Of course, the policy community has long prophesied impending “water wars.” In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon warned that “water scarcity … is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.” Yet history has not witnessed many. In fact, the only official war over water took place about 4,500 years ago. It was a conflict between the city-states of Lagash and Umma in modern day Iraq over the Tigris river. More recently, there have been some close calls, especially in the arid Middle East. About two years before the 1967 War, Israel and Syria exchanged fire over the Jordan River Basin, which both said the other was overusing. The limited armed clashes petered out, but the political dispute over the countries’ shared water sources continues. In 2002, Lebanon constructed water pumps on one of the river’s tributaries, which caused concern for downstream Israel. The project never provoked any formal military action, but with peace in the region already precarious, verbal exchanges between the two countries prompted the United States to step in. Both parties eventually accepted a compromise that would allow Lebanon to withdraw a predetermined amount of water for its domestic needs.
In short, predictions of a Water World War are overwrought. However, tensions over water usage can still exacerbate other existing regional conflicts. Climate change is expected to intensify droughts, floods, and other extreme weather conditions that jeopardize freshwater quantity and quality and therefore act as a threat-multiplier, making shaky regions shakier.
So what river basins constitute the biggest risks today? In a World Bank report we published in 2010 (as well as a subsequent article in a special issue of the Journal of Peace Research) we analyzed the physical effects of climate change on international rivers. We modeled the variability in river annual runoff in the past and for future climate scenarios. We also considered the existence and nature of the institutional capacity around river basins, in the form of international water treaties, to potentially deal with the effects of climate change.
According to our research, 24 of the world’s 276 international river basins are already experiencing increased water variability.