February 17, 2016, Oakland, Calif.: The Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, released an update to its online assessment of water-related conflicts: The Water Conflict Chronology. This database includes an online mapping system, timeline, and background documents related to all water-related violence going back nearly 5,000 years. The chronology includes conflicts over access and control of water resources, attacks on water infrastructure during wars and regional violence, the use of water as a weapon, and terrorist attacks where water systems or users were explicitly targeted. The new release brings the number of recorded conflicts to around 370, from every populated region of the world. The full list can be found here.
Around 20 new examples from 2014 and 2015 have been added to this update, along with some from previous years that other researchers and readers have brought to our attention. In 2015, the key locus of conflicts was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Middle East, where years of civil war, ethnic and religious violence, and ideological conflicts have taken a harsh toll. Among the countries with recent entries are Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan, including cases involving the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in exactly the same region of Mesopotamia as entries from 2500 BC. Additional examples involving Russia, Ukraine, Somalia, and Colombia were also added for 2015, along with some new earlier instances, including a new entry for 1904 from the brutal suppression of the Herero people of German South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia).
Among the most disturbing trends in 2015 was the intentional and unintentional destruction of water infrastructure in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine including attacks on water pipelines and water supply systems in Syria and Iraq, and the use of major dams as weapons of war in Iraq, where water was intentionally released to flood downstream towns. In other parts of the world we also saw instances of violence over access to water, from low-level fights among land owners to the deaths of thousands in Yemen in armed fights over wells and other water access points.
The creator of the chronology, Pacific Institute President Peter H. Gleick, expressed concern regarding the recent trends. “We continue to see violence over water around the world as populations grow and as pressures on water resources increase. At the same time, civil and regional wars are taking a massive toll on civilian populations through the destruction of water and other basic infrastructure. More pressure by governments, the United Nations, and international agencies is needed to prevent fights over water and to call attention to violations of human rights and other international laws when water systems are targeted by combatants or used as weapons of war.”
Since its founding in 1987, the Pacific Institute has worked to understand the links between water resources, environmental issues, and international security and conflict. This has included early analytical assessments (such as a 1987 Ambio paper and this one from the journal Climatic Change) of the risks between climate change and security through changes in access to Arctic resources, food production, and water resources, as well as the Water Conflict Chronology.
Over the past century there has been an increase in the number of reported conflicts over water resources. Part of this increase is certainly due to better reporting in recent years, but growing populations, rising demands for water in water-scarce regions, and weak governance structures and institutions for reducing conflicts at the local and regional level may also be contributing to the increase. In the coming years, far more effort is needed to both understand the nature of these risks and to develop diplomatic, economic, and institutional tools for reducing conflicts over water resources. The Pacific Institute will continue to be the leading source for collecting and analyzing information on these challenges.