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Water Wars

by Luke Hally

Traditional conflict modelling peacebuilding policy implementation has of late not taken into consideration the gravity and extent of contribution of the impact of water resource access has upon conflict-prone regions. This potent strategic resource has played a significant part within contemporary examples of conventional conflict. Examples that will only increase in severity and gravity as populations begin to grow and climate becomes more volatile in its ever-changing form. 

Consecutive modern conflicts have had core undertones of water rights and access to clean drinking water as a stipulation of engagement and justification for war aims. Notable of these has been the Tajik/Kyrgyz border skirmish, the 2021 Ukrainian crisis, and the Sahel tribal conflicts. Water control plays an ever-pressing theme in the development of larger regional disputes, such as the Indian subcontinent and the Egyptian/ Ethiopian dam crisis.

With climate change as an underpinning causation of global conflict of the 21st century, the factors of cause and effect are witnessed within a range of disputes and conflicts of the contemporary era. Freshwater access and control remain central to this development. The control of water has long been utilised as a potent tool in warfare, with notable examples going back as far as the Peloponnesian War. During the battle of Mantinea in 418 BC. a Spartan alliance defeated an alliance led by Argos and Athens, by diverting the course of the Saradapotamos River to flood Mantineian territory and dislodge enemy combatants. The scale of the control and use of water as a weapon of war should also be taken into consideration when analysing modern disputes. This is reflected through modern dam construction, with an ability to flood delta plains of neighbouring states and has become more efficient through the mechanised element of artificial modern dam technology.

The environmental pressure of drought is playing an active and engaged threat to global stability and access. The contemporary examples where this has played a central and pressing theme, have been witnessed in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis of 2021, where the threat of drought underpins Russian efforts to successfully sustain and assimilate the occupied territory of Crimea. The central aspect of the crisis principally revolved around access rights to the freshwater ways of the North Crimean Canalway, which since the invasion has been closed off by Ukraine. This closure has resulted in a severe drought inflicted on Crimea, exacerbated further by an influx of population boom of Russian settlers. Since 2014, 205,559 Russian settlers have established themselves in the region. Climate change factors of more extreme weather variables have also contributed to this drought, with 2020 being the driest record year in Crimean history. This has impacted the region to the scale of water rationing in all of the major cities. The conflict threat basis is established over the zero-sum game of Russian retaking of Crimea, with conflict an option on the table for Russia to ensure the threat of water depletion and access is mitigated, which brings the centrality of the North Crimean canal into question.

A pertinent example of where this basis of water access in regions prone to conflict has arisen within the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict in April of 2021. The catalyst had arisen partly due to access control of one of the few water pump stations supplying the region. The distribution system located on the Ak-Suu River is a strategically important asset for claimants along the disputed border area, pocketed by enclaves through Soviet deliminination policies. Tajik forces attempted to seize the Golovnoy water disruptor in order to strengthen their claims and strategic control over a region whose economy is rooted in water-intensive agriculture. The dispute also held a further reflection of the importance of river source control and supply to reservoirs within the territory of a nation-state, notably in this case being the Tortkul Reservoir. These elements served as a core catalyst instigating a border conflict that left 40,000 civilians displaced, and 55 combatants killed over 3 days of clashes.

The Sahel theatre has become the most pressing example of water access becoming an instigator and motivator for violent substate conflict. This access to arable land and freshwater is further exacerbated by the desert climate of the region itself. The conflict has an inseparable intertwinement with the effects of climate change and has led to a range of external actors becoming involved in efforts to stabilise the region, notably France under Operation Barkhane. In Mali, the conflict has taken a drastic development towards ethnic conflict between the tribal groups of the Dogon and Fulani, who are competing for arable and grazing land access. Water plays a central part in this contributor, with it being instrumental in supporting arable land in the region. Unfortunately, the impacts of land quality deterioration have been heightened due to lack of rainfall and rising temperatures. The temperature increase is rising at a rate 1.5 times higher than the mean global temperature increases. This rapid increase is then contributing to water holes drying up and an 80 % degradation in arable farmland in the region.

The impact of water control access plays a strong contributor to both substate and interstate conflicts. This is even more evident in the Indian subcontinent line of control conflicts bordering Chinese held territory and the East African Nile dam dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. The pertinence of water access in interstate conflict reflects an even more heightened variable of conflict inducing catalysts as the strategic impetus of its control acts as a measure of casus belli. With the rate of dam construction in Chinese territory set at 87,000 dams for its internal rivers, the international rivers that flow out into the Indian subcontinent will take centre stage in renewed dam construction at their source points.  The dam construction of the Tibetan plateau threatens the source control and freshwater access of the downstream nations, notably India. Two main Indian subcontinent rivers, the Indus and the Ganges both have source points within the plateau of Asia’s aptly named ‘water tower’. Control of the source points will inevitably lead to significant tension as China looks to increase its hegemony in the Asian continent. The same pretence to rising tension in interstate conflict is applicable to the development of dam works by Ethiopia on the upper Nile, threatening Egyptian freshwater access and control.

As drought, growing populations and regional tensions increase, the role of freshwater access will play a recurring central theme in emerging global conflicts, with an urgent necessity in global regulatory measures required to combat the threats posed by increasing water insecurity.

by Manish Swarup (

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