• Olivia Adams

Water Scarcity as a Source of Conflict


Water scarcity today is one of the world’s most pressing problems. 783 million people worldwide do not have access to safe and clean water sources, which accounts for approximately 1 in 9 people (1). By 2025, it is estimated that more than half of the world’s nations will face freshwater shortages or stress (2). It is evident that water scarcity is real, and its implications are well-acknowledged. A lack of safe water impacts people’s livelihoods, as well as increasing one’s vulnerability to disease (3).

That being said, it’s important to understand that water scarcity issues do not only impact those 783 million people worldwide. They have the potential to impact everyone, whether you’re a Libyan citizen without a clean water source, or the average McGill student, sitting in McLennan. This is because water scarcity has significant political implications (3). International Alert, a London-based NGO focusing on peacebuilding, has identified “46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, where climate change and water-related crises create a high risk of violent conflict. A further 56 countries, representing another 1.2 billion people, are at high risk of political instability.” (1) That accounts for more than half the world’s population, at risk of violence or political conflict, due to lack of water (1). Why is water such an important determinant of political environments? It is not only essential to the everyday life of an individual, but is also crucial to a country’s trade, commerce, innovation and economic success (3).

Water becomes a particular “geopolitical flashpoint” (1) because many nations tend to share access to sources of water – for example, the Nile runs through almost a dozen countries (3). Approximately 50% of the entire world’s water supply is transnational,(4) and in two-thirds of these areas, there is no legal agreement about its use (4). This lack of legal agreements is incredibly problematic, as evidenced in the situation which occured in Egypt and Ethiopia. In 2013, Ethiopia dammed the Nile River for hydroelectric power - this damming had the potential to damage Egypt’s water source (5). Egypt’s then-president announced that he would not let Egypt’s water supply to be harmed, and threatened war (5). Fortunately, an agreement was signed between Egypt and Ethiopia in 2015, allowing dam constructing, “provided that it did not cause ‘significant harm’ to downstream countries” (5). Since then, the situation has been relatively stable, but there is always the potential that the dam will harm Egypt’s stream, and conflict will ensue. The political risk around the Nile is “far from over” (5).

Water has not only been a source of potential conflict or rising tensions, but has been identified as a main source of ongoing and past conflicts (6). For example, the extensive drought in Syria has been “partly blamed for the country’s generation-defining civil war and radicalization that led to the formation of the so-called Islamic state” (3). This is not the only instance where water has been a defining factor in a conflict – Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, recently created a 5000-year timeline of conflicts caused by water. The list begins in 3000 BC, and goes up until 2017 (6). The more recent conflicts documented include Yemen, Bangladesh, India and Darfur, all in 2017, with a total of around 400 entries (6).

These entries will continue to grow if a solution to water scarcity is not developed soon. We need more global cooperation, more support for clean water initiatives, and most importantly, more awareness. Water scarcity should be considered everyone’s problem. Simply because you as an individual have access to clean and safe water, does not mean you will not be impacted by the global issue that is water scarcity. William Ashworth, author of several books regarding water and the environment, states that “[c]hildren of a culture born in a water-rich environment, we have never really learned how important water is to us. We understand it, but we do not respect it” (7). It is time for us to move past this, and understand how important water is, and the consequences of losing it. Water scarcity causes not only a threat to individuals, but to entire nations. If we do not act, we will all be affected. Mark Twain was right, long ago, when he stated “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting about.” (8)

  1. The Water Project, 2017. “Water Stats,” https://thewaterproject.org/water-scarcity/water_stats

  2. Water Politics, 2017. http://www.waterpolitics.com

  3. Bryan Lufkin, 2017. “Why ‘Hydro-Politics Will Shape the 21st Century,” BBC News, June 2017 http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170615-why-hydro-politics-will-shape-the-21st-century

  4. The Guardian, 2015 “The Observer View on Water as a Global Political Issue”, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/05/observer-view-on-global-water-shortage

  5. Davis Anderson, 2016. “Water Scarcity Risk: Not Just a Local Political Issue”, Risk Management Monitor http://www.riskmanagementmonitor.com/water-scarcity-risk-not-just-a-local-political-issue/

  6. Peter Gleick, 2017. “Water Conflict Chronology List” Pacific Institute http://www2.worldwater.org/conflict/list/

  7. Conserve Energy Future, “What is Water Scarcity?” https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/causes-effects-solutions-of-water-scarcity.php

  8. Davis, Sandra, 2011. “The Politics of Water Scarcity in the Western States” The Social Science Journal, Volume 38, Issue 4, p. 527-542


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