Many of the world’s earliest civilizations settled near rivers because of their access to water and relatively fertile soils. Mesopotamia, for example, a historical region that now makes up Iraq and some of eastern Turkey and Syria, is nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and is thought to be one of the birth places of agriculture. But just as access to water is essential to civilization, lack of water can cause instability and tear societies apart.
Ganges River from Jeeheon, Flickr
The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) initiative is working to trace the role of water in security and identify strategies to reduce the risk it poses to peace. Manish Bapna, World Resources Institute’s executive vice president and managing director, recently previewed WPS’s early-warning system for water-driven conflict hotspots at a UN Security Council meeting.
One of the datasets WPS uses documents conflicts involving water from 3000 BC to present. The database, developed by the Pacific Institute and displayed on Resource Watch, shows that river basins are now hotspots of water conflict because of population density and the increased demands from irrigated agriculture.
A recent paper by the European Joint Research Center (JRC) highlights the top five river basins where scarce water resources can cause or exacerbate political tensions and social unrest. Here’s a look at these regions and some of the challenges they face:
With a population of more than 500 million, the Ganges basin is one of the most populated basins in the world, and one of the most water-stressed. The JRC ranks this river basin as the most likely to see more conflict in by 2050, based on the demands of not just population, but also the reliance on irrigated agriculture for income. The map below shows that more than half the people living in the basin are dependent on agriculture for income (from World Bank Group), and its croplands are heavily irrigated (from the Global Food Security-Support Analysis dataset).
In 2010, a protest of the erratic water supplies in East Delhi in India led to a violent protest and several injuries.
Irrigated croplands play less of a role in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, but JRC research points out that projected changes to precipitation patterns from climate change could cause dry spells that threaten water security. Resource Watch hosts data from NASA Earth Exchange on projected dry spells from 2051 to 2080 if carbon emissions are not curtailed.
Water was used as a weapon in a 2017 conflict when a group identified as the Islamic State was accused of cutting off the water flow to a village in Diyala, Iraq.
The Nile is the world’s longest river and flows through 11 countries in northeastern Africa. Most of Egypt is desert so 97 percent of residents live on the narrow strip of land close to the river. Combined pressures of population density and a changing climate are likely to cause more water conflict in the region close to the Nile River. Egypt’s population has risen by 20 million in just 10 years and is expected to increase by another 20 million by 2030.
In 2012, water scarcity triggered conflict when farmers in southern Egypt held over 200 tourists hostage to protest inadequate irrigation water. The farmers captured the tourists after they visited nearby monuments but released them after officials agreed to a temporary release of water.
Population growth, increased demands for crop irrigation and climate change all play a role in the future of the Colorado river basin. The river has already experienced low water in recent years. This spring the water levels were some of the lowest recorded. Data from WRI’s Aqueduct project shows a doubling of water stress in some areas of the basin by 2040, assuming business-as-usual carbon emissions.
Located west of the Ganges-Brahmaputra, the Indus river basin was home to one of the earliest prosperous civilizations, around 4,000-5,000 years ago. Today the region is highly dependent on the river for food production.
In 2002, two people were killed and 25 others injured in Kashmir, India when police fired at a group of villagers clashing over water from an irrigation stream.
Learn more about the water data hosted on Resource Watch by visiting our water topic page.