Steven Heywood.
Programme Assistant, Human Impacts of Climate Change
Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva, Switzerland.


Countries have not tended to go to war over water,” Ed Davey, the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently noted, “but I have a fear for the world that climate instability drives political instability.” There is an increasingly common position among politicians and commentators that climate change will inevitably lead to an increase in violent conflict over scarce natural resources like water – and this is certainly a valid concern, but only up to a point.

If any resource is susceptible to conflict, it is water. Water is vital for drinking, washing, agriculture and industry, and also has cultural significance in most societies, and a large proportion of the world’s freshwater is shared between nations, with 214 major river systems shared by two or more states and 19 countries receiving more than half their water from outside their borders. As climate change effects glacier melt and drought patterns, many countries are likely to find decreasing water resources creating problems for their growing populations and economies.

However, while the possibility of conflict related to water scarcity is real, the ‘climate conflict’ narrative is often flawed in two major ways. Firstly, climate change does not drive political instability but is only one of a constellation of factors that can lead to violent conflict. Rather than causing conflict in a previously peaceful situation, climate change can act as a ‘trigger’ or ‘multiplier’ in situations where the basis for conflict already exists due to economic, social, cultural or historical factors.

Secondly, by framing the problem in terms of conflict and security, we are encouraged to look to the same framework for solutions. In the developed countries, this can include further securing and militarising of borders to keep out refugees from climate-related conflicts (although in reality, most climate change-related migrants move within their own country, or to other developing countries). Countries threatened by resource scarcity may believe they need to act pre-emptively to secure resources from their ‘enemies’.

Instead of assuming the inevitability of conflict, it is possible to see water scarcity as an opportunity for cooperation, with states and communities realising the mutual benefit available to them through working together rather than competing. Creating truly participatory methods and institutions to share diminishing water resources around can be seen as a form of ‘environmental peacebuilding’, allowing connections to be made and understanding to grow in situations that were previously hostile by cooperating over the most vital and necessary resource of all.

One way of doing this is through water treaties between nations. History suggests that cooperative agreements over water tend to be extremely robust, and continue to be adhered to even in times of water stress or conflict over other issues – one of the best examples is between India and Pakistan, who continued to abide by the provisions of the Indus Treaty even during the height of the conflict over Kashmir. Another is the Trifinio Plan in Central America, which began as an environmental and water cooperation plan, and has since expanded to include joint health provision and increased cross-border trade between countries that were in turmoil a few short years ago.

Creating similar agreements in the fragile watersheds around the world will not be an easy task, as countries initially compete for advantages. But ultimately, cooperation rather than conflict is the most ‘water rational’ route, as it allows all countries to reap the benefits of sustainably, peacefully managed water. Countries have not tended to go to war over water yet – and contrary to the climate conflict narrative, it can be kept that way.

Share This