. Yet, Scott Moore, author of “Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins,” says such unrest mainly happens within countries, rather than between them. 

International tensions over water, Moore says, rarely escalate into full-blown conflict. And when disputes do flare, water is often a proxy for other issues. 

The intuition is that it’s water that’s the cause of tension and conflict, whereas I would say it’s typically the reverse — where geopolitical tensions or economic disputes become translated into water,” Moore says.