Water Wars: How Water Scarcity Leads to Conflict

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By: Jasmine Owens

Although water makes up 70% of the Earth, only 3% of this water is freshwater. Of this 3%, about two-thirds is trapped in glaciers and is therefore unusable. This leaves about 1% of the world’s water supply to support a population of 7.7 billion people and counting, much of which is increasingly depleted by the effects of climate change. In Cape Town, South Africa, for example, citizens were hit with severe water restrictions after a once-in-384-year drought that may force the city to turn off its water taps within the next few months.

According to the 2018 United Nations World Water Development Report, more than 5 billion people could fall victim to water shortages by 2050 due to climate change, pollution, and increasing demand from population growth. The projected population by this time is between 9.4 billion and 10.2 billion people, meaning that more than half of these individuals will experience water scarcity.  

With diminishing freshwater resources, more conflicts are likely to break out as people fight for access to water, especially in water-scarce regions like the Middle East and North Africa. These areas suffer from aridity, drought, desiccation and are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This delicate environment, as well as political instability, lends this region to have an increased potential for conflict. The Six Day War in 1967 between Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, for example, was started largely due to a water conflict. Beginning in 1953, Israel tried to divert the upper Jordan River to a pipeline that carried water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert in southern Israel.  The disagreements that ensued, coupled with other contentious factors, eventually broke out into a full-scale war between Israel and the Arab states.

Inefficient irrigation practices also aggravate the water issue, as agriculture exhausts 85% of the region’s water. This was the case in Syria, whose government heavily encouraged farmers to cultivate cotton, a very water-intensive crop that requires a lot of irrigation. Hardly anyone bothered to consider the environmental effects as the popular crop took over, becoming Syria’s second largest export after oil. Poor agricultural practices and a severe drought in the early 2000’s forced hoards of people in rural areas to migrate to already crowded urban centers overflowing with two million Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. The United States State Department noted early on the dire effects that this migration might have on the stability of the Syrian state. Sure enough, unbearable social and economic pressures were placed on the state, and a civil conflict soon broke out that is still raging today.

Lack of access to water was also exploited by ISIS in their attempts to take over territory in Iraq and Syria. In 2014, when ISIS began fighting in Syria, they sought to capture the old Soviet Tabqa dam, which is a large electricity and water source for the state. The group also tried repeatedly to gain control over the Mosul and Haditha dams, the two largest dams in Iraq. If ISIS was to have captured any of these dams, it would have had almost complete control over food production, electricity generation, and the general populations of these two countries, allowing them to more easily capture territory in those areas.

While it may not be the defining factor in generating conflicts, water scarcity can definitely serve as a catalyst to ignite already sensitive situations. Thus, with water shortages more likely to occur in the future, the likelihood of more conflicts erupting due to the effects of water scarcity will also increase.

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