woman carrying water Noah Seelam/Stringer

War and Peace and Water

Resource-driven conflict, violence, and displacement is set to increase in the coming years, as water-stressed regions face further depletion of their resources. But governments can avoid that outcome by taking action now to improve water management.

WASHINGTON, DC – India is currently facing its worst water crisis in years, with an estimated 330 million people – one-quarter of its population – affected by severe drought. Ethiopia is also dealing with its worst drought in decades, which has already contributed to the failure of many crops, creating food shortages that now affect around a tenth of the population. Under such circumstances, the risk of tension over resources is high.

In the past, droughts of this severity have led to conflict and even wars between neighboring communities and states. One of the first in recorded history erupted around 4,500 years ago, when the city-state of Lagash – nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq – diverted water from its neighbor, Umma. Competition for water sparked violent incidents in ancient China and fueled political instability in Pharaonic Egypt.

Today, actual wars between countries over water resources are uncommon, owing to improved dialogue and cross-border cooperation. But, within countries, competition for scarce water is becoming a more common source of instability and conflict, especially as climate change increases the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. As we detail in our new report “High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy,” limited and erratic water availability reduces economic growth, induces migration, and ignites civil conflict, which fuels further potentially destabilizing migration.

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