No Water Wars?

Last month, the Taliban and Iran violently clashed over water rights along their shared border.

Though the battle lasted only two hours, the incident seemed to contradict a prevailing consensus in academic literature that wars have not and will not be fought over water. But water mismanagement’s contribution to conflict and instability is difficult to isolate—while it rarely causes war, it exacerbates tensions, undermines cooperation, and strengthens hardline voices. In a vicious cycle, it then becomes a victim of ongoing hostilities and lack of cooperation.

For three decades, a debate over the future of water wars has raged on. In the 1990s, scholars and high-ranking officials from UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to the vice president of the World Bank warned that increased water scarcity and rising populations would lead to wars over water. Aaron Wolfe at Oregon State University and other water experts discredited the theory using extensive databases that tabulated every recorded instance of cooperation or dispute over water.

For over 20 years, this camp emphasized that cooperation, not conflict, typifies struggles over water. The argument is essentially that no war has been fought solely over water for thousands of years of human history. Between 1945 and 1999, instances of cooperation between riparian countries outnumbered conflicts by two to one. Water, even in arid regions, does not typically culminate in conflict. To make the case, these experts often cite the hundreds of water treaties signed throughout history. Though European and North American countries signed two-thirds of those treaties, according to one study, only 31 treaties were signed in Asia (which includes the Middle East in the study) for five river basins, each shared by four or more countries.

Decades of mismanaged water resources are putting stress on the maintenance of peace within and across borders.

Fast forward to 2023, and many of those limited treaties and agreements are falling apart in the Middle East. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam challenges Egypt’s supremacy over Blue Nile waters that derives from a 60-year-old treaty. Turkey regularly withholds its promised allocations of the Euphrates River to Syria, according to a 1987 agreement. While war has not broken out, riparian countries are increasingly involved in each other’s ongoing conflicts. Upstream countries have also taken advantage of weakened and conflict-affected riparian states. Both Turkey and Ethiopia have built substantial dams when conflict or unrest shook Syria and Iraq and Egypt and Sudan, respectively. The lack of cooperation and transparency during this period has then led to less efficient water basin management and rising tensions.

Not only are governments failing to efficiently manage water resources with other countries, they are failing within their borders as well. Middle Eastern governments have long traded services—including water and other perks—for loyalty and stability. As such, water is free or cheap in the most water-scarce region in the world. This patronage system is catching up with governments that can no longer meet demand. Water scarcity and dilapidated or inefficient water infrastructure endangers health and livelihoods.

As the social contract breaks down, people are taking to the streets. In Iraq, citizens blame Turkey for their water woes but they increasingly put pressure on their government to resolve them. Lebanese and Jordanians protest their governments’ failure to provide adequate or clean water. To deflect blame, politicians often lash out at refugees or upstream countries. There has been no resulting interstate war but tensions are mounting between and within countries. In the meantime, the governance issues that provoked the Arab Spring and the devastating conflicts that followed remain unresolved.

Although a war solely over water is unlikely, low-intensity conflict is already there. Localized conflicts and unrest directly over water within countries are a regular and a common feature in many countries in the Middle East. Tribes in southern Iraq engage in deadly blood feuds that can often be traced back to conflict over water. Militias and soldiers in Iraq have also killed civilians protesting over water resources. In a vicious cycle, this violence and instability degrades the trust needed for water cooperation and institution-building between and across borders, further aggravating tensions.

Water insecurity also severely degrades development indicators. Decades of water insecurity in places like Yemen and Sudan have increased conflicts at the local level and devastated food security. Even more insidious that direct conflicts over water, this persistent fragility then exposes these countries to foreign intervention and exploitation and makes them more susceptible to conflict.

Water drives conflict, even if there are not any so-called water wars.

Experts opposed to the water wars argument acknowledge that water causes internal conflicts but claim that water disputes rarely lead to full-scale wars. Per their argument, cooperation over water resources prevails because the costs of non-cooperation or even war are so catastrophic. While a war is not likely to be declared over water, current tensions drive instability and poorly functioning states cannot maintain peace locally, which can easily spiral into cross-border conflicts.

Acknowledging the benefits of cooperation over conflict is important. But rather than argue the merits of a polarizing question on the potential for water wars, a deeper analysis of broader regional dynamics may improve the chances for peace and sustainable water usage. Wars rarely, if ever, have a single cause and more often stem from multiple sources of friction.

An exploration of the nuanced ways that water insecurity feeds into conflict and vice versa would enable politicians and technocrats to better understand the gravity of failing to cooperate and efficiently manage this vital resource. As the birthplace of settled agriculture and the most water-scarce region in the world, the no-longer-fertile Fertile Crescent serves as a harbinger of things to come elsewhere. However, if governments can get it right in the Middle East, the region could provide lessons for all countries facing increased scarcity and conflict.

The recent cross-border conflict between Afghanistan and Iran did not come out of the blue. If water experts and regional specialists had been following how shifting political dynamics and the history of conflict between the two countries might affect water, they would have seen it coming. In 1973, with the help of U.S. mediation, Afghanistan and Iran signed the Helmand River-Water Treaty. After years of Iran interfering in Afghanistan’s conflict, the Islamic Republic is now asking the new Taliban government to adhere to its obligations. However, Afghanistan under the Taliban is unwilling, and with Afghanistan being more isolated than ever before since the U.S. withdrawal, the chances for outside mediation are more challenging today. In the meantime, Afghanistan is building more dams without riparian dialogue. How Afghanistan manages these resources will be the difference between fragility and conflict and peace and stability even if it doesn’t make headlines again as a water war.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.