What’s a water dispute?

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Water conflicts arise when consumption levels exceed renewal times, leading to tensions over access and control of shared water resources. The Middle East and Africa are particularly vulnerable due to scarcity and ancient religious and ethnic differences. Future conflicts may be inevitable as global warming, population growth, and pollution exacerbate the issue. However, peaceful resolution through treaties and conservation methods can help avoid violent conflicts.

A water conflict is a dispute over access to water resources. Water is a precious commodity all over the world and most of the time it is considered a renewable resource. In some areas of the world, however, consumption levels can exceed renewal times, leading to water shortages and provoking tensions and disagreements. Water battles can arise across international borders or between countries, states and territories as groups with differing conflicts of interest over who has the authority to control or access a shared water supply. For many nations, access to fresh water has become an economic, social and human rights issue.

However, the water battles aren’t limited to the recent overconsumption of humans; water conflicts have occurred for thousands of years. The earliest known water conflict occurred in ancient Mesopotamia between the neighboring city-states of Lagash and Umma. When Lagash diverted water from its neighbor, the conflict turned violent.

Modern water-related conflicts have the potential to be even more turbulent. One area of ​​the globe where water battles typically occur is the Middle East, the driest region in the world. Although the Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates rivers are located in the region, the amount of renewable water accounts for only about one percent of the world’s total available supply, leading to a situation where five percent of the world’s population is competing for the same watersheds.

Lack of rainfall and drought in the area contribute to the conflict over water. Ancient religious and ethnic differences have contributed to making the situation even more unstable for some regions. In particular, Israel and Palestine have had a number of conflicts over access to water.

In some areas of Africa, tensions arise between the shared sources of rivers and groundwater as countries push for larger quotas and develop projects that could affect other countries’ share of water. For example, the Nile River winds its way through ten African countries before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Egyptian civilization was built around the Nile and the country claimed historical rights to the use of the river. An agreement is in place between Egypt and Sudan, which are downstream, but Ethiopia and other countries located upstream of the Nile are pushing for a more equitable sharing of water resources.

Over a billion people lack regular access to safe drinking water; global warming, population booms and water pollution could cause further complications. As nations push for adequate access to freshwater resources needed for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, industrialization and other activities, future conflicts may be inevitable.
In most cases, however, disagreements over water don’t turn violent. When they do, the water is usually only one part of a larger issue, exacerbating tensions between already feuding parties. To avoid conflicts over water, countries often try to resolve their problems peacefully through treaties and by complying with international water laws. To further ease tensions, countries are increasingly using water conservation methods that reduce the amount of water needed.

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