Transboundary water issues affect nearly everyone. There are 276 international river basins and the United Nations has defined nearly 300 transboundary aquifers. The basin areas that contribute to these rivers comprise approximately 47% of the land surface of the Earth, include 40% of the world’s population, and contribute almost 60% of the world’s freshwater flow. Water sources for 800 million people living in 39 countries originate beyond their national borders.
Within each international basin and overlying each transboundary aquifer, the demands from environmental, domestic, economic users, and the inputs of pollution increase annually, while the amount of freshwater in the world remains roughly the same as it has throughout history. Given the scope of the problems and limited resources available to address them, water wars are inevitable.
Or are they? Surface water and groundwater crossing international boundaries present increasing challenges to regional stability because hydrologic needs can often be overwhelmed by political considerations. Yet wars are expensive, disruptive, and interfere with the efforts to relieve human suffering, reduce environmental degradation, and achieve economic growth.
The terms “Water War” and “Water Wars” are media darlings. The famous quote apocryphally attributed to U.S. humorist Mark Twain “[w]hiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over” is so overused that many water professionals are pleading to ban its use. To get a feel as to when the hysteria over water wars began, we explored Google labs tool Books Ngram Viewer which revealed that geographers were using the terms to describe water situations in the U.S. and Middle East as early as the late 1800s with an exponential increase in the use of these terms starting in 1988.
Our European colleagues Mark Zeitoun and Naho Miramachi at the University of East Anglia in Norwich chronicled the proclamations from United Nations Secretary Generals Boutros Boutros-Ghali known for his 1991 quote “the next war will be fought over water, not politics,” and Kofi Annan for his 2001 quote “[f]ierce competition for freshwater may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.”
In an article published in 2011 in Global Environment Politics, David Katz addresses the important question of whether or not the “water war hypothesis” is “Hydro-political Hyperbole”. In other words, is there a potential threat of water wars or is this media hype?
Water Wars: Myth or Reality?
The history of international water treaties regarding surface water is robust. Over 400 treaties have been inventoried by the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database hosted by Oregon State University. The earliest treaty dates back to 2500 BC, following the only documented war over water in history, in Mesopotamia along the Tigris River.
Our students’ research on the history of cooperation over groundwater resources is much less robust, with only one treaty specifically addressing transboundary groundwater; only a small percentage of the international water treaties have any provisions for groundwater.
Our research at Oregon State University on conflict “events” described in newspapers and other media over the last fifty years reveals that countries have engaged in more than 500 conflicts over water, far outweighed by more than 1,200 cooperative events.
Peter Gleick of the U.S. water think tank, the Pacific Institute, mapped the conflicts and showed that every continent has experienced a water conflict, save Antarctica.
Violent conflict has occurred at sub-national levels, but there has been no international violent conflict over transboundary waters since the mid-1960s.
Almost 90% of the events were disagreements over infrastructure and quantity allocation. Yet colleagues Zeitoun and Miramachi indicate that “all is not quiet on the waterfront. Conflicts of distribution, co-management, and utilization persist, of course, along the Nile, Mekong, Tigris, Jordan, Indus, Ganges, Amu Darya and several other transboundary rivers and aquifers” and that “not all cooperation over water is pretty and more times than not conflict and cooperation co-exist.”
What causes the tension over water? In a global review of local conflict and water, the Stockholm International Water Institute determined that the root causes of water-related conflicts included limited resources, control or distribution, quality of the resource, and large infrastructure projects.
Conflict resolution specialist Lawrence Susskind at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology writes in his blog The Consensus Building Approach that “there are societal forces (politics, economics and culture) and natural forces (water quantity, water quality and ecosystems) all of which have to be managed at the same time […] and that these six elements and the way they are configured must be looked upon as interlocking networks”.
He posits that there are three things about these networks that many water-system managers get wrong:
(1) assuming these networks can be bounded or closed – agreements or laws are formulated that prescribe who the users are, which elements will be included and excluded and what the boundaries will be when the fact of the matter is that new users and uses may appear at any time including, but not limited to, ecological and economic forces;
(2) water-system managers try to set operating rules aimed at managing a river segment in a way that makes sense on an average day, in an average year or when the system is at a stable or steady state despite all kinds of climatic, economic and demographic pushes and pulls; and
(3) most water-system managers act as if water is a limited resource and that decisions about who gets water and how it may be used are zero-sum decisions.
Colleagues Shira Yoffe and Mark Giordano assisted in the Basins at Risk project completed at Oregon State University. The research found that most of the parameters regularly identified as indicators of water conflict, such as water scarcity and climate change, are actually only weakly linked to disputes. Institutional capacity within a basin, whether defined as water management bodies or treaties, or generally positive international relations are as important, if not more so, than the physical aspects of a system.
It turns out then that very rapid changes, either on the institutional side or in the physical system, which outpace the institutional capacity to absorb that change, are at the root of most water conflicts. In related work, popular water author Sandra Postel and Wolf determined that corruption in transboundary water can cause international conflict, destabilize entire regions and lead to ecological disaster.
Environmental flows and ecosystem services are more dependent on groundwater than previously thought. Some scholars estimate that 36% of river runoff comes from groundwater, yet water management has long suffered from what Spanish water scholar Ramón Llamas refers to as a case of “hydroschizophrenia” – a term used to describe the attitude of decision-makers who minimize the role of groundwater relative to surface water resources because groundwater is “out of sight, out of mind”. This has led to the creation of separate surface water and groundwater governance and policies despite the recognition of the hydraulic connection between both hydrologic regimes.
The Silent Revolution
Groundwater use is increasing because it is a “commons” resource, available to anyone with the financial resources to drill, equip, and power a well. Pumping of groundwater is among the most intensive human-induced changes in the hydrologic cycle. Groundwater is the world’s most extracted raw material, with withdrawal rates approaching 800 to 1,000km3 per year.
The majority of the world’s cities rely on groundwater to some degree for their urban water supplies, and groundwater contributes to the global urbanization underway today. As a consequence, the global economy is becoming increasingly dependent on groundwater.
A ‘Silent Revolution’ is occurring where millions of farmers pursue short-term benefits associated with the intensive use of groundwater for agricultural use in India, China, Mexico, and Spain and the need for proactive governmental action is needed to avert water conflicts between neighboring users, user groups, states, provinces, and nations.
A comparable situation exists with permit-exempt wells typically reserved for domestic, stock, and garden use in many states within the U.S. The number of wells or shallow “water extraction mechanisms” is on the order of millions in many parts of the world as dramatic changes in drilling technology, pumping technology, and the availability of electrical and diesel power has increased over the past 60 years.
Spaghetti-Western Water Wars
The saga over permit-exempt wells in the western United States epitomizes a new type of water conflict – the spaghetti-western water war. The herd is over a million strong, and includes diverse breeds of domestic water users, livestock, and industrial wells.
In a classical sense of the spaghetti-western film genre, the language of exempt wells is one that is difficult to translate from state to state. The political melodrama of the exempt well provides land developers a low-cost approach to providing water supplies to high-priced exurban or “sagebrush” housing subdivisions found on the outskirts of cities.
The highly fluid, emotionally charged story line is cast by fading and rising stars in consulting and legal firms, well drillers, water diviners, and “hydrostitutes”, marshaled by local governments and the courts, each dueling with the other, fueling the appetite of the “hydrohydra” – the mythical multi-headed beast of the underground west that feeds on conflicts over groundwater.
Local governments as opposed to state governments are increasingly assuming water-supply planning duties. The shotgun weddings between land developers and groundwater “experts” has led jurisdictions to increasingly rely on a “prove it” approach to groundwater availability – the increased reliance on site-specific well drilling and controlled pumping tests prior to any changes in land use rather than relying on the “expert” opinions of scientists and engineers. It ain’t all good, it ain’t all bad, but it does get pretty ugly as the showdown between all of the players unfolds.
War of the Well?
Most water professionals are familiar with transboundary disputes over surface water. The media and academic journals are replete with national and international examples. Transboundary disputes associated with groundwater are less well known, but becoming increasingly newsworthy.
The U.S. State of Mississippi filed a lawsuit against the City of Memphis, Tennessee, in 2009 for capturing groundwater stored in the Memphis Aquifer underlying the State of Mississippi, for which it is seeking $1 billion in damages. Likewise, the states of Utah and Nevada continue a dispute over water stored in a shared fractured rock aquifer that will serve as part of the municipal water supply for the City of Las Vegas, Nevada, and will be conveyed through a 350-mile pipeline at a cost of nearly $4 billion.
Disputes over groundwater involve more than quantity, quality, and distribution with participation from many scientific disciplines, special interest groups, and the public. The Pacific Institute’s chronicle of conflicts over water reveals that disputes over transboundary groundwater have generally focused on contamination of wells. Yet concerns over access to water in drought-prone regions such as Somalia have heralded a new generation of conflict over groundwater. In 2006, the Washington Post reported a “War of the Well” between two neighboring clans in Somalia.
At local scales, conflicts over water may arise between parties because of the land-water nexus and the large investments required to purchase and develop the land, while at the same time trying to weigh the value of maintaining a quality of life through open-space initiatives where land development is limited or prohibited and preserving the local water quality. In both developing and developed countries, conflicts also arise due to the plethora of beliefs surrounding the occurrence of water under the land held by the various parties.
Conflicting conceptual models are part of the technical training of hydrogeologists focusing on the intellectual method of “multiple working hypotheses” introduced in the late 1890s by the first hydrogeologist in the United States, Thomas Chamberlain. The structure of the method of multiple working hypotheses revolves around the development of several hypotheses to explain the phenomena under study. The method builds the political credibility of science and makes for better science.
Disputes over groundwater resources are particularly susceptible to the dueling experts syndrome as the hidden nature of the resource means that the database of information on groundwater resources is less than ideal. In addition, the underlying premise of the field of hydrogeology is based on the concept of multiple working hypotheses. According to Australian legal scholar John Wade, common causes of conflict focus on missing information, inaccurate data, and procedures of data analysis.
While the dueling expert syndrome is good business for conflict beneficiaries, the “ruling theories”, or the antithesis of multiple ways of knowing as described by Wade, is leading to a new generation of “hydrostitutes”. These theories contribute to a loss of political credibility and a public distrust in water science, water scientists and water engineers as described by U.S. water historian and attorney Robert Glennon in his book Water Follies (2002).
Colleagues Lena Salame and Pieter van der Zaag of UNESCO argue that a new type of water manager, planner and decision-maker is required. They will be asked to act as “problem managers” rather than “problem solvers”, and act as “first-line conflict preventers” by resolving problems before they arise. Salame and van der Zaag believe, like us, that water professionals and decision-makers should receive specialized resources and skills that go beyond the traditional physical systems approach to water resources management.
Teaching philosophies must now also fit the new paradigm of the “compassionate” water resources professional proffered by Swedish water scholars Ronnie Berndtsson, Malin Falkenmark and others who conclude that university curricula for water experts must establish strong links with the socio-economic and human sciences.
The U.S. academies acknowledge the new paradigm in training water resources professionals. Civil Engineering professor and founder of Engineers without Borders Bernard Amadei, the 2009 recipient of the Engineering News Record Award of Excellence, called on engineers to be “social entrepreneurs, community builders and peacemakers”, working from the “bottom-up” on behalf of people living in poor conditions in the developing world who lack sufficient food, clean water, sanitation and electricity.
He called on his colleagues to “spend less time on the golf course” and “stop writing the stupid technical papers that people don’t read.” “Substance matters” and now has parity with process and relationships when dealing with conflicts over water.
Water scientists and decision-makers also need to act as “boundary spanners” or persons who look across disciplinary, institutional, geographic, temporal, and sense-making (framing) boundaries for the exchange of information between an organization and groundwater system as described by Dutch political scientist Jeroen Warner.
Dutch social psychologist Mark van Vugt indicates it is important to create super-ordinate identities such as regions by thinking of ways to “blur group boundaries” by implying we are all in this together. In the same light, Tushaar Shah, a groundwater economist with the International Water Management Institute developed the concept of “aquifer communities” where aquifer users in a locality are aware of their mutual vulnerability and mutual dependence in the use of a common aquifer.
Lawrence Susskind further blogs that sometimes water can be recycled or reused a second time for a second purpose if the right kind of infrastructure is put in place and cooperative administrative arrangements are maintained. Shifting away from wasteful practices is the same as adding additional water supplies. The invention of new technologies or a shift to less wasteful practices can not only save water, but also multiply its usefulness. Water supplies are not actually limited and the smart management of water networks can create the equivalent of new supplies. The issue is how to move away from zero-sum confrontations to collaborative informal problem-solving that can create “water gains”.
Why Don’t We Have Water Wars?
Conflicts over water can best be described as a “wicked” planning problem that has uncertain boundaries, defies absolute solutions, and can be a symptom of larger problems. And yet even in the international arena there are indicators of cooperation.
For example, the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was adopted by the United Nations in 1997. The UN drafted the document to help conserve and manage water resources for present and future generations. To enter into force, the document required ratification by 35 countries, and as of 2011 received 22 parties to the instrument. Regardless of the number of signatory parties, the document is considered an important step towards reaching an international law to govern water.
Likewise, the UN General Assembly adopted the Law of Transboundary Aquifers by consensus in 2008. International experts in water law and hydrogeologists worked together since 2003 to create a common language in the formulation of new sets of laws on groundwater resources, and more specifically, on the value of the immense storage capabilities of aquifers. Both the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses and the Law of Transboundary Aquifers are concrete steps towards the peaceful sharing of water resources.
But what do others have to say about the potential of water wars? In his preeminent blog Aguanomics, resource economist Dr. David Zetland states in his article on ‘Why We Don’t Have Water Wars’:
If the war is over water, then their [winners] enjoyment can be spoiled by the losers, who have many and easy ways of destroying the quality of water. […] If this should happen, then both sides lose, changing war from a zero-sum game into a negative sum game. […] This is basically an ancient form of mutual assured destruction.
Stockholm Water Prize Winner Professor J. A. “Tony” Allan pioneered the concept of “virtual” water – the invisible water embedded in traded commodities – and argues that water wars are unlikely because “trading virtual water has invisible and politically silent conflict-reducing impacts”. The concept of virtual water has been debated in the scientific literature for almost 20 years, and has become increasingly part of the international and national political discourse for about five.
Allan claims that “[f]uture transboundary hydropolitics that take into account the political economy of water as well as the role of virtual water will operate differently from current transboundary international relations.” He indicates that the dependence on international trade to achieve water security is normal as most economies are net food importers.
Jerry Delli Priscoli, a 30-year veteran mediator with the US Army Corps of Engineers helped us to understand that water compels us to think regionally, that (1) the price for control over an agreement over water is sharing ownership and cooperating in both the process and outcome of the agreement, (2) the transaction costs are escalating beyond traditional management methods, (3) the available money to identify needs is contracting, (4) the public awareness of water resources is growing and changing, and (5) the traditional legal systems are unable to cope with change.
We are strong proponents that water ignores all separations and boundaries save for those of the watershed, both the seen and unseen parts. As such, it offers a vehicle to bring those who share it together. Since it touches all we do and experience, water creates a language through which we may discuss our common future. Much of the hype about water wars is good business for conflict beneficiaries and book sales, but in reality conflicts over transboundary waters are normal, and managing that conflict offers constant opportunities for dialogue and cooperation.
Aaron T. Wolf is a professor of geography and chair of the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University. He is the Project Director of the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation. He is the co-author with Jerome Delli Priscoli of Managing and Transforming Water Conflicts (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
W. Todd Jarvis is an assistant professor of geography in the Department of Geosciences and the Associate Director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University. Both Jarvis and Wolf teach graduate courses leading up to The Certificate in Water Conflict Management and Transformation.