Water Resources and Conflict: A Module on Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Conflict

Water Resources and Conflict: A Module on Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Conflict

This module was funded by the CGS and developed for the Midwest Institute for International/Intercultural Education’s workshop, “Human Migrations, Global Networks and Leadership.”


Name: Amanda Cook Fesperman 

College: Illinois Valley Community College

Discipline: Political Science 

Course Title and Number: International Relations PSI 2000 

Module Title: Water Resources and Conflict: A Module on Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Conflict 

Narrative Description of the Module

Water is indispensable to human life. Though plentiful, it is limited and global demand for freshwater has been growing rapidly due to population growth and greater affluence. At the same time, climate change and environmental degradation are altering the regional and seasonal availability and quality of water. The resulting competition over water use may lead to conflict and sometimes violence, though researchers emphasize that it is rarely the lack of water as such that fuels conflict, but rather its governance and management. 

In Africa and the Middle East, access to water is an ever-present, ever-pressing issue.  Oftentimes we ignore the connections between water resource allocation, power, and conflict.  In both parts of these areas, climate change is having a devastating effect on access to water and conflict in these water-stressed areas is growing.  The Civil War in Syria was in part caused by droughts that led farmers to migrate to the cities.  Disillusioned with the government’s handling of the crisis, they began protesting in the streets.  The conflict in Western Sudan’s Darfur region claimed thousands of lives and in part was driven by disputes over water and grazing land between black African farmers and Arab pastoralist communities.

Three Studies

As a consequence of severe mismanagement, Yemen’s water availability is declining dramatically. The impacts on the people are unequally distributed, and corruption and nepotism are at the core of this imbalance. This has increasingly frustrated the disadvantaged, with water scarcity playing a role in fueling the political and security crisis in Yemen.

The Euphrates-Tigris Basin is shared between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, with Iran comprising parts of the Tigris basin. Since the 1960s, unilateral irrigation plans altering the flows of the rivers, coupled with political tensions between the countries, have strained relations in the basin. Disputes have prevented the three governments from effectively co-managing the basin’s rivers. Although cooperation efforts were renewed in the 2000s, these have yet to result in a formal agreement on managing the basin waters.

The Nile basin features significant conflict over access to and rights over the Nile water resources among its eleven riparian countries. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), founded by 9 out of 10 riparian countries in 1999 with backing from major donor institutions, has achieved some successes in its attempts to strengthen cooperation. Yet, since 2007, diverging interests between upstream and downstream countries have brought negotiations to a standstill, pitting Egypt (and, to a lesser extent, Sudan) against upstream riparians, especially Ethiopia. In 2015, trilateral negotiations between these countries over a major dam under construction in Ethiopia led to a framework agreement that may, in time, prepare the ground for a broader agreement 

Educational Objectives of the Module 

The goal of this module is to have students in International Relations understand how the topics we study are often interrelated.  The chapter on Climate Change and Sustainable Development are rarely linked to the chapter on global conflict.  Wars of the 21st Century are increasingly about access to resources, and the most important resource is water.  Since the 1970s, Africa and the Middle East have been the focus of a lot of research on resources and conflict, but mainly with a focus on oil, natural gas and minerals.

The three case studies will allow students to see where different regions of the world are with regards to water resource management and conflict avoidance.  In the case of Yemen, conflict due to lack of management was the result.  In the Euphrates-Tigris Basin, conflict could still occur as water management agreements have not been finalized.  In the Nile Basin, an agreement is in place in one area that will hopefully lead to others so that water resources can be managed and conflict avoided.

Outline of Lectures/Discussions Used to Implement the Module

Lecture 1: Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Water Conflicts

  1. What is Sustainable Development?
    1. Developed vs developing World
    2. Environmental Stresses
    3. Development and Water Shortages
  2. What is Climate Change?
    1. Climate Change and Global Warming
    2. Heating and Cooling Degree Days
    3. Climate change impact on water resources
      1. Lake Niger
      2. Lake Victoria
  3. What are Water Conflicts?
    1. Conflict defined
    2. Authoritarianism and Water as a Weapon
    3. Shared Water Resources and Transnational Disputes

Lecture 2: Yemen

            A.  Overview:  Yemen is one of the water-scarcest countries in the world with currently only 120 m³ water per capita/ per year available and is probable to fall even farer below the World Bank’s threshold of “water scarcity”, defined as 1000 m³/capita/year. Grievances over poor resource management, (scarcity-related) rising inequality and livelihood losses have translated into growing public protests which, at times, have been met with brutal state force.

Yemenis’ consumption habits have changed dramatically and the population is growing steeply. 

Not only is more water used in the domestic households, agriculture, responsible for almost 90% of water consumption, demands increasingly more water as more traditional ways of farming are being abandoned. In particular, state subsidies have incentivized the growing of cash crops which mostly require large amounts of water. Moreover, a ban on fruit imports in 1983 made it economically viable for Yemeni farmers to grow fruit themselves. Consequently, overall groundwater use increased by 41% between 1998 and 2004 alone.

This situation is intensified as water scarcity manifests unevenly across socio-economic segments of society. Most importantly, small farmers are not able to take part in the “race to the bottom of the aquifer” because deep tube wells are quite expensive. They are also less able to purchase water on the open market; in 2009, the market price of water had quadrupled within just four years.

Moreover, as a consequence of the high prices of trucked water from private companies, women and children from poor families get especially marginalized. They have to take on long walks, sometimes in the middle of the night, to be able to fetch water for their households from distant wells.

Competition between cities and the countryside has also increased with progressing urbanization. As water scarcity aggravates, many of the rural populations cannot subsist from their diminishing agricultural production anymore and thus flee their homes towards the larger cities of Yemen; however, scarcity is even worse there. 

A vicious circle that “led to a society that is highly distrustful of the central government” emerged: water scarcity and power struggles have exacerbated food insecurity and slowed down the economy; because of low economic development food insecurity is exacerbated. In fact, it has been argued that in this manner water and food scarcities have been contributing factors to the collapse of the Yemeni state (Ahmed, 2015). Due to the importance of water and the severe consequences of its scarcity for the Yemeni population, the latter has grown increasingly discontent with the government which is more and more unable to provide for its citizens’ livelihood security. Erstwhile Minister for Water and the Environment, Abdul-Rahman Al-Eryani, has pointed out “that 70 percent of unofficial roadblocks stood up by angry citizens are due to water shortages (ECC Factbook).

            B.  Yemen as an example of authoritarian mismanagement of

            C.  Yemen as an example of water allocation as a weapon

            D.  Internal conflict

Lecture 3: Euphrates-Tigris Basin

A. Overview:  The Euphrates and the Tigris both originate in Turkey and flow to the Shatt Al-Arab Basin in Southern Iraq. Whilst the Euphrates River crosses Syria and Iraq, the Tigris flows from Turkey to Iraq. Turkey contributes 90% to the Euphrates whilst Syria contributes 10% to the water flow. As for the Tigris, Turkey, Iraq and Iran contribute 40%, 51% and 9%, respectively. Although Iran also contributes to the flow of the Tigris, scholars do not consider the country to be a main co-riparian in the Euphrates-Tigris (ET) Basin. In the 1960s, after thousands of years of sharing the waters of the ET Basin, disputes started erupting amongst the co-riparian states over the water flow reaching their territory.

Between the 1960s to the 1990s, there were several instances of close cooperation, but other events brought the countries to the brink of war. Although cooperation between the co-riparians started anew in the 2000s, several factors have put an end to this cooperation. The prediction of the UN, according to which the flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris could decrease by 30% and 60% respectively by the end of the century, show that the quantity of water flowing through Syria and Iraq is likely to become even scarcer. An agreement to manage the waters of the ET efficiently is thus crucial for stability in the region.

Relations between the three main co-riparian states have been punctuated by highly cooperative as well as highly conflictive events. Until 1960, as the water used by the coriparians was low, the relations between the three countries were considered “harmonious”. However, at the beginning of the 1960s, several factors led to tensions amongst the states and thus inhibited cooperation on water management of the ET basin.

At that time, the co-riparian states unilaterally initiated large-scale water development projects in an uncoordinated way, thereby affecting the river flow. As population growth in the region led to higher water demands, the initial purpose of these projects was to regulate the flow of the river and prevent floods.  However, it rapidly became a plan for hydropower generation to enable Turkey to limit its dependency on oil for energy. In addition to that, environmental factors aggravated the tensions between the co-riparians. For instance, in 1975 Turkey and Syria simultaneously started to use the Keban (Turkey) and Taqba (Syria) dams during a period of drought.  This dispute, solved thanks to the mediation of Saudi Arabia, almost led to an armed conflict.  Moreover, the variation of precipitation through the seasons coupled with very inefficient irrigation systems and the cultivation of water-intensive crops in the region intensified the dispute over water. 

Besides these environmental aspects, other factors unrelated to water played a major role. First, while the Cold War deepened the tensions over water, Turkey joined NATO whilst Syria and Iraq kept close ties with the USSR.

The tensions brought the dispute to another level in the 1980s-1990s, as Turkey started to use water as an instrument to put pressure on the other co-riparian states and linked it to issues not related to water. For instance, in 1987 Turkey and Syria brokered an agreement, in which Turkey committed to release 500 m³ water per second to Syria whilst the latter committed to put an end to its support to the PKK.  Moreover, in 1990, Turkey cut off the Euphrates flow when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The late 1990s and early 2000s have witnessed a significant improvement in the relations amongst the co-riparian states. Politicians at the highest level of decision-making enabled the evolution of water policies from hostile to cooperative (Ibid.). In 1998, Syria expressed the will to re-start Joint Technical Committee meetings, which had been attempted unsuccessfully in 1983. The expulsion of the PKK’s leader from Syria was a major step towards improvement of relations.

Moreover, in 2001, a Joint Communiqué between Syria and Turkey – which advocated sustainable use of the region’s land and water resources through joint projects and exchange of knowledge – was a turning point in the relations of the co-riparian states.  Although this communiqué did not lead to any concrete actions, it acted as a framework for agreements made at the end of the 2000s. Amongst these initiatives, the most significant are the Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) on water management signed between Iraq and Turkey and Syria and Turkey in 2009.  In an additional sign of improving relations between Turkey and Syria, both co-riparians agreed, in 2009, to jointly build a dam on the shared Orontes river in the province of Hatay, which used to be a bone of contention between the neighbors. 

Meanwhile, the absence of a trilateral agreement makes it problematic to collectively address the severe environmental challenges in the basin.  Scholars have pointed out that the environmental impacts of irrigation plans – which led to salinity and pollution through chemicals – are likely to have “greater, and more immediate” effects on the population in the basin than a reduction in water quantity.  Considering the importance of agriculture for Turkey, Syria and Iraq, this degradation of soils and waters would put more pressure on local. In addition to these environmental impacts, the UN predicts major temperature increases in Turkey – 2 to 3 degrees Celsius – by the end of the century (Ibid.). This could cause a reduction of the Euphrates flow by 30% and of the Tigris flow by 60% by then.

To conclude, although the relations amongst the co-riparians had become more cooperative since the beginning of the 2000s, cooperation over the management of the ET Basin has now stalled (ECC Factbook). 

            B. Shared water resources as a source of transnational disputes

            C. Water resources as a stressor that could lead to conflict.

Lecture 4: The Nile Basin

A. Overview:  The Nile, though probably the longest river on the planet, moves only limited amounts of water. The region’s demographic and economic growth and the need to sustain the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people have put increasing pressure on a river basin shared by eleven countries. Although cooperation within the basin has made significant progress, it is still overshadowed by a fundamental conflict between upstream riparians insisting on their right to develop their water resources, which could significantly impact downstream river flows, and Egypt striving to maintain current downstream flows. Tensions came to a high-point in 2011 when Ethiopia announced the construction of a 6000 MW hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile – the main tributary of the Nile basin.

The Nile basin, including its main tributaries the White Nile and the Blue Nile, is shared by eleven countries, namely Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The White Nile originates in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, and flows north through Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan. The Blue Nile begins in Ethiopia and flows into Sudan from the southeast. The two rivers meet near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, from which the Nile flows through the Sudanese desert to Egypt. With a length of approximately 6,700 km, the Nile, together with the Amazon River, occupies the top spot on the list of the world’s longest rivers.

Throughout the 20th century, economic constraints, external pressures and internal strife have precluded upstream countries of the Nile basin from developing their water resources, allowing Egypt to take full advantage of downstream water flow. However, upstream countries have experienced considerable population growth, economic development and political consolidation over the last decade. They have also profited from geopolitical changes in the form of alternative sources of capital for major infrastructure investments. Facing improved opportunities to harness their water resources, but also an increased demand for energy and arable surfaces, these countries have embarked on ambitious development projects along the Nile and its tributaries.

In an effort to find a mutually acceptable basis for cooperation in the Nile basin, the riparians established the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999, an intergovernmental partnership with the objective of developing ‘the river in a cooperative manner, sharing substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promoting regional peace and security’. External third parties, especially the World Bank, played a crucial role in bringing all riparian countries together, and almost all basin states joined the NBI, except for Eritrea which has an observer status. Most riparians were motivated by the expectation that a cooperative framework would facilitate substantial investments in large (hydraulic) infrastructure projects in the basin.

Rather than focusing primarily on the highly divisive issue of water allocation, the NBI was purposely set up with a complementary investment program based on benefit-sharing. The NBI was conceived as a transitional institution until the negotiations around a permanent Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) could be finalized and a durable institution created. The CFA aimed to be inclusive of all the Nile riparians, deciding on principles, structures and institutions to jointly govern the Nile water resources. 

Despite more than 10 years of negotiations, this objective has still not been reached. Since 2007, an ongoing dispute over the CFA has brought the negotiations in the Nile basin to a stalemate. The essence of the dispute is about whether or not the CFA should recognize current water use of the downstream countries and colonial-era treaties, specifically an agreement between Egypt and Sudan from 1959, which precludes upstream countries from developing their water resources without the consent of downstream countries. Whereas downstream countries have been insisting on an explicit recognition of what they consider their historic water use and rights, upstream countries vehemently oppose these treaties, to which they were not sovereign parties (ECC Factbook). 

            B.  Transnational Water Disputes

            C.  Cooperative Agreements on Water Useage 

Listing of Audio-Visuals Used to Implement the Module

Damming the Nile: BBC Virtual Reality, http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zb3ggdm

Student Readings/Writing/Field/Experiential Assignments Used to Implement the Module

Local Violence Over Water Resources In Yemen, https://factbook.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/water-conflicts-yemen

Dispute Over Water in the Nile Basin, https://factbook.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/dispute-over-water-nile-basin

Turkey, Syria and Iraq: Conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris, https://factbook.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/turkey-syria-and-iraq-conflict-over-euphrates-tigris

Student Evaluation/Testing Regarding the Module

1) The students will work collaboratively on a video project on how water shortages are contributing to conflict in the Middle East and Africa. Students will be expected to research the project collaboratively, and then create a 15 minute video that does the following: 1) Discusses the causes of water shortages in the region; 2) Discusses the history of how those water shortages contributed to conflicts; and 3) Discusses solutions to the problem from both an environmental policy and conflict management perspective.

Each student should spend an equal amount of time researching the topic and presenting the video. Along with the video, students will turn in an annotated bibliography of sources. While this is a collaborative project, each student will receive a grade based on his/her contributions to the overall project.

2) Written Exam with over the units.

Resources (Bibliography) Used to Develop-Implement the Module

Benaim, D., & Hanna, M. W. (2018, August 9). Water Wars on the Nile How Water Scarcity and Middle Eastern Influence Are Reshaping Northeast Africa. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2018-08-09/water-wars-nile

Dispute over Water in the Nile Basin. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2018, from Factbook: Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation website: https://factbook.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/dispute-over-water-nile-basin

Fleming, S. W. (2017). Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways. Princeton Press.

Guner, S. (2007). The Turkish‐Syrian war of attrition: The water dispute. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism20(1), 105-116. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10576109708436027

Henson, R. (2011). The Rough Guide to Climate Change: The Symptoms, The Science, The Solutions. Rough Guide.

Jamieson, D. (2014). Reason in A Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Changed Failed and What it Means for Our Future. Oxford University Press.

Local Violence over Water Resources in Yemen. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2019, from Factbook: Environment, Conflict and Cooperation website: https://factbook.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/water-conflicts-yemen

Pearce, F. (2014, August 25). Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq, A Battle for Control of Water. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from Yale Environment 360 website: https://e360.yale.edu/features/mideast_water_wars_in_iraq_a_battle_for_control_of_water

Rucksthuhl, S., & Ward, C. (2017). Water Scarcity, Climate Change and Conflict in the Middle East: Securing Livelihoods, Building Peace. I.B. Taurus.

Ruhayem, R. (2013, August 21). Yemen facing water shortage crisis. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from BBC News website: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-23777176/yemen-facing-water-shortage-crisis

Siperstein, S., Hall, S., & LeMenager, S. (Eds.). (2016). Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities. Routledge.

Smil, V. (2017). Energy and Civilization: A History. The MIT Press.

Suter, M. (2017, September 12). Running Out of Water: Conflict and Water Scarcity in Yemen and Syria. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from Atlantic Council website: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/running-out-of-water-conflict-and-water-scarcity-in-yemen-and-syria

Suter, M. (2018, November 29). An Update on Yemen’s Water Crisis and the Weaponization of Water. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from Atlantic Council website: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/an-update-on-yemen-s-water-crisis-and-the-weaponization-of-water

Tevdt, T. (2009). The River Nile in the Post-colonial Age: Conflict and Cooperation Among the Nile Basin Countries. I.B. Taurus.

Turkey, Syria and Iraq: Conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2019, from Factbook: Environment, Conflict and Cooperation website: https://factbook.ecc-platform.org/conflicts/turkey-syria-and-iraq-conflict-over-euphrates-tigris

The ‘water war’ brewing over the new River Nile dam. (2018, February 24). Retrieved from BBC News website: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43170408

Yeranian, E. (2018, August 28). Water Crisis Looms as Syria Military Conflict Winds Down. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from Voice of America website: https://www.voanews.com/a/water-crisis-looms-as-syria-military-conflict-winds-down-/4547493.html