Water: Oil of the 21st Century?

kat By Katarina Salaj

Water, a natural resource of fundamental importance in sustaining all kinds of life. Something that we take for granted when we take our morning showers, make our favourite pasta or just drink a cup of tea. Population increase, economic prosperity and amplified consumption are just some of the reasons as to why we are now witnessing the fragility and limitations of this vital resource. In fact, water is the underlining cause of many social and political phenomena ranging from poverty, migrations to even civil unrest and wars. Its fundamental importance has led some to refer to it as the ‘oil of the twenty- first century’ (source 1) emphasising the need to understand the extent and gravity of geopolitical effects of its scarcity.

Alarmingly, it has been predicted that by 2020 more than half of the world’s population will suffer from water stressed conditions (source 2) and that at least 300 conflicts concerning water security may be looming (source 3). In the future, the ever-entwining connection between environmental and human security will only enhance, diverting water away from being understood simply as a public health concern, but rather a security issue of national and international dimensions. Specifically, three patterns of water insecurity are pressing: mass migrations, political instability and weaponisation of water.


Climate change and water shortage, combined with the apparent lack of proper and functional transnational water cooperation agreements is doing more harm than good. Consequently, dangerous patterns emerge both as a direct and indirect result of growing political and social instability, uprisings, migrations and even wars. The world is currently witnessing a historic number of displaced people, with the latest estimated number being 65 million (source 4). Reasons for migrations are varied and complex, however a growing number of scholars, aid agencies, national and international, governmental and non-governmental organization have identified the link between environmental changes, migration and conflict (source 5). The prolonged nature of conflict, combined with growing tensions in the region, results in a vast number of refugees seeking safety in Europe and other parts of the world. Destination and transit countries struggling with the large influx of people are eagerly trying to find suitable solutions to solve the matter. Nevertheless, policies concerning migrations hardly ever take into account the impacts of environmental challenges, therefore excluding an important factor contributing to large flows of today’s migrations. This perception has to change; the focus should be directed towards the origins of certain migration flows, recognizing that the root cause of movement may also be a result of environmental challenges, including water shortage.


Water has already spurred political instability in many regions across the world, specifically those suffering from long periods of draughts, such as the Middle East. Specifically, Syria was hit by several devastating drought periods from 2006-2010, just before the 2011 civil war. World Resource Institute and others (source 6) have stated that droughts and consequently water shortages are one of the key factors for political and social instability within the country. Indeed, analysis of the Syrian water crisis should be careful not to exclude the broader context of many years of ‘resource mismanagement, rapid economic liberalization, abrupt cancellation of state subsidies and general poor governance on behalf of the Syrian government. This is especially evident in its failure to address the humanitarian and environmental crisis that had been taking shape for more than a decade at the time of the uprising in 2011’ (source 7). The Syrian uprising that started in March 2011 was sparked by a series of interconnected environmental, social, economic and political factors. The many years of resource mismanagement and overexploitation caused the depletion of resources, which in turn led to growing marginalization and discontent in Syria’s rural communities (source 8). As people started to lose their livelihoods and homes, the social contract between citizen and government in the country began eroding. This in turn intensified the case for the opposition movement, and damaged the legitimacy of the government (source 9). Water in this case was not the sole reason for political upheaval, its role, however, is inextricable.


On another note, water when scarce could be used as a weapon: a tool of violence and leverage. Particularly, weaponisation of water means using water as leverage/ ways of achieving political goals. It is not surprising that the US State Department listed water scarcity as “a central U.S. foreign policy concern’ (source 10), recognizing the change in the nature of conflicts, shifting away from the traditional security threats to non- state and extremist actors utilizing it as a tool of violence. As long as water is essential to life, ‘it will be a pawn on the chessboard of international relations and diplomacy’ (source 11). Those controlling the flow of a water resource have enormous power over the entire population that relies on the source, as the capability of providing or denying access to it is a huge cause of influence. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that control over rivers and dams has become a major tactical weapon for ISIS, as they aptly take advantage of the results of climate change, using them as tools of terror by restricting water to target populations. Through its control of pipe systems, they have cut off water supply to Kurds and Christians as part of their strategy of destruction in Syria and Iraq (source 12). As Matthew Machowski stated: ‘Rebel forces are targeting water installations to cut off supplies to the largely Shia south of Iraq’, and ‘it is already being used as an instrument of war by all sides. One could claim that controlling water resources in Iraq is even more important than controlling the oil refineries, especially in summer’ (source 13).


As the world is approaching the brink of water insecurity, it is more important than ever to understand and debate the reasons for and the implications of water scarcity, in order to reach viable solutions both nationally and internationally. We should be aiming for the creation of sustainable and durable water agreements, if we should ever have any hope of ending the exploitation of this vital natural resource. The international community has to address the problem in a comprehensive manner, through multilateral cooperation that ensures global cooperation and guarantees efficient resource management for long-term sustainable and impartial use of water. Importantly though, it cannot stop with the politicians and the international agreements. In the end, it falls on us, on you and me. It is crucial that the public is made aware of the potential damages of careless water usage, and that relevant policies are implemented to monitor the exploitation of the threatened resource on all levels of society simultaneously.







1,2, 10: Chellaney, B. (2013) Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.


3: Global Policy Forum. (2001) Water, the Looming Source of World Conflict.

[online] Available from: https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40338.html [Accessed: November 2016].


4: UNHCR (2016): With 1 human in every 113 affected, forced displacement hits record high. [online] Available from: http://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2016/6/5763ace54/1-human-113-affected-forced-displacement-hits-record-high.html [Accessed: November 2016].

5.1: Gleditsch, N. P. (2011). Regional Conflict and Climate Change. Centre for the Study of Civil War (CSCW), Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), & Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim. Paper prepared for the workshop on Research on Climate Change Impacts and Associated Economic Damages, Washington, DC, 27–28 January 2011.

5.2: Oels, A. (2016). Resiting the climate security discourse in Dalby, S. & O’Lear, S. “Reframing Climate Change – Constructing Ecological Geopolitics”. First Edition, Routledge, Francis and Taylor Group, New York.

5.3: Sirkeci, I. (2009) Transnational mobility and conflict”. Migration Letters.Volume. 6, No. 1.

6: Gleick, P. H. (2014) Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria in: Weather, Climate, and Society, July 2014, Vol. 6, No. 3 : pp. 331-340

7, 8: de Châtel, F. (2014): The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution. Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 50, Issue 4. Delanty, G.; Strydom, Piet. (eds.) (2003) “Introduction” in: The Philosophies of Social Science: The classical and Contemporary Readings” Open University Press

9: Femia, F., and C. Werrell (2012): Syria: Climate change, drought, and social unrest. The Center for Climate and Security. 29.02.2012. Available at: http://climateandsecurity.org/2012/02/29/syria-climate-change-drought-and-social-unrest/

11: The Guardian (2014): Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn. [online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/02/water-key-conflict-iraq-syria-isis. [Accessed: November 2016].


12: Martel, Frances (2014). ISIS Cutting off Water Supply to Christians, Kurds in Regions They Do Not Control. [online] Available from: http:// http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2014/07/22/isis-cuttingoff-water-supply-to-christians-kurds-in-regions-they-do-notcontrol/%5BAccessed: November 2016].

13: Hansen, S.G., D’Costa, L.L., Blåbjær, K. & Grønbech, P. (2015) Water Scarcity and Political Instability in the Middle East – a multiscale study of Syria and its surrounding environment. [online] Available from: http://rudar.ruc.dk/bitstream/1800/26062/1/Master%20Document%20(Water%20Scarcity).pdf Accessed: November 2016].



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