“Water Wars” and Water Reality: Conflict and Cooperation Along International Waterways

  • Aaron T. Wolf
Part of the NATO ASI Series book series (ASEN2, volume 65)


There are 261 international rivers, covering almost one half of the total land surface of the globe, and untold numbers of shared aquifers. Water has been a cause of political tensions between Arabs and Israelis, Indians and Bangladeshis, Americans and Mexicans, and all 10 riparian states of the Nile River. Water is the only scarce resource for which there is no substitute, over which there is poorly developed international law, and the need for which is overwhelming, constant, and immediate. As a consequence, water and war are two topics being assessed together with increasing frequency. This chapter investigates the reality of historic water conflict and draws lessons for the plausibility of future water wars. The data sets of conflict are explored for those related to water—only seven minor skirmishes are found in this century; no war has ever been fought over water. In contrast, 149 water-related treaties have been signed in the same period. These treaties, collected and catalogued in a computerized database along with relevant notes from negotiators, are assessed for patterns of conflict resolution. War over water seems neither strategically rational, hydrographically effective, nor economically viable. Shared interests along a waterway seem to overwhelm water’s conflict-inducing characteristics. Furthermore, once cooperative water regimes are established through treaty, they turn out to be tremendously resilient over time, even between otherwise hostile riparian states, and even as conflict is waged over other issues. These patterns suggest that the more valuable lesson of international water is as a resource whose characteristics tend to induce cooperation, and incite violence only in the exception.


Middle East International Water Riparian State Political Tension Water Conflict 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Aaron T. Wolf
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GeosciencesOregon State UniversityUSA

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