Where the Water Wars of the future will be fought – Paul Ratner * An innovative approach to the assessment of hydro-political risk – F. Farinosia.

A new study from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) paints a disturbing picture of a nearby future where people are fighting over access to water. These post-apocalyptic sounding “water wars” could rise as a result of climate change and population growth and could become real soon enough if we don’t take steps to prevent them.

The study finds that serious conflicts over water are going to arise around the globe. The 5 hotspots identified by the paper include areas of the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado rivers.

It’s still possible to change course if we are prepared to address the effects of climate change.

Likelihood of hydro-political issues among the main transboundary basins (transboundary basin borders in black, non-transboundary areas shaded).

Big Think

An innovative approach to the assessment of hydro-political risk:

A spatially explicit, data driven indicator of hydro-political issues.

F. Farinosia


Competition over limited water resources is one of the main concerns for the coming decades. Although water issues alone have not been the sole trigger for warfare in the past, tensions over freshwater management and use represent one of the main concerns in political relations between riparian states and may exacerbate existing tensions, increase regional instability and social unrest.

Previous studies made great efforts to understand how international water management problems were addressed by actors in a more cooperative or confrontational way. In this study, we analyze what are the pre-conditions favoring the insurgence of water management issues in shared water bodies, rather than focusing on the way water issues are then managed among actors. We do so by proposing an innovative analysis of past episodes of conflict and cooperation over transboundary water resources (jointly defined as “hydro-political interactions”).

On the one hand, we aim at highlighting the factors that are more relevant in determining water interactions across political boundaries. On the other hand, our objective is to map and monitor the evolution of the likelihood of experiencing hydro-political interactions over space and time, under changing socioeconomic and biophysical scenarios, through a spatially explicit data driven index.

Historical cross-border water interactions were used as indicators of the magnitude of corresponding water joint-management issues. These were correlated with information about river basin freshwater availability, climate stress, human pressure on water resources, socioeconomic conditions (including institutional development and power imbalances), and topographic characteristics. This analysis allows for identification of the main factors that determine water interactions, such as water availability, population density, power imbalances, and climatic stressors.

The proposed model was used to map at high spatial resolution the probability of experiencing hydro-political interactions worldwide. This baseline outline is then compared to four distinct climate and population density projections aimed to estimate trends for hydro-political interactions under future conditions (2050 and 2100), while considering two greenhouse gases emission scenarios (moderate and extreme climate change).

The combination of climate and population growth dynamics is expected to impact negatively on the overall hydro-political risk by increasing the likelihood of water interactions in the transboundary river basins, with an average increase ranging between 74.9% (2050 – population and moderate climate change) to 95% (2100 – population and extreme climate change).

Future demographic and climatic conditions are expected to exert particular pressure on already water stressed basins such as the Nile, the Ganges/Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Tigris/Euphrates, and the Colorado.

The results of this work allow us to identify current and future areas where water issues are more likely to arise, and where cooperation over water should be actively pursued to avoid possible tensions especially under changing environmental conditions.

From a policy perspective, the index presented in this study can be used to provide a sound quantitative basis to the assessment of the Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6.5 “Water resources management”, and in particular to indicator 6.5.2 “Transboundary cooperation”.

View/download this study


In this paper, we presented an innovative analysis of the past hydro-political issues in international river basins and their determinants through the application of the Random Forest regression algorithm. Our analysis had two main goals: highlighting the factors that are more relevant in determining the hydro-political interactions, capturing also the non-linear relations between the main drivers; and producing a tool able to map and monitor the evolution of the hydro-political risk over space and time, under specific socioeconomic and biophysical scenarios.

We did that by designing an empirically estimated, data-driven, and spatially explicit global index of the magnitude of hydro-political issues. The factors that were found to be more relevant in determining hydro-political interactions were mainly represented by, respectively: population density, water availability (quantified through the Falkenmark index), upstream/downstream dynamics (represented by the flow accumulation), with territorial (area difference) and power imbalance (Composite Index of National Capability – CINC), and climatic conditions. Current climatic and socioeconomic conditions were used to design a baseline scenario of the distribution of the likelihood of hydro-political interactions. This output allows us to map the spatial distribution of the areas within the basins where water management issues are more likely to rise under current conditions.

Among the basins found to be more likely to experience water issues in this study, some were already identified as basin at risk in previous analyses, namely: Ganges/Brahmaputra, Pearl/Bei Jiang, Nile, Feni (or Fenney), Indus, Colorado, Tarim, Shatt al-Arab – Tigris/Euphrates, Hari, and Irrawaddy. The hereby proposed index adds the possibility to identify the most critical areas within the basin boundaries.

The baseline scenario was then compared to four distinct climate and population density projections, designed by combining the most updated bias corrected and spatially detailed climate and the most recent estimates of the future population changes. The results of this work allow the identification of the areas where water interactions are more likely to arise under present and upcoming conditions, and cooperation over water should be pursued to avoid possible hydro-political tensions. Future demographic and climatic conditions are expected to heavily increase the probability of experiencing water management issues in already stressed basins, such as the Nile, the Indus, the Colorado, the Feni, the Irrawaddy, the Orange, and the Okavango.

One of the characteristics of the analysis presented is that we chose not to make a distinction between past episodes of cooperation and dispute over water, using them collectively as water interactions, a measure of the magnitude of the associated water issue. This was motivated by the fact that water disputes had virtually never ended in violent conflicts, at least in the most recent historical eras, and by the consideration that the classification of positive (cooperative) and negative (conflictive) interactions in the event databases has often been arbitrary and ambiguous.

Our focus was then more oriented towards understanding the preconditions increasing the likelihood of experiencing hydro-political interactions due to emerging water management issues. More than being exhaustive, our approach tends to boost the interest in the hydro-political field of study, by offering a new perspective through the application of a methodology that had never been considered before in this kind of analyses, dealing with aspects that are different by the only institutional resilience, and by exploring the possibility of creating a spatially explicit interactive tool able to assist stakeholders and policy makers in dealing with water related issues in different socioeconomic and climatic contexts through the analysis of what-if scenarios. Future studies could further develop the instrument by integrating updated socioeconomic, biophysical, and demographic projections.

The difficulties and the limitations encountered in this process were multiple. Beside the logical constraints that every global analysis has, as the other studies in this field, this work is affected by limitations in data availability. Water events database are extremely hard and expensive to collect and to manage. Data collection is mostly conducted through the application of mining algorithms operating in the news databases available only in the most widely spoken western languages. For this reason, the available datasets are necessarily biased and incomplete. Their temporal coverage is very limited, only eleven years in our case, and the sub-national geographic characterizations of the specific water related events is, in the majority of the cases, not considered. These particular factors make very difficult to apply the existing datasets for the development of spatially explicit interactive decision makingtools.

As stated above, the index presented in this paper could be applied for the Agenda 2030 monitoring activities and in particular for Target 6.5 – Water Resources Management, where the only indicator regarding hydro-political dynamics used is the 6.5.2 Proportion of transboundary basin area with an operational arrangement for water cooperation. This is an indicator capturing mainly the institutional resilience in transboundary basins, with no consideration for the other determining factors specifically analyzed in this study. Therefore, the use of the proposed index could provide a substantial contribution to move from the mere recording of facts, to the understanding of phenomena the mechanisms behind them, which are prerequisites for identification of effective sustainability policies.

As noted already in previous global analyses (Bernauer and Böhmelt, 2014; De Stefano et al., 2017; Yoffe et al., 2003), the results of this study should be intended to be an indicator of the areas that might require closer investigation under present and possible upcoming scenarios. We recommend to further explore the development of this analysis in regional or sub-regional contexts where more detailed data is available.

Future research will be focused in specific transnational river basins in developing countries where potential water stress, exacerbated by climate change and variability, rapid population growth, and unsustainable development could be further destabilizing factors for the already tumultuous political context.

Science Direct


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