Transboundary Issues: Where Are All the Water Wars?

Wendy Barnaby has an excellent piece in last week’s Nature (free for now, behind the paywall soon) challenging the conventional wisdom that wars of scarce water supplies are a likely result of the collision between population growth, aridity and climate change.

Barnaby had set out to write a book about water wars. But the more research she did, the more she realized they didn’t happen. Why is that? Her answer seems straightforward and persuasive: Water shortages show up in their most extreme form as a shortage of water needed to grow food. Nations that cannot grow all their own food import it from elsewhere. Conflict over a lack of water, she found, is routinely addressed by nations through food imports rather than going to war:

The relationship of food trade to water sustainability is often not obvious, and often remains invisible: no political leader will gain any popularity by acknowledging that their country makes up the water budget only by importing food.

This is not some arm-waving theoretical argument, but rather an empirical assertion. To the extent there are wars that might look like wars over water, Barnaby argues, they in fact are wars over more complex power relations between nations, with water a bit player rather than a central cause.

Barnaby may have scuttled her own book, but she seems to be on to something here:

Book or no book, it is still important that the popular myth of water wars somehow be dispelled once and for all. This will not only stop unsettling and incorrect predictions of international conflict over water. It will also discourage a certain public resignation that climate change will bring war, and focus attention instead on what politicians can do to avoid it: most importantly, improve the conditions of trade for developing countries to strengthen their economies. And it would help to convince water engineers and managers, who still tend to see water shortages in terms of local supply and demand, that the solutions to water scarcity and security lie outside the water sector in the water/food/trade/economic development nexus. It would be great if we could unclog our stream of thought about the misleading notions of ‘water wars’.


  1. The discussion of food imports reminds me of another book that I recently read. Have you read Dirt, by David Montgomery? He argues that many civilizations (going back to those in Mesopotamia and ancient China) have lost their ability to grow enough food because of soil loss due to intensive agriculture. The US, he argues, first avoided the problem by letting people continuously move west, and then by intense fertilization. But he doesn’t think that the productivity gains from the green revolution are sustainable, because of the amount of soil loss that continues.

    It’s interesting (though a little repetitive – “and then the soil eroded and people started farming more and more marginal land and then the civilization collapsed”). I’m used to thinking about water rather than dirt (or at least, I hadn’t thought as much about dirt since my college years in Minnesota farmland), but maybe dirt is still more important than I’ve thought.

  2. I wrote a longer comment but the computer or the Internet ate it.

    Here is a shorter version.

    There have not been wars over water because the water deficient, poor, nations’ leaders are not intent on self-immolation. So they do not start water wars that they will lose in a few days and that will result in their own death. We may see wars over water in the future when powerful, water rich, nations start to need water for themselves, i.e. when there is no longer a way to buy ‘virtual water.’

    So Barnaby’s analysis seems to apply to the past hundred years but is not predictive for the next hundred.


  3. There’s no sense fighting wars over water because it’s too damn heavy to move around (as booty) or control (vs. diamonds or oil). Back to the cost-benefit table.

    OTOH, I would also say that water cooperation is more predictable than water wars b/c civilization is FOUNDED on water cooperation (e.g., public fountains), and those that cannot cooperate dry up and die b/c they cannot protect their water sources. When it comes to neighbors, cooperation is better than fighting b/c NEITHER side is served by destroying the water supply (very easy) in a conflict.

    Finally, it’s that old moral question: Is it better to cooperate over water or fight and harm each other? I think that most humans KNOW that water is precious and that denying water to others is the lowest form of behavior.

    Keep up the debunking!

  4. IMHO the author doesn’t know their environmental history.

    Projecting into a future with which we have no experience (higher temps than ever before seen in the anthropocene) using past data is rife with issues and neglects ecological principles.

    There likely will be resource wars. This much is clear to those with an ecological education.



  5. Eric and Dano, I agree about caution in making projections into the future on this one. And I say this as someone makes these types of projections.

    David, you miss the gravity of the situation: water is actually very easy to move if its in your physical (or virtual) catchment. I agree with your other long-term cost benefit analysis, including the likelihood that people won’t engage in conflict that compromises what they’re conflicting over, but not everyone acts this sanely in the short-term. Certainly not politicians.

    Both the “Arrggh, water wars!” and “No water wars, numbskull!” stories fall short.

  6. I had thought it wasn’t especially disputed that the likely trigger would be drought rather than water as such.

  7. Pingback: Water Wars NOT! | 1800blogger

  8. Pingback: Water Wars NOT! | Conservation Blog

Comments are closed.