Will Water Wars Be the New Oil Wars?

During the 20th century, oil played a significant role in war and conflict. Now analysts are questioning whether many future wars will revolve around another precious natural resource: fresh water. According to a panel of experts recently hosted by the Aspen Institute’s Global Health and Development program, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

boy herding cows in spiny desert of Madagascar

Boy herding cows in the spiny desert of southern Madagascar. More than 1 billion people live in regions of water stress and scarcity; as supplies disappear and global population booms, water is increasingly becoming a source of conflict. (© Cristina Mittermeier/iLCP)

I recently attended this event at the Aspen Institute headquarters in Washington, D.C. The forum, which focused on gender issues, family planning, population and access to safe water, was the last in a series called “7 Billion: Conversations that Matter.”

At the event, a panel of experts — including Salva Dut, founder and president of Water for South Sudan; Laurie Mazur, director of the Population Justice Project; Jaehyang So, manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program; and Shewaye Deribe, project coordinator for the Ethio Wetlands and Natural Resource Association (EWNRA) — shared their extensive knowledge of water and sanitation.

Fresh water is one of the most essential elements of life on Earth, yet 1.2 billion people — slightly less than the entire population of China — live in regions of water stress and scarcity, where supplies are badly polluted and inequitably distributed. By 2025, an additional 4 million people will further stress valuable water resources in these areas, largely because of population growth.

Water is surpassing oil as the world’s scarcest critical resource. As supplies disappear, the population booms and climate change continues to impact ecosystems, water is increasingly becoming a source of conflict. Salva Dut, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, has witnessed that violence firsthand. During the dry season in his newly independent country of South Sudan, pastoral tribes must move their cattle many miles to find water. They are forced to share the meager source with other road-weary tribes. Cattle theft, physical intimidation and virulent hostility are common.

“Water wars are inevitable when countries are forced to share the same limited water source,” Dut said. Sadly — and probably not coincidentally — the areas where water scarcity is widespread are many of the same places where political conflicts are occurring, leading to extremely dangerous situations.

girls collect water in Haiti

Girls in Haiti collecting water. According to the World Bank, Haiti is among the top three countries in the world where water shortages are most acute. (© Robin Moore/iLCP)

Jaehyang So indicated the World Bank has identified 45 countries — 35 in Africa — where water shortages are most acute. Ethiopia, Haiti and Niger top the list with the least amount of water available. All the countries on the World Bank’s list are both water stressed and economically poor, with per capita income of less than US$ 3 per day. The average fertility rate in those countries is 4.8, compared to the global average of 2.6, and their population is expected to nearly double by 2050. A contributing factor to the growing population is lack of access to family planning services and education.

Women and young girls in these countries travel for hours each day to reach water and carry a 40- or 50-pound container back to their village. As their entire morning is spent fetching water, there is no time for the girls to receive basic education. Tradition compels women to have as many children as possible, and without an education they aren’t able to contribute to society any other way. According to Laurie Mazur, “Cultures are not monolithic — they are capable of rapidly changing, but it is important to make the means and the choice available to the people.”

Through their respective organizations, the panelists are taking a variety of approaches to improve freshwater access and related issues. For example, in response to growing population pressure in the Ethiopian highlands, Shewaye Deribe’s wetlands conservation organization EWNRA is integrating voluntary family planning and reproductive health services into its existing environmental management activities.

Partnering with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded BALANCED project, EWNRA community volunteers and peer educators have worked with local women, men and youth to increase understanding of the links between birth spacing, child health, and providing women with choices about family size. Using this approach, EWNRA is improving the quality of lives while protecting this critical watershed that feeds the Blue Nile region. CI is a partner on the BALANCED project, in collaboration with the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center and PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc.

Dut’s organization, Water for South Sudan, has drilled 126 wells that provide fresh water to the local villages in his region. Reducing the time girls spend fetching water has directly increased educational opportunities in the region. Women are able to spend more time with their families, and there is less chance of conflict when water sources aren’t overburdened.

“The complexity of water is not in its science,” So pointed out. “It is about the management of water and how it gets to the right people at the right time.”

To mitigate the water crisis and the inevitability of future resource based conflict, we must slow population growth, increase accessibility of education for women and find a way to distribute our natural resources more equitably.

“If there is any resource that represents a true limit to the growth of the human enterprise, it would have to be water,” Mazur said. “Water is an essential resource. There is no substitute for water. It is essential for agriculture, industry, for human health and life itself.”

Kelsey Rosenbaum is CI’s media coordinator.


  1. Dave Albion says

    Great blog! Timely, frightening, but not without hope.

    Management- it is in our hands. Thanks for your research,thoughts, &

    eye-opening examples.

  2. Mandy says

    Very informative blog! Good points about the connection between water availability, education for women and conflict prevention.

  3. Turnkey Websites says

    The glaciers are melting at lightening fast speed and if we don’t somehow figure out how to save the run-off water or channel our water resources better, then yes, we are all going to be facing a water shortage crisis in the near future. It’s important to start planning and preparing for this now.

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