Water conflict

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In February 2013, Egypt’s delegate to the UN Security Council stated that “increasing drought and desertification are irrevocably exacerbating the causes of conflict in the Sahel. The Middle East, the other region to which Egypt belongs, is the world’s water-poorest region. Research has predicted that future wars in these two regions would be water wars”. Yet “water wars” is a contested concept: with respect to drinking water, cooperation is the rule, while military conflict remains the exception. The International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine, for example, was established in 1950, paving the way for a series of intergovernmental cooperation agreements from 1963 onward.

In the 20th century, only seven wars can be directly correlated to water-related issues, while 145 treaties were concluded in this area over the same period. Water resources are the subject of political conflicts but rarely do they lead to military action. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the persistent political tensions around water resources, primarily driven by material conditions affecting them: quantity (scarcity or abundance), quality (pollution, salinity, seasonal regularity, etc.), distribution (especially between riparian countries) and main uses (domestic and industrial). The neo-Malthusian approach analyzes water scarcity as an indirect factor driving conflicts. Research in political ecology has focused on power and dependency relations as the key to understanding water-related tensions, as in the case of the Nile.

Egypt’s hydro-hegemony – despite its downstream position – derives from its regional power and its historic advantages, acquired in 1929 (agreement with the British Empire) and 1959 (agreement with Sudan). It also reflects the country’s high level of dependency on the river waters (for agriculture and energy), incentivizing its claims to absolute rights over this resource. These rights are, however, disputed by upstream nations, in particular via the Nile Basin Initiative established in 1999 and the construction of dams, as in Ethiopia.

Nile River Basin

Sources: HydroSHEDS; FAO, AQUASTAT; PNUD, Water Stress in the Nile Basin, 2013; Nile Basin Initiative, 2012

Comment: The Nile River Basin is a classic illustration of the political tensions surrounding drinking water resources, and it has been the subject of much research into the historical development of power games and mutual interdependency between the states which border it. The political changes in this group of states (particularly Egypt and Sudan) tend to permanently reconfigure the stakes governing water distribution. This map uses a combination of several sources and shows the number of countries affected between the upper and lower basin (and therefore the size of the populations concerned), their level of dependence on the Nile (in the case of Egypt it represents 97% of the country’s water consumption, 77% for Sudan, 55% for Eritrea, and so on) and the relative importance of dams: more than 10, of very different capacities, are currently in existence, and there are many ongoing projects.

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" Water conflict " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:

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