Politics of water distribution


All around the world, water resources have a tremendous influence on politics. The natural distribution of watersheds has a far-reaching impact on international political behaviors. In a world where 276 river basins are shared by two (and sometimes more) riparian states, it is difficult to avoid conflicts over water resources (LeMarquand, 1977). Moreover, this scenario makes the struggle for water resources among countries to constitute a core element of international political behaviors.

This paper explores the ways in which water resources around the world have an impact on politics. Analysis is made with reference to examples from various parts of the world. In this discussion, focus is on the ways in which natural distribution of watersheds affects international political behaviors.

The politics of natural distributions of watersheds

In situations where water resources are shared among many countries, the decision of one county with regard to the exploitation of this crucial resource tends to have an impact on the neighboring country. Whenever one country takes such a decision unilaterally, conflicts arise (Nishat, 2000). However, when cooperative actions are undertaken, this leads to mutual coexistence and lasting peace. In many cases, the situation tends to be even more complicated when the positioning of riparian states is put into perspective and then economic and political aspects such as military power and domestic politics are factored in. moreover, the parties in the conflict always make reference to projected utilization and demand as well as historic use.

In essence, in regions that face extreme scarcity of water or where water is unequally distributed, water availability easily becomes a security concern. All these considerations make water conflicts a very complex affair. Numerous obstacles arise in efforts to put in place an arrangement that clearly stipulates how resources are going to be shared. This difficulty is reflected in the numerous cases of conflicts and tension that have been reported in different parts of the world.

An excellent example is the Euphrates-Tigris basis, where tensions erupted in 1975 and later in 1990 (Wolf, 1999). In the latter incident, the tension arose when the Ataturk Reservoir was filled up. The countries involved in this conflict included Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. These countries nearly reached the point of raising arms against each other. Another example is the conflict between Senegal and Mauritania in 1988 (Wolf, 1999). In this water-related conflict, both countries expressed concerns over the state boundaries and territorial arrangements that had traditionally been in existence, which had always had a lasting impact on the sharing of water resources between these two countries.

To best understand the reasons why these conflicts as well as their prospects, it is imperative to explore other concepts that come into play in determining the security equation. However, in the context of international political behavior, this issue becomes complicated because, other than water, there are other variables that tend to have an effect on security issues. In fact, in many instances, water seems to be a dependent variable. In this case, the causes of conflicts, when viewed from the ‘surface’, seem to be caused primarily by domestic and regional factors (World Water Commission, 2000). A case in point is that of the Ganges-Brhamaputra-Mhagna basin and the Jordan basin, where water-related conflicts exacerbate the political conflicts that already exist between the respective nations. In some instances, the existing political conflicts triggers tension over the utilization of shared water resources.

It is evident that in many areas where water conflicts exist but are not the sole cause of political instability, efforts to bring an end to political conflict without first resolving the water conflict tends to end up in failure, particularly on the political front (Dinar, 2001). Moreover, it is easy for security to be undermined in countries where inter-state conflict has been triggered solely by lack of consensus on how to utilize this critical resource. One would also expect a threat to security to prevail if there is failure of negotiations over how water resources are to be shared.

In the conflict that raged in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, the relationship between regional security and water resources manifested itself. In contrast, the case of conflict between Syria, Turkey, and Iraq was a bit different because historical differences have tended to set them apart from each other. However, the issue of water exacerbated the tension that already existed among them, leading to a near-armed conflict.

A different conflict is the one that pitted Israel against Lebanon in July 2012 because of the latter country’s decision to divert the Hatzbani River, a tributary that supplies about a quarter of the water flowing in the Jordan River (The Jerusalem Post, 2012). Following this decision, Israel made an appeal to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In making this appeal, Israel was hoping that plans would be put in place to attack Lebanon for draining the country’s most previous resource, which the country considers to be more precious than gas.

In September 2012, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) started deliberating responses in anticipation of a possible move by Lebanon to embark on diversion activities on Hatzbani River (The Jerusalem Post, 2012). Israel has been taking this issue so seriously that it views any attempt to divert the river to be a justification for war. The concerns expressed by Israel arose out of the decision by Lebanon to construct a national tourism center near the border with Israel. Such a conflict shows how the natural distributions of watersheds impacts upon international political behavior of sovereign states.

Israel has been arguing that there is need for the IDF to monitor closely the construction of the tourism center in order to take immediate military action in the event that Hatzbani water is diverted (The Jerusalem Post, 2012). Israel’s main concern is the proximity of the site to the country’s border, particularly considering that numerous near-clashes have occurred in the past between the Lebanese Armed Forces and IDF troops. In light of this fact, Israel argues that the site could simply be a cover for use in launching attacks against Israel.

A similar wave of tension arose in 2001 when Israel threatened to take military action against Lebanon if the country continued to allow its citizens to embark on efforts to divert huge amounts of water from the Hatzbani River. During this tension, Ariel Sharon, the then Israeli prime minister, warned that the country would consider Lebanon’s action to divert the waters of the river as ‘pretext for war’. These threats were triggered by Lebanon’s announcement that it would install a pipeline connecting five nearby villages to the river, thereby diverting some 5,000 cubic meters.

Nevertheless, in most of the conflicts involving the utilization of water resources, there are numerous ways in which the antagonists can appreciate that this issue is best addressed in a manner that is independent of the mainstream notion of security. In many instances, at least one of the parties realizes that cooperation in issues of water will most likely bring about cooperation in several other domains. For example, within the Mekong Basin, the parties to the conflict realized that water was a mechanism through which peace and development could be fostered in the region. Similarly, concerning the Jordan River Basin, cooperation by all parties over water was regarded by the US as a crucial mechanism through which peace could be initiated across the region.

In conclusion, the different factors that determine the intensity of conflicts over water resources are an indicator of the far-reaching impact of national distribution of watersheds on international politic behaviors. These factors demonstrate the various ways in which water resources around the world affect politics and international political behaviors. Some of the main factors in this regard include degree of scarcity, the fact that water does not respect national/political boundaries, historical criteria of water ownership, and the relative powers of the various parties to the conflict.




Dinar, A. (2001) Reforming Ourselves Rather than Our Water Resources: Politics of Water Scarcity at Local, National and International Levels, Washington, D.C.: Pearson Books.

LeMarquand, D. (1977) International Rivers: The Politics of Cooperation, Vancouver: Westwater Research Center.

Nishat, A. (2000) An Assessment of the Institutional Mechanisms for Water Negotiations in the Ganges Brahmaputra-Maghna System, International Negotiation, 5(2), 289-310.

The Jerusalem Post (2012) IDF concerned Lebanon planning water diversion, 07 September 2012 retrieved from http://www.jpost.com/Defense/Article.aspx?id=276732  on November 3, 2012.

Wolf, A. (1999) International River Basins of the World, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 15(4), 387-427.

World Water Commission (2000) World Water Vision Commission Report: A Water-Secure World, London: Thanet Press.

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