Water: a source of peace and conflict


Freshwater supplies worldwide are shrinking, while demand for water is greater than ever, resulting in a growing number of conflicts centring on its availability and distribution. That is why the theme of this World Water Day is on the role of water in peace and conflict. How can water trigger war? And what can we do to prevent water-related conflicts in the future? Read on to find out.

Enlarge image Logo World Water Day: Water for Peace
Image: ©UN-Water

Communities worldwide are increasingly confronted with the effects of climate change, such as record-breaking heatwaves and droughts and a shorter rainy season. At the same time, the global population continues to grow steadily, and more and more water is being used for agriculture, industry and energy generation. This is bad news for global freshwater supplies: less water is available, but demand is greater than ever.

Water as a trigger, weapon and casualty

The growing pressure on freshwater supplies can give rise to tensions within communities and between countries. More than half of all freshwater sources worldwide, such as rivers, lakes and aquifers, are shared by two or more countries. A good example is the Nile, one of the world’s longest rivers, which flows through 11 countries.

This means that the way countries manage water often has repercussions for other countries’ water supply. Building a dam, for instance, can lead to water shortages downstream. And wastewater discharges often have a detrimental effect on water quality in other countries too. That is how water can lead to conflict or ignite already simmering tensions.

Water can also be weaponised intentionally. For instance, cutting off a particular region from its freshwater supply puts that region's population under pressure. Water services are also often a victim of conflict, as illustrated by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine. This had disastrous consequences for the region’s freshwater supply, and its sanitation and sewage systems.  

Water diplomacy

The most effective ways to resolve or prevent water-related conflicts are cooperation and agreements on water management and how water is distributed. The Netherlands has a great deal of knowledge on and expertise in this area, which can benefit other countries.

One of the programmes funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is Cooperation in International Waters in Africa, which aims to improve cooperation in transboundary water management. Water diplomacy is central to this approach. This involves addressing issues relating to managing and distributing water and agreeing solutions with all water users – from countries to businesses and knowledge institutions. Another programme component is knowledge and information exchange, on the amount of water in a rivers or ways of saving water, for instance.


The ministry also finances institutions such as IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the Clingendael Institute, which provide water diplomacy training to professionals from developing countries. The courses deal with topics like international water treaties, making international agreements and why it is important to involve civil society organisations and the private sector in these processes. 

Predicting risks

Another recipient of Dutch funding is the Global Early Warning Tool developed by the Water, Peace and Security Partnership, which can forecast conflict over the next 12 months. Having a better picture of the risks allows us to take action before a situation escalates.

The Global Tool can be used for conflict forecasting in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. The WPS partnership is also developing country-specific tools that can be used to conduct a comprehensive analysis of underlying problems and identify possible solutions. This will enable local authorities to respond more quickly to water-related risks and thus prevent violence.

Source of peace

The increasing pressure on freshwater supplies doesn’t necessarily have to lead to new conflicts. By working together, making agreements and managing water better, it is possible not only to prevent conflicts but also to contribute to development and greater prosperity. Collaboration on water can therefore be a driver of cooperation in other areas, like economy and trade.

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