Some people falsely believe that the Afghanistan takeover by the Taliban during a drought increases the risk of violence over shared waters such as the Helmand and Kabul Rivers. Violent clashes over scarce resources have been predicted as “likely,” or even “certain” for 35 years, and despite such “water wars” never having happened, hypotheses about them keep cropping up around conflict-affected regions such as the Middle East and South Asia. In reality, conflicts are multidimensional with social, political, economic, and ecological drivers producing conflicts through their complex interrelations. Because of these multidimensional conflict drivers, the water war message is wrong-headed and needlessly scaremongering.
What Is the Contemporary ‘Water Wars’ Hypothesis and What’s Wrong With It?
Defense ministers, military generals, NGOs, UN Secretaries-General and environment-focused academics all repeat the misguided hypothesis that increasing resource scarcity leads to conflict. Since Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie, the narrative keeps expanding to include climate-induced mass migration, climate disasters, and even climate wars.
Indian geostrategist Brahma Chellaney has recently argued that water is the new oil and claims that water will be the centerpiece of power struggle in Asia. This year, tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over filling the enormous Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River has also refueled water war theories. After the summer floods in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, European Commissioner Frans Timmermans repeatedly predicted that there will be future wars over food and water unless there are 55 percent reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Military analysts such as retired Dutch General Tom Middendorp, chairman of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, has repeatedly aligned himself with the water wars (and climate-induced mass migration) discourse. The Water, Peace, and Security Partnership was set up by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the German Agency for International Cooperation and a consortium of six partners to forecast and understand water-related conflicts and organized violence.
Climate change will intensify weather extremes, but extremes alone do not cause violent conflict. As Dr. Clionadh Raleigh of Sussex University said, “It’s just a simplistic, nonsense narrative that the climate makes people violent.” Violence is only one, rarely used coping strategy for stress and sudden change. Multiple factors have to interact in complex ways before they create an escalating crisis. And even then, as Professor Aaron Wolf’s extensive Oregon State University database shows, states have not gone to war over water only. As Naho Mirumachi has shown, a mix of conflict and cooperation is more likely.
Water as a Pawn in Multidimensional Conflicts
In Afghanistan, water stress is a prominent issue and water resources and infrastructure often fall victim to local and wider geopolitical conflict. Afghanistan shares the transboundary Harirud River with Turkmenistan and Iran, with which it shares a hostile relationship. The Afghan-India Friendship Dam has been targeted by the Taliban multiple times, including earlier this year. Such violence not only slowed down progress on the project, it also serves a strategic advantage: as dams are highly visible symbols of state presence and development, attacking them immediately captures the global attention. The reason to target the Friendship Dam appears to have been to attack the Indian reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, rather than to initiate a water war. The attack on water infrastructure shows Taliban’s political alignment towards Pakistan and not India, challenging in a way the geo-political position of India in South Asia. In this case, water is used as a tactical leverage point to strangle India’s approach to becoming a leader in the region.
Such concerted violence on water infrastructure echoes the Turkish Atatürk mega dam construction works targeted in 1984 by the Kurdish insurrection fighters PKK. The Kurdish population in Southeast Turkey has been struggling for independence from Turkey for many decades, and many Kurds saw the dam project as a symbol of Turkish oppression and an invasion of their territory. Attacks on the dam during construction were not solely about the dam. The dam was a target in a much bigger chess game, fueled by a sense of marginalization, territory, identity, and Kurdish independence.
Despite all claims of imminent water war in Asia, water treaties have survived wars and military insurgency between arch-rivals for decades. The Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan has survived three major wars (in 1965, 1971, and 1999) between the countries. There has been controversy over dam construction, but the underlying issues in these cases were an escalation of the disputed territory and insurgency in the Kashmir valley. There have been instances where India has attempted to scare its neighbor by threatening to stop water from the eastern rivers. For instance, after the 2016 attack on a military base in Uri (Kashmir), Narendra Modi said, “Blood and Water cannot flow simultaneously,” implying that India would stop water flow on the Indus and other rivers shared with Pakistan. Fortunately, India did not follow through on the threat. In these and other incidents water was not the cause of the conflict between the two countries, but was used as leverage in the dispute over Kashmir or other insurgent activity. The river was a stake in a territorial power game.
Likewise, water is often involved but not the primary driver in disputes between India and China. For instance, the sharing of water data on the Brahmaputra River was drawn into a border dispute when China stopped sharing data after the 2017 military standoff in Doklam. (The Chinese army attempted to build a road through disputed territory in the Doklam plateau and Indian soldiers based nearby stopped the Chinese crew, resulting in the military standoff.) Following this event, the Chinese stopped providing the hydrological data used for flood forecasting by India. China agreed to resume sharing hydrological data only after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held discussions in April 2018 in Wuhan. Hydrological data sharing became the symbolic victim in the military and diplomatic standoff over territorial issues between India and China.
Promoting the False Narrative of Water Wars is Damaging
The problem is that the choice of words, ideas, and narratives built on projections of water wars have consequences. If repeated enough in an echo chamber, the false claims may become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we lend credence to the water war narrative, will nations eventually send troops to prevent them? Will we then divert military, economic, and humanitarian resources to defending the water war narrative rather than using those resources to bring resolution to what conflicts are truly about—the underlying social, political, economic, and ecological challenges?
The hype over water and climate wars must stop!
By sounding the alarm over water wars and attributing them only to climate change, we detract from the lamentable shortcomings of water governance and politics in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Instead of militarizing water scarcity, we should be promoting the truer narrative that we produce our own water scarcity crisis and have all the tools for alleviating it.
Conflict is multidimensional. The construction of simple, one-sided threats generally favors military forces. Military intervention can distract and divert resources from issues like human security and governance of natural resources. Instead, we must work to improve water distribution, ensure better water governance for all, and counter degradation and appropriation (capture) by elites—even though water is not going to spark nor determine wars.
Jeroen Warner is an Associate Professor of Crisis and Disaster Studies at Wageningen University and Research. His main research foci are transboundary water politics and disaster governance.
Sumit Vij is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva. His research focuses on questions of power interplay and transboundary water politics in South Asia.
Sources: Al Jazeera News, Amazon, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd., British Broadcasting Corporation, Colombia University Libraries, Deutsche Welle, E-International Relations, Environmental Change, Adaptation, and Security, Global Environmental Politics, Hindustan Times, IPS-Inter Press Service, NOS, Open Media Network, Planetary Security Initiative, Printline Media, SOAS University of London, The Conversation US, The Guardian, The Indian Express, The Wire, War on the Rocks, and Water Peace and Security.
Photo Credit: An Indian man carries water in a plastic can in Kaithalapur, Hyderabad, India, courtesy of Abdul Munaff/Shutterstock.com.