top of page

International water conflicts: diplomacy and politics

1. Introduction

As a famous quote goes, “if there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water . . .” Water in itself is magical and precious as it brings life and nourishment to all living creatures. Water is the first and most important entity that scientists and astronomers in space were/are looking for, as it is essential for human life and other living beings. Water is necessary for life for every creature. Therefore, water is essential and the most valuable commodity for our existence and sustenance. Since water is an essential and unchangeable entity, therefore, it is categorised as a national resource that needs to be protected and exploited for the benefit of a nation and its people. Rivers and aquifers have served as both sources of human growth and development and as sites of war and conflict between two or more groups of people. Conflicts around the great rivers such as Nile, Euphrates, SyrDayar, Ganges and other rivers are the sight of these endless conflicts. These water resources not only bring life to people but also bestow identity and culture upon them, and the cultural values associated with rivers and other water resources make it difficult for any nation to distribute and share them with other communities. Furthermore, the creation of a nation’s geographical boundaries has intensified the conflict between the upstream and downstream countries – with downstream countries often blaming the upstream countries for trying to manoeuvre the natural flow of shared rivers through building dams and hydroelectric power plants. The lower riparian states suffer from drought and insufficient water resources, which are necessary for the growth of agricultural and industrial sectors for their economic growth.

In his book Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin contends that "pressure on the resource due to human population growth, technological change, or economic change, including new market opportunities, may contribute to the breakdown of the communal-property mechanism for exclusion" [1].. Hardin rightly emphasises two primary mechanisms in the tragedy of commons, i.e., population and technology or economic change. These two changes have seemingly intensified the degradation and scarcity of limited natural resources, leading to tensions between the various actors managing and facilitating these resources. International water conflicts are a subset of the larger tragedy of the commons, in which common water resources and/or shared water rivers, aquifers, and groundwater have been polarised by various political and transnational regimes. Climate change has become a major issue for transnational and non-governmental organizations, with emphasis on the melting of glaciers (a source of drinking water) and draughts in many parts of the world caused by an increase in atmospheric temperature each year. The pressure on sovereign nations to preserve and protect their insubstantial water resources has mounted in the last few centuries. Finally, urbanisation and global cities have also contributed to the growing water tensions within and between nations. The megacities are the attractions of political regimes, non-governmental organizations, migrations, economic development, and tourism. Industries and hotel industries require fresh water for commercial purposes. In his article, the United States and International Water Policy, Ken Conca writes, "... U.S. foreign water policy has a strong overlay of the neoliberalism that reshaped development aid practises more generally in the 1990s, with its emphasis on privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, and competitiveness". Privatization of freshwater has led to various domestic and international conflicts and raised human rights issues around water as a necessary commodity to be distributed rather than a commodity to be exploited through capitalistic exploitation.

International water conflicts (IWC) are multifaceted, such as climate change, dam development, neoliberalism and privatization, cultural and historical importance, and downstream and upstream tensions. In this paper, the writer will broadly discuss various regimes associated with IWC and its challenges in water management. The research will also shed light on the contemporary debates on the riparian states and their importance in the nation's economy and development. Furthermore, I will also discuss several water conflicts in the world – specifically, the Nile water conflict in Northern Africa, the Jordan River Conflict between Israel and Palestine, the Syr-Dayar River Conflict in Central Asia, and the Ganga-Brahmaputra River Conflict between India and its eastern neighbouring countries. These conflicts will be presented as a chain in presenting the undergirded presumptions and positions of the upstream countries and how the sovereignty of a particular nation is emphasised and de-emphasised for their national benefits. Therefore, the research will be an integrated work of several scholars around water conflicts in domestic and transnational contexts and the evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of approaches such as entitlement, distributive, Malthusian (historical and cultural significance of rivers and aquifers), hydro-hegemonic, management and administrative, and environmental and global governance and diplomacy. The rivers and freshwater resources are considered common properties at a domestic and international level, which requires various management and government regimes to facilitate and preserve these resources and maximize their usage for mutual benefits.

2. Review of the Commons

Hardin writes that the tragedy of the commons is because of two primary factors: rapid growth in the human population and technological advancement. Transboundary rivers and freshwater resources are invaluable sources of the Green Revolution, hydroelectricity, water reservoirs, and industrial production. Nevertheless, these resources, as invaluable as they are, could also lead to conflict and tensions between the stakeholders. For instance, the rapid increase in the population raises the demand for freshwater within a country. Therefore, in order to meet these demands, national policies are formulated to maximise the usage of these water reservoirs. Water consumption leads to the problem of scarcity on various fronts, such as the agricultural and industrial sectors, along with the ever-growing need for electricity. Therefore, nations are under more pressure to confront these ‘basic’ needs of their citizens through several means of maximising water consumption. Georg Frerks et al. note that “the nexus between natural resources and conflict was centred on the issue of resource scarcity and was three-cornered: a neo-Malthusian, a neoclassical economist and a distributionist approach”. The correlation between demand and consumption is intrinsic to further understanding the scarcity of water for the ever-growing human population in the world. Pressure arises between the upstream and downstream countries to address the concerns of water scarcity through various socio-political and economic regimes on national and international fronts.

2.1 The Commons Entitlement School

The entitlement school advocates for the rights of traditional users of these common resources. For instance, rivers and aquifers are common properties for the various communities and ethnic groups. Peter Linebaugh presented the legalisation of timber and theft of wood in modern Europe as a principle of primitive accumulation in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in his work, Karl Marx, the Theft of Woods, and Working-Class Composition: A Contribution to Current Debate. The legislation and institutionalisation of the European forest for wood picking have not only deprived local communities of their dependence on these common resources but have also criminalised or forced them to move to urban industries for employment. Similarly, the state's control over the rivers and water resources has deprived the local communities of profiting from their dependability over these resources. The privatisation and commercialization of the water reservoir have furthered the misery of local communities as they can no longer draw water from the rivers and use it for agricultural and small-scale industrial purposes.

In their work on Himalayan Water Resources: Ecological and Political Aspects of Management, JayantaBandhopadhyay and Dipak Gyawali write that "urban societies and industry have been the beneficiaries, while remote mountain societies and subsistence farmers on the plains and foothills have to bear much of the cost". The macro-level water management for the urban population and hydroelectricity generation has affected the historically dependent communities in the mountains and foothills. This legislation and the institutionalisation of these resources have led to various environmental and humanitarian concerns. Furthermore, the building of hydroelectric dams and the commercialization of common resources have raised geopolitical concerns with the neighbouring countries, who accuse the upstream countries of manipulating the natural flow of the river, depriving the downstream countries of sufficient water resources. For instance, Bangladesh has accused India of meddling in the construction of the Farrakabarrage in West Bengal because it would severely restrict the flow of water in the riparian states in their country—thus jeopardising the agricultural and industrial sectors of Bangladesh.

2.2 Collective Actions on Common Properties

The proposal from the entitlement school advocates for collective actions between the top-down and bottom-up regimes – a combination of state policies with regional and communal collaboration and consultation. Thomas Dietz et al in their article on The Struggle to Govern the Commons commenting on the decline of large predatory fishes in the ocean write “the threat of massive ecosystem degradation results from an interplay among ocean ecologies, fishing technologies, and inadequate governance”. Similarly, Rakesh Tiwari illustrates the newly independent development model in which the building of dams was considered the temple of independent India and a stepping stone towards economic and national development. The development around the mega-structure and the control of water have created indigenous and local concerns in the riverbeds and riparian states as the local farmers and fisheries have been directly affected by these projects. The lack of sediment has led to several floods in the downstream riparian regions, often causing irreversible soil erosion. Downstream riparian states have faced the dual challenges of lack of water supply and soil degradation, which is necessary for irrigation and cultivation. Water management has grown to be the most challenging concern among the local communities, as they have directly felt the stress of macro water management and national policies on mega projects. However, these local concerns have often been neglected in the backdrop of the geo-politics of water management. Countries have contested their share of rivers and aquifers in order to benefit from the maximum use of their common or shared water resources. As a result, it is necessary to examine how international water conflicts on rivers and aquifers have been resolved and/or failed to be resolved in the context of development and environmental challenges.

3. Case Studies on International Water Conflict: The Setting of Contexts for Various National and Global Politics on Water

The common properties shared by two or more nations have led to endless conflicts, which Mary Kaldor refers to as ‘new wars’. M. Kaldor goes on to argue that historically, most of the conflicts and wars were fought in the developed and industrialised countries in Europe and America over the control of resources. However, in the post-World War II era, there has been a shift in conflicts and "new wars"in developing countries over ecological resources, cultural identities, and religious affiliations. One of the reasons for such wars and conflicts is over shared freshwater resources. According to Kaldor, the new wars are waged around these resources and last longer than the traditional territorial and dominion wars of the pre-World War era. The post-World War led to the creation of the sovereign nations, thus restricting the realist aspect of war as an expansionist strategy and a means for economic and political dominion. However, the expansionist strategies of war have replaced the control of natural resources, or commons, as a means of economic development. In this section, I will portray some of those conflicts over shared and transboundary rivers across the world, rising from the context of scarcity and environmental concerns.

3.1 Central Asian Transboundary River Conflicts

Water conflicts in these regions, according to Sharmila L. Murthy and Fatima Mendikulova, are caused by poor governance and management rather than scarcity, unlike in the Asian and African regions. They go on to say that the world's history would be unfavourable to water as an exclusive reason for war. It is contestable that water is the sole reason for communities to wage war or lead to extreme conflicts. There have been instances regarding water as an intrinsic reason for conflict between various communities and a means of dominating position over a particular region. For instance, the Indus valley and the Nile rivers are classic examples of the growth of civilization around major water resources – providing water for sanitation and agricultural purposes, but also essential for the development of a region and its position within the larger geographical landscape.

The Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers run through several Central Asian countries including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. The Syr Darya is often referred to as the ‘pearl’ of Central Asia because of its rich, lush, and diverse landscape. Various development regimes in upstream countries adopted cotton cultivation as their primary source of national income during the post-Soviet era. The building of dams and water reservoirs in Kyrgyzstan has raised dissatisfaction and concerns in the downstream riparian states. Sharmila L. Murthy and Fatima Mendikulova inform us that “the poor management of water in the region has led to an environmental catastrophe: the Aral Sea has now shrunk to 10% of its original size, with deserts replacing finishing villages”. The environmental catastrophes have also been reflected in the drastic change of local agriculture and fisheries, causing domestic and national conflicts in different regions. These conflicts have often taken the form of geo-political shapes as the upstream and downstream countries grow in tension with each other over the mutual benefits of water resources. Barbara Janusz-Pawletta and Mara Gubaidullina, in their work on Transboundary Water Management in Central Asia, argue that the upstream countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have limited fossil fuel reserves and therefore reserve water during winter for energy generation. The storage of water has deprived the downstream countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan of sufficient water for irrigation and industrial usage. The dilemma of storing water for hydroelectricity and releasing water for irrigation and industrial purposes has also led to water management and governance issues, with each country attempting to meet its own national needs at the cost of the downstream riparian states.

3.2 Aqua-Conflicts in Africa

Adams Loo, writing on The Quest for Cooperation in the Nile Water Conflicts, says that the Nile river is one of the most unique and challenging international river basins because of its remoteness and disproportionate level of development within the basin, with barely any meaningful cooperation and agreement among the ten riparian states. The length of the river is around 6700 kilometres, stretching from the Egypt Delta to subsequent countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Loo estimates that around 300 million people in Africa depend directly on the Nile river as their primary source of freshwater, while 140 million others use other aquifers such as groundwater sources. The conflict over the Nile arises with Egypt as the hydro-hegemon, while the lower riparian states are poorly developed and left in extreme poverty. Water management in the lower basins is often severely penurious while the hydro-hegemon maximises the utilisation of the river for domestic and industrial purposes. The conflict arises from a lack of cooperation and unstable governance. The formation of ‘African Unions’ was primarily to address the water conflict issues in the African riparian states through bilateral and multilateral levels.

Furthermore, Africa has been one of the driest regions in the world with limited water resources. Therefore, the conflict over water is more intense compared to other parts of the world. Kelechi Johnmary Ani et al. inform us, “in the last 20 years, a country like Niger had lost more than 80 percent of their freshwater wetlands”, Chad, Central African Republics etc., have also been hit with water scarcities. Rights over water resources are contested at various levels as colonial powers invested sovereignty over the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan, respectively. The downstream riparian states were forbidden to use the natural resources for their national water needs and development while they also faced extreme poverty. The waves of globalisation hit with a rise in industries and tourism, bearing more and more burdens on countries for freshwater supplies for commercial purposes, while the citizens had to depend on poorly managed water resources and face scarcities, leading to 80% of water-borne diseases in the regions. These challenges around water and its severe effects have led to various water conflicts in the African regions, with endless negotiations and cooperation but with minimum resolution and limited results. For instance, the Omo dam construction threatened the lives of millions of indigenous and local farmers living in the Omo river basin. Ani states that “the Kenyan government had ‘sold-off' the people of Turkana in exchange for hydroelectric power diplomacy that is sourced from Ethiopia by building a dam on the river Omo6. The project was later suspended in 2008 as the Kenyan government, along with UNESCO, condemned the construction of the dam as a poor measure of environmental and local concerns in the region.

3.3 The Brahmaputra Water Conflict Between India and Bangladesh

The Ganga-Brahmaputra river system is one of the most contested and second-largest hydraulic river basins in the world, covering over 1.75 million square kilometres. The Brahmaputra river flows from the only non-Antarctic glaciers in the Himalayas in China and Nepal, flowing downwards through the countries of India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. China and India are the two hydro-hegemons in the river basin, controlling the river within their sovereign regions. The conflict between India and Bangladesh goes as far back as the independence of India. Soon after the independence of India, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru invested his energies in building dams and highways. The FarakkaBarrage project raised concerns between East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and India over the control and distribution of water in the lower riparian states. Agricultural industries were the bedrock of both countries' gross domestic products; water is the most valuable resource not only for consumption and sanitation but also for agricultural and industrial purposes.

Rakesh Tiwari rightly points out that “India’s dominant position in the subcontinent in terms of size, population, economic, and technological capacities and a considerably stable political system have placed it in a potential hegemonic relationship with other riparian states”. On the other hand, in her book Water-Related Issues in South Asia: Conflict in the Making, Huma Baqai accuses India of failing to inform its upstream neighbour, Nepal, and downstream neighbour, Bangladesh, about the construction of the Farakka dam. International law governing shared natural resources requires the participation of all parties involved in any decision that may affect one or more of them. However, China poses a greater threat to India’s position as the middle country between the downstream and upstream riparian states. The hegemonic power of China in the Himalayas and Tibet has become significantly important in the water politics within the South Asian countries, as India and China both claim sovereign authorities over the watercourses in their respective countries, leaving the lower riparian (less powerful) states to seek negotiations through bilateral and multi-lateral initiatives. Non-governmental actors such as NGOs and transnational governance have benefited from these conflicts as they mediate between the countries' various scientific and development initiatives.

4. The Politics and Diplomacy around International Water Conflicts

The governance of common properties, particularly shared-water resources, has several national and international actors advocating for the equal distribution, preservation, and management of these valuable resources. The conundrum between the micro and macro management of water by local, national, and international actors has led to several conflicts, especially for the local communities who are direct inhabitants of these resources. The national economic model is often led by development in infrastructure and big projects, severely affecting the historical inhabitants of these resources, along with environmental challenges. Some of those international conflicts between the national and international fronts are the Nile river, SyrDayar river, and Ganga-Brahmaputra river conflicts, amongst many others. These conflicts are unique geopolitical and cultural conflicts in their own right. However, there are different governance and political regimes overlapping in each conflict. Basically, the national and global politics around shared-water resources revolves around the development of hydroelectricity dams, management campaigns, geological sovereignty and the rivers flowing into and from a particular country, and dialogue between two or more countries and/or other non-governmental actors.

Development and economic growth have pressured the hegemonic powers to build dams to control and use water for their population and commercial purposes. The belief in megastructures and development was a significant change in politics post-World War II. Countries such as India, China, the United States, Israel, the USSR, Egypt, and the Republics of Africa put their faith in building dams for hydroelectricity and agriculture. Territorial development was a reaction to the pre-modern expansionist world order; countries were focused on maximising the use of their natural resources within their sovereign territories, as territorial wars were condemned and forbidden. International law on water and natural resources has also been sought after in order to find resolution and peace over contested common properties. ‘Harmon doctrine’ is one such treaty that sovereign nations are expected to be amended with. Dan Tarlock writes in his article Four Challenges of International Water Law, "Harmon’s Doctrine articulated by the United States claims that what falls on a nation stays there as a matter of privilege". As a result, the construction of dams and megastructures around bodies of water has become the norm around the world – each country focusing on its own resources and using them to grow its domestic and national economies. However, the conflicts were soon escalated as the maximum utilisation of natural resources put risks on the neighbouring countries who share these resources – in this context, the international rivers. Hydro-hegemony has led to several local and international disputes over water.The lower riparian states have raised allegations against the upstream hegemons of interference in the natural flow of rivers by building hydraulic dams. Bandyopadhyay and Gyawali talk about the two environmental challenges posed by the building of hydroelectricity structures, i. e. flood and draught. The SyrDayar and Nile rivers are excellent examples of how the construction of dams has resulted in severe water shortages and draught in many regions, forcing people to migrate and/or escalate tensions in the region. Flooding is another environmental challenge associated with the building of highways and dams as it lowers the quantity of sediments in the river, preventing the water from overflowing from the river. Bandypodhyay and Gyawali state that “the devastating flooding of Bangladesh in 1987 and 1988, and the associated extensive human suffering, generated global concern for the achievement of a permanent solution”. Sovereignty in this particular context therefore depends on the mutual benefit of the shared countries. Ravi Tiwari has advocated for ‘restricted sovereignty’ around common natural resources or international river conflicts as a solution for conflict resolution and cooperation.

Management and cooperation have also become an important point of discussion in the bilateral and multilateral management of the shared water basins. There are multiple levels of cooperation between the shared parties, such as international platforms for dialogue and communication around the river projects, mutual beneficiary policies, non-governmental involvement through science and technology, and others. However, Aaron T. Wolf has argued for a historical account of water management in the distance and recent past as a point of context for conflict resolution and distribution. He illustrates Jordan and Israel's water resolution through an initiative between UNESCO and regional leaders by writing “the History of Jordan Basin Management”. The problem with the historiography of water basins is that it is more complicated than it might first appear. Each party has its own socio-cultural and religious claims over water, which creates an issue in writing any comprehensive history of these river basins. Furthermore, hegemonic powers can often use their institutional power to rewrite history in favour of their national interests.Finally, the Berlin Rules, formerly known as the Helsinki Rules, (2006) are articulated as “a progressive vision of shared river management with enhanced environmental protection duties”. As pointed out earlier, the environmentalist lobbies have also put pressure on the upstream riparian states to reduce their diversion of river basins through hydroelectricity dams. International water law administers the protection of the natural flow of rivers and aquifers as it is closely associated with soil erosion and landslides in the lower riparian states.

5. Conclusion

International water conflicts arise from the larger scholarship on commons in general. However, it takes an interesting shape as it involves geographical advantages (upstream and downstream riparian states). Shared-river conflicts have accelerated in the last century with advancements in technology and political changes. The economic regimes of non-territorial expansions such as neoliberalism and globalisation have stressed countries' need to exploit natural resources at a rapid pace, leading to tension and conflicts with neighbouring states and/or nations. The Nile, SyrDayar, and Ganga-Brahmaputra river conflicts are central to global discussions and management regimes on international river basins because they pose a variety of geopolitical, economic, health, and socio-cultural challenges.The politics and governance have often arisen with bilateral resolution between the conflicting nations. However, bilateral negotiations often fail to resolve and bring peace in conflicted regions due to a lack of communication and trust amongst the neighbouring countries. International politics and transnational governance have tried to bridge these gaps and administer rather neutral and mutually-beneficial interests. Nevertheless, the transnational agencies have also had their own agendas and interests, which makes it difficult to bring reconciliation and restoration amongst the conflicting nations. To conclude, the collective actions of the indigenous people and local communities, along with national and transnational governance, need to become the norm in managing and protecting these natural resources.

Work Cited

Aaron T. Wolf, International Water Conflict Resolution: Lessons from Comparative Analysis, Vol. 13, No. 3, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 1997.

Ani, Kelechi Johnmary, Maryam M. Jungudo, and Victor Ojakorotu. "Aqua-Conflicts and Hydro- Politics in Africa: Unfolding the Role of African Union Water Management Interventions." Journal of African Union Studies 7, no. 1 (2018).

Baqai,Huma.“Water-RelatedIssuesinSouthAsia:ConflictsintheMaking.”PakistanHorizon, vol. 58, no. 3, 2005.

Barbara Janusz-Pawletta and Mara Gubaidullina, Transboudary Water Management in Central Asia. Legal Framework to Strengthen Interstate Cooperation and Increase Regional Security, Open Edition Journals, 2019.

Bandyopadhyay, Jayanta, and Dipak Gyawali. "Himalayan Water Resources: Ecological and Political Aspects of Management." Mountain Research and Development 14, no. 1 (1994).

Conca, Ken. "The United States and International Water Policy." The Journal of Environment & Development 17, no. 3 (2008).

Dietz, Thomas, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern. "The Struggle to Govern the Commons." Science 302, no. 5652 (2003): 1907.

Feeny, David, FikretBerkes, Bonnie J. McCay, and James M. Acheson. "The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later." Human Ecology 18, no. 1 (1990).

GerogFrerks, Ton Dietz and Pieter van der Zaag, Conflict and cooperation on natural resources: Justifying the CoCooN programme: Conflicts over Natural Resources in the Global South, Ed. Maarten Bvinck, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Erik Mostert, (London: Tylor and Francis Group, 2014).

Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243. Accessed September 20, 2020.

Kaldor, M., 2013. In Defence of New Wars. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 2(1), p.Art. 4.

Linebaugh P. (1981) Karl Marx, the Theft of Wood and Working-class Composition. In: Platt T., Takagi P. (eds) Crime and Social Justice. Critical Criminology series. Palgrave, London.

RakeshTiwary.“ConflictsoverInternationalWaters.”EconomicandPoliticalWeekly,vol.41,no. 17, 2006, pp.1688.

Tarlock, A. Dan. "Four Challenges for International Water Law." Tulane Environmental Law Journal 23, no. 2 (2010).

Kaldor, M., 2013. In Defence of New Wars. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 2(1), p.Art. 4.

Murthy, Sharmila L., and Fatima Mendikulova. "Water, Conflict, and Cooperation in Central Asia: The Role of International Law and Diplomacy." Vermont Journal of Environmental Law 18, no. 3 (2017.

Mirumachi, N., and E. Van Wyk. "Cooperation at Different Scales: Challenges for Local and International Water Resource Governance in South Africa." The Geographical Journal 176, no. 1 (2010)

Oloo, Adams. "The Quest for Cooperation in the Nile Water Conflicts: The Case of Eritrea." African Sociological Review / Revue Africaine De Sociologie 11, no. 1 (2007).

374 views0 comments
bottom of page