Water and Conflict

An adult can live without food for several weeks, but only two or three days without water. Water gives life and we rely on a continuous source of safe water to stay healthy. Without a reliable source of water, life becomes unstable. When food production, sanitation, health, education, drinking, animal husbandry, etc. are threatened due to water scarcity, conflict often arises.

Water is vital to sustaining life and in many areas of the world clean, safe water is scarce. This makes water a precious resource and one that offers power to those who possess it. Competing demands for this limited source is the main reason for water-related conflict. Since water is necessary for so many activities, water management strategies must navigate among several, often competing, interests.

The interests within a nation or community are sometimes at odds with the interests of the surrounding international community, greatly complicating the pursuit of just and effective resource distribution. International water basins that include political boundaries of two or more countries cover more than 45 percent of the world’s surface, host 40 percent of the world’s population, and account for 60 percent of river flow.[1] The number of shared water sources and rivers combined with water scarcity has led many government officials to call for “water wars.” Former World Bank Vice-President, Ismali Serageldin claimed “the wars of the next century will be about water.” [2]

Despite the term of “water wars” and the specter of international conflict it raises, most water-related conflict is local. One study found the geographical scale and the intensity of the water-related conflict to be inversely related.[3] Although access to safe water is a matter of life and death, and although tension over the distribution and management of water resources gets high, some argue that “water wars” can be an inaccurate and unhelpful framework for addressing it because it ignores the role water has played in facilitating international cooperation among states as well as the key actors engaged in managing safe water sources.[4]

Water scarcity within a country that depends heavily on agriculture for its economy can cause political instability and internal strife. The unequal distribution of resources can increase conflicts within a country. Rural inhabitants who lack a stable water supply may migrate to urban areas where services are closer, leading to overcrowding and stress on already limited resources. Urban and industrial overuse of water can deprive rural farmers of the water they need for subsistence.

With increased access to sustainable sources of safe water, water-related conflicts can be avoided. Lifewater helps people have access to safe, clean water. Lifewater’s participatory approach to water development and health helps communities learn to work together. By insisting on widespread participation in gaining access to water, Lifewater helps lay a foundation for cooperation and the fair distribution of shared resources. With the right technology and social cooperation, scarcity of water does not have to lead to conflict.

For more about how access to safe water is important to taking care of people in the midst of violent conflict, see Water and Disaster.


[1] Aaron T. Wolf et al., “International River Basins of the World,” International Journal of Water Resources Development. 15 (4) (1999): 387-427.

[2] Annika Kramer, Aaron T. Wolf, Alexander Carius, Geoffrey D Dabelko, “The key to managing conflict and cooperation over water”, A World of Science, vol. 11, no.1, (Jan 2013): 6.

[3] Aaron T. Wolf, “Water and human security,” The Global Environmental Change and Human Security Project (June 1999): 35.

[4] Alexander Carius, Geoffrey D. Dabelko, Aaron T. Wolf, “Water, Conflict, and Cooperation,” Woodrow Wilson Center Environmental Change and Security Program, Iss. 10 (2004): 63.

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