Throughout history cooperation over water has been more common than conflict

'Water for Peace' is the theme chosen by UN Water for the World Water Day campaign in 2024

Published in 22 Mar 2024

Written by By the IAS team


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Disputes over water have been around since ancient times. Historians record a hundred-year-long conflict related to water and irrigation in Sumer around 2500 BC. 

More recently, the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have seen numerous clashes related to water sources. 

"Water for Peace" is the theme chosen by UN-Water , the United Nations interagency mechanism that coordinates efforts on water and sanitation issues, for the World Water Day on March 22, 2024.

UN-Water states that conflicts over water have been heightened by the impacts of climate change, the increase in the world’s population, and that the resolution of these disputes would have huge positive effects. 

"Cooperation on water paves the way for cooperation on all common challenges. We need to use water as a tool to create a more peaceful and prosperous world,” affirms the UN on the campaign website. 

According to UN-Water, of the 153 countries that share rivers, lakes and aquifers with neighboring nations, only 24 have cooperation agreements for the use of this shared water.

According to the campaign, there are three main conflicts over water:

  • Water is at the center of clashes between the aims of different countries and regions, whose interests become irreconcilable when the quantity or quality of water declines.
  • Water can function as a weapon in armed conflicts – used both by the state and other actors – as a means of achieving or maintaining control over territories and populations or of putting pressure on opposing groups.
  • Water can be the victim of conflict when water resources, water systems, or a company's employees become intentional or accidental targets of violence. 

Informative and promotional materials can be downloaded from the UN’s official website. A series of events is scheduled for March 22 in various countries, with the main event taking place at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, consisting of talks, discussions and cultural activities related to the concept of "water and peace.” “Relatório Mundial da ONU sobre o Desenvolvimento da Água 2024: Água para a Prosperidade e a Paz”.

Mapping conflicts

The World Water website, maintained by the Pacific Institute water think tank, features an interactive map that lists 1,634 conflicts over water, from the war in Sumeria mentioned at the beginning of this text to attacks carried out by Israel in retaliation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2023, which affected a number of wells.

World Water site map shows conflicts related to water throughout history (Reproduction)

As part of the 2023 UN Water Conference, the Pacific Institute held the talk Water, War, and Peace , which addressed the topic almost a year before this year's campaign. According to the UN, the number of conflicts of this type around the world, mostly located in Asia and Africa, grew between 2000 and 2021.

Prominent international conflicts such as the war in Syria and the advance of ISIS in Iraq are influenced by factors such as water stress, drought, and clashes over water sources. Wars in Sudan and Ukraine have also been the scene of attacks on water infrastructure. In 2000 Bolivia saw a popular uprising against privatization, an emblematic episode that was recorded in the documentary "Bolivia, la Guerra del Agua" [“Bolivia, the Water War”] (available on YouTube.).

In addition to wars between countries, many disputes take place within national borders. According to partial data released by the CPT – Comissão Pastoral da Terra [Pastoral Land Commission], in the first half of 2023 Brazil recorded a total of 80 conflicts related to water resources. 

Waste treatment system at the facilities of the mining company Hydro Alunorte, accused of allowing a leak in Barcarena, Pará (Igor Brandão/Agência Pará))

The CPT notes that although this is a decrease compared to the 130 disputes in the previous period, it demonstrated a reality in which vulnerable populations are victims of large enterprises. Among those most affected are indigenous peoples (32.5%), quilombolas [former runaway slave settlements] (23.75%), fishing communities (15%), smallholders (6.25%), and riverside dwellers (6.25%).

According to the CPT, more than 60% of water conflicts in Brazil involved mining companies, 17% were related to hydroelectric plants, and 13% occurred in regions dominated by large ranches. Among the conflicts linked to mining are that in Barcarena, Pará state, involving the Hydro Alunorte company, which explores bauxite and aluminum, and the community of Jardim Canaã, environmentally impacted by the company's activities. In 2017, Fernando Pereira, a community leader and member of Cainquiama – Associação dos Caboclos, Indígenas e Quilombolas da Amazônia [Association of Caboclos, Indigenous Peoples and Quilombolas of the Amazon], who denounced the company's socio-environmental crimes, was shot dead.

Cooperation is the norm

Despite the history of all the disputes over water, conflict is not an inevitable path. On the contrary, the history of humanity points much more to collaboration over water than to disputes.

On the World Water Day campaign website, UN-Water lists three ways in which water can contribute to progress:

  • Water can be a tool for peace. History has seen more instances of cooperation than conflicts related to water resources.
  • Water can bring stability and promote sustainable development. This can be achieved through cooperation between different actors, including governments, companies, and institutions.
  • Cooperation around water creates a positive effect that spreads, helping the world to achieve sustainable development goals.

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