“If it bleeds it leads” goes an old newspaper adage. Maybe that explains the perennial popularity of “water wars” in articles written by journalists, academics and national security wonks. More specifically it’s “the prospect” of conflict these pundits seem to find so appealing. Prospects because there have, in fact, been very few actual armed conflicts over water. A couple of border skirmishes between China and the USSR in 1969 (the Cold War era); rival ethnic groups in Ethiopia and Somalia fighting over watering holes for livestock (2002); Israel clashing with Jordan and Palestine (forever).
Even in these cases it’s difficult to separate water from the Gordian knot of issues that keeps these groups locked in conflict. Examining the record, water seems to be more often used as a weapon of war or is a casualty of war or an excuse rather than the actual cause of conflict. What’s far more evident is transboundary cooperation over water.
The Water Events database, where I found these examples, is just one of many resources you will find at the Oregon State University (OSU) website for their Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation. Other resources include an International Freshwater Treaties Database (summaries and full text of more than 400 international, freshwater-related agreements from 1820 to 2007); an International River Basins Register (lists the world's international river basins); U.S. Interstate Freshwater Compacts Water Conflict and Cooperation Bibliography; and my personal favorite, the International Water Event Database.
The search interfaces are simple and easy to use if somewhat limited, but you can download a lot of the data as Excel spreadsheets if you want to do your own analysis. Among several research projects is Basins At Risk, that identifies indicators of geopolitical water resources conflict and specific international basins at risk for future tensions, and monitors the likelihood of domestic and international disputes. The site promises that “studies of hydropolitical vulnerability for each continent are forthcoming”.
The site has some shortcomings. Most importantly it is out of date with the most recent entries being for 2008. There is little data on China, which is fast becoming a hydropower hotspot within its own borders and in river basins in neighboring countries. My anti-spam software kept throwing up warnings of malicious URLs, which is both annoying and distracting. It’s worth fixing.
The Water Events database is important because it refutes the mindset of conflict. The pundits who wring their hands and warn us about the prospects of conflict or even wars over water need to be mindful of the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The research carried out under OSU Basins At Risk project indicates that:
"…international relations over freshwater resources are overwhelmingly cooperative and cover a wide range of issue areas, including water quantity, quality, joint management, and hydropower. Conflictive relations tend to center on quantity and infrastructure concerns. No single indicator explained conflict/cooperation over water, including climate, water stress, government type, and dependence on freshwater resources for agriculture or energy. Even those indicators that showed a significant correlation with water conflict, such as high population density, low per capita GDP, and overall unfriendly international relations, explained only a small percentage of the variability in the data. Overall, the most promising sets of indicators for water conflict were those associated with rapid or extreme changes in the institutional or physical systems within a basin (e.g., internationalization of a basin, large dams) and the key role of institutional mechanisms, such as international freshwater treaties, in mitigating such conflict."
The OSU program and its associated datasets clearly show that water has been and can continue to be platform for cooperation. International Water Cooperation is the theme of this year’s United Nations World Water Day. What better occasion to revitalize the OSU program and update the valuable data and research they have done to date.
What you can do
1. Make it your personal World Water Day activity to visit the site and get yourself a fresh perspective on the role of water in international cooperation.
2. Post a comment to tell us about your ideas, approaches, methods and examples of conflict resolution regarding transboundary water issues. “Transboundary” includes boundaries across states within a country.
3. Write to Aaron Wolf at the OSU Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation and help add to the their datasets and collection of research and case studies. firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s make this UN World Water Day the day we started focusing on cooperation and debunking the myth of conflict
 Wolf, A. T., Yoffe, S. B., & Giordano, M. (2003). International waters: Identifying basins at risk. Water policy, 5(1), 29-60.