Jan. 19, 2001

Environmental security series looks at potential rising tide of water conflicts

Although water is a scarce resource in many parts of the world, more often than not, countries that share water basins have been able to hammer out cooperative agreements for water rights, according to an expert on international water issues.

Speaking to a Lab audience Monday, Aaron Wolf, assistant professor of geography at Oregon State University, said "only seven times in modern history have shots been fired and armies mobilized across international boundaries" over water issues. By contrast, he noted, 3,600 water treaties have been signed during that same time period.

"Two-thirds of the events we have looked at were cooperative — even among countries that don’t like each other," Wolf said. Once an agreement is signed, he added, they tend to be more resilient even as conflict is waged over other issues.

But as the world population grows and water resources become even more scarce, the potential for conflict will increase. About one billion people in the world today lack access to safe water, Wolf said. That number is expected to rise to three billion people by 2015.

"By 2050, more people will be in water stress than there are in the world today," he said. "The numbers are not going away and will continue to get worse."

Wolf is currently working on a project to help identify future trouble spots internationally that could help policymakers establish cooperative agreements before conflicts arise.

"Wouldn’t it make sense to figure out which basins are going to be in dispute and begin resolving the issues before it becomes a conflict?" he said.

Wolf was the first speaker in a new lecture series, "Environmental Security and the International Water Crisis," co-sponsored by the Lab’s Center for Global Security Research and the Energy and Environment Directorate.

Wolf established and coordinates the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database Project. He started working on the project eight years ago, but much of the information for the database was compiled in the last two years by Wolf and 10 students.

When they began their research, they found little information on international water issues was readily available.

"We really don’t know a lot about shared basins. We’re trying to document it more empirically," Wolf said.

Using World War II topography maps as well as digital elevation models and satellite imagery, his students painstakingly mapped 261 water basins that have international borders. They have also identified all tributaries leading off from those water basins and are adding it to the database.

In addition, the database contains more than 150 water-related treaties dating from 1874, related news articles on water-related disputes as well as other published articles. The new work on basins at risk will be added once it’s published, he said.

Wolf and his students have been looking back through history for indicators of when water caused both conflict and cooperation. Those indicators can include population growth, death rates, drought, political instability and cultural differences.

"Ninety percent of the time, the disputes are over quantity," Wolf said, adding that the Middle East and North Africa are the most conflicted regions in the world.

Historically, he said, the stability or instability of a government has been the best indicator of a water conflict.

"Almost all indicators turn out not to be physical, but institutional," Wolf said. Strong democracies and autocracies tend to be fairly stable on water issues, he noted, while governments in transition have the most conflict.

In the last century, the periods with the highest amount of water conflicts occurred after World War II with the breakup of the British Empire and after the Cold War with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"When countries break up, there is more conflict as a water basin suddenly has national borders," Wolf noted.