Chronology examines the issue of violence associated with fresh water

The Tigris. Photo by J. Carl Ganter.

By Eileen Wray-McCann, Circle of Blue

Water watchers know the Pacific Institute is a renowned global water think tank providing thought leadership for sustainable water policies. For over 30 years, the Institute has curated a chronology of water and conflict, tracking and categorizing events from the present back to the earliest recorded history.

“Speaking of Water” host Eileen Wray-McCann spoke with the Pacific Institute’s co-founder and President Emeritus, Dr. Peter Gleick to discuss the connections between resource issues, environmental issues, and the broad area of international security and

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Eileen Wray-McCann: This is Eileen Wray-McCann of Circle of Blue, your host for “Speaking of Water,” which today takes a close look at water and conflict through the lens of time. Water watchers know the Pacific Institute is a renowned global water think tank providing thought leadership for sustainable water policies. The Institute publishes The World’s water, a leading resource on water issues and data. For over 30 years, the Institute has curated a chronology of water and conflict, tracking and categorizing events from the present back to the earliest recorded history. And with me here today to talk about the Water Conflict Chronology is the Pacific Institute’s co-founder and President Emeritus, Dr. Peter Gleick. Welcome, Peter.

Peter Gleick: Thank you, I’m delighted to be with you today.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Thanks. Could you describe this project a bit? What got you started and how you got your arms around this huge body of information?

Peter Gleick: Well, for a long time, I’ve been interested in the connections between resource issues, environmental issues, and the broad area of international security and conflict. Really, many years ago, I started collecting data on conflicts around fresh water resources, and it grew into what is now the Water Conflict Chronology, this online database of every example that we can find of violence associated with fresh water resources, where water is used as a weapon of war or has been a trigger of conflict or a victim or a casualty of conflict. Those are the categories we look at, where there’s been violence associated with fresh water.

Eileen Wray-McCann: You divide the conflicts into a number of categories that you just alluded to, could you explain what those are?

Peter Gleick: Yes, we are interested in the issue of violence associated with fresh water, not necessarily the idea of water wars, which people are concerned about and interested in. Wars start for many different reasons. Political, ideological, economic, religious -– and I’m less concerned with the idea that there will be wars over water, although that’s a potential concern in the future, than I am with the fact that there seems to be a tremendous amount of violence of one form or another associated with either access to water, where water is a trigger of conflict, where water or water systems are used as weapons in wars that start for whatever terrible reason they start for, or where water and water systems are casualties and targets of conflicts. Unfortunately, we see examples in each of those categories going back literally thousands of years.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Your timeline chronicles over 500 conflicts. Could you describe a particular conflict in terms of water, so we get an idea of the kind of things you’re talking about?

Peter Gleick: Well, one of the earliest entries in the database is a conflict over irrigation water between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in the ancient Mesopotamian era, really over 4,000 years ago, between two ancient city states. They were fighting over access to irrigation water, and ironically, we see even today some of the most severe examples and instances of conflicts over water in this same region of the world, the Middle East, between the Tigris and the Euphrates River, where modern Iraq and Syria now sit.

Eileen Wray-McCann: That’s true, that’s true, we just did some recent stories on that. Have you seen patterns over time then? Are there conflicts that are chronic, obviously in some places such as this, or acute at certain times? Are there cycles? What are you seeing in the long view?

Peter Gleick: We do see patterns. I think the history, the long history, gives us some insight into the way water has been used as a weapon or a target or a casualty of war. Unfortunately, we see, first of all, an increase in conflicts over water over time, far more examples in the latter part of the 20th century, and especially over the last several decades. Now, that may be just a better reporting of examples reaching the media, reaching the public’s awareness, but I actually think we’re seeing over time, an increase in conflicts over water, as water becomes more scarce, but we also see an increase in the change of the nature of conflicts over water. Again, in recent years, we’ve seen a vast increase in the targeting of civilian water systems, of access to safe water, of water treatment plants, of water distribution systems, of dams as, really, a tool that conflicting parties are using against, unfortunately, civilian populations.

Eileen Wray-McCann: That’s interesting. I was thinking about the idea of water as a weapon, but it seems like in the weaponizing of water, it becomes a casualty, and that’s reflected in your categories as well.

Peter Gleick: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, we do see throughout history water used as a weapon. In World War II, the Germans released water from dams to stop the advancing allied forces. We’ve seen some of that on the Tigris and the Euphrates recently with the Islamic state capturing dams and then releasing water to try for military purposes, but we also see what seem to be intentional attacks on civilian infrastructure, energy infrastructure, health infrastructure, and unfortunately water infrastructure in recent years. We see this in Syria, we see it in Iraq, and increasingly in the last couple years we’ve seen it in Yemen, where there just seem to be these intentional attacks, which I would note, are very clear violations of international law, but seem to be going on unabated.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Well, that brings up another question. What types of conflict or violence have primarily local effects and which are more concerning in terms of regional or international scope?

Peter Gleick: Yeah, that’s a good question. It gets back to your earlier question about trends. Again, in the early history, most of the entries in the chronology, in the database, are state versus state, country versus country. They’re countries fighting over water resources or over control of a river or wars between nations. But, in recent years, we’ve seen more and more of the entries are not nation versus nation, but what we call sub-national conflicts. They’re civil wars or they’re conflicts between terrorist organizations and states. That’s a challenge as well for international law, which tends to be written for nations, but tends to have much less influence and much less restraint on some of these sub-national conflicts.

Eileen Wray-McCann: We’re in a world now that has the ability to see water in new ways. For instance, we know that water doesn’t recognize national boundaries, that it connects us in shared opportunity or peril. Do you think that awareness can change the role that water plays in conflict?

Peter Gleick: I do think so. That’s another great question in the sense that it’s important to note that we track, here at the Pacific Institute, conflicts and violence associated with fresh water. There is enormous cooperation around the world associated with fresh water, as well. There are many, many river basins where countries have gotten together and signed treaties that let them negotiate when there’s tensions over water or allocate water among the different users in a fair fashion. There are many, many hundreds, of such international river basin treaties. The problem, of course, is that we don’t always see cooperation over water, and when we see conflict over water, it’s critical that we try to understand why those conflicts occur, and then develop strategies for reducing the risk of conflict over water. If we’re in a world now where more and more of these tensions are not between Nation A and Nation B, where you could in theory have a treaty or a formal agreement, but between sub-national organizations, then we have to think about new kinds of tools. A river basin treaty may not work to reduce the risk of conflict. You may need to address some of the more fundamental challenges and tensions over access to fresh water. And that may prove to be a much more difficult problem.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Yeah, I’m thinking of, for example, of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and differences between the states of Australia, even in the same country.

Peter Gleick: So that’s a good example. So, water crosses borders in many forms. It crosses international borders, it crosses state borders. In the United States the Colorado River is shared by seven states here, and then it crosses a border and we share it with Mexico. The Murray-Darling in Australia, of course, is not an international river, but it cuts across many of the different states in Australia, and we don’t expect there to be violent conflict over access to water in the Murray-Darling. The Murray-Darling is a well-developed, well-managed, cooperative country, and they negotiate, they develop strategies and treaties and interstate agreements to share water resources. So part of the problem of conflict over water is partly an institutional one. We see conflicts over water, violent conflicts over water where states are weak, or where governance is bad, or where we don’t have the kinds of well-developed institutions that we expect to see in the richer, more developed parts of the world.

Eileen Wray-McCann: What about nature? What about the earth? Does it ever fight back?

Peter Gleick: Well, ironically, many of our water problems are associated with the fact that in the 20th century, we completely failed to understand that ecosystems were a key part of the puzzle, or we didn’t care at the time. Now, it’s the 21st century and we do understand that human use of water has tremendous ecological consequences, and more and more places are trying to figure out how to protect and restore natural ecosystems, how to return even some river flows to rivers that have been drained previously. There are places around the world where we’re beginning to take down infrastructure and remove dams to help restore natural ecosystems. The question, I guess really, you’re asking is whether the conflicts over water can be related to ecosystem damages. We tend to see more human causes behind violence over water resources, where it’s access to water or where we have conflicts for other reasons, religious or economic or ideological or political, that then have implications for water resources. But nature doesn’t fight back in that sense. It fights back in other senses by affecting human health, by affecting access to economic resources like fisheries. We do see connections like that, but they tend to be a little more removed.

Eileen Wray-McCann: How has your chronology evolved over time? I see you changed a bit of the methodology and the categories, what was that evolution process for you?

Peter Gleick: Well, as we learn more about violence associated with water resources, as we see more examples of conflict over water, it’s forced us to rethink the categories. We used to think about, “Is this a terrorist act? Is it water as a tool or a target?” And there’s ambiguity in all of these stories. You know, someone who uses water as a weapon, you may have the exact same case where somebody else sees water as a victim or a target of conflict. So that’s been part of it, we’ve seen an evolution in the structure of the categories that we apply. But we’ve also seen a change in the actors, again, sort of this shift from nation versus nation conflicts to sub-national conflicts, and that’s forced us to rethink a little bit about both the philosophy of how water might be used as a source or a weapon or a target of conflict, but also it’s helped us rethink a little bit who’s involved, what are the nature of the parties that are involved, and what are the methods that we might use to reduce, in the long run, the risk of violence over water.

Eileen Wray-McCann: I was looking through these, and I had no idea that in 1503, Leonardo Da Vinci and Machiavelli planned to divert the Arno river away from Pisa during a dispute between Pisa and Florence.

Peter Gleick: Yeah, so anyone who’s interested in history at all, I think will find this conflict chronology fascinating. There are examples, as you just pointed out, with Leonardo Da Vinci and Machiavelli, with the ancient biblical regions of Babylon and Mesopotamia. There are examples from the Civil War in the United States. There’re examples in ancient parts of South America. It really is an amazing chronicle of the way water has been critical to the development of civilization and a vulnerable resource.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Did any of those ancient conflicts surprise you or confirm your perspectives on humanity when it comes to water?

Peter Gleick: Well, it’s been a long effort to try and dig through ancient history, and to look at examples of Julius Caesar constructing ditches in conflicts in 50 B.C., or attacking water supplies during sieges that Julius Caesar was involved in. It’s both been a wonderful experience, because I’m a scientist but I love history, but it’s also been a little bit depressing to understand that this isn’t a new phenomenon, that water has been used as weapon or a tool of warfare going back thousands of years. And you think we’re civilized today, but we still fall victim to the same challenges that we see thousands of years ago.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Is there a cooperation chronology in the works?

Peter Gleick: We don’t intend to do that in part because there is good information about strategies for cooperating over water. There’re some very good databases that look at international river treaties and the history of cooperation over water. I don’t look in that direction except when I’m looking for solutions. By focusing on conflicts over water, it provides insights into what we ought to be doing, what we need to do, to reduce the risks of conflicts over water. If we understand why there are conflicts over water and the way water is used as a weapon or becomes a trigger of conflict, then that informs our ability to think about strategies for cutting those risks, for developing agreements over water, for providing safe water and sanitation to populations that are feeling desperate because they don’t have access to the most basic of water services, to strengthening international law. International law says you can’t attack civilian resources that are critical for their survival. You can’t attack civilian resources in a way to make them have to leave their homes and become refugees, and yet, we see examples of those, even in recent years. That suggests that either international law is too weak, or it’s not being adequately enforced, and that gives us some insight into what policy makers ought to be focusing on. So, cooperation is critical, but how to get to cooperation, I think, requires that we look at conflict and understand the causes of conflict.

Eileen Wray-McCann: So is that your goal for the chronology?

Peter Gleick: The goal is if we can understand why there is conflict and violence over water resources, then we have a chance of understanding and developing strategies for reducing those conflicts in the future. That’s part of what we do. We maintain the conflict chronology, but then we analyze it, and we write about what the trends are and how to reduce violence in the future.

Eileen Wray-McCann: As you look forward from this chronology as a scholar with his ear to the water, what do you see potential conflicts or cooperation on the horizon?

Peter Gleick: One of the long-term trends has been conflict over water in the Middle East. Again, we see that going back thousands of years, and that’s partly because it’s an incredibly water-scarce area, it’s an incredibly arid water-short part of the world. It’s a region with a long history of ongoing religious, ideological, and political violence anyway, and that contributes to water being used as a target or a weapon of war. It’s a region with very rapidly growing populations, and so the limited water resources that we see there are under increasing pressure, and unfortunately it’s a region where we see the risk of climate change being particularly severe, where we already see temperatures rising, where we already see changes in rainfall patterns and river flow, and all of those factors. Existing ideological problems and growing populations and water scarcity and the threat of climate change are going to make tensions over water worse, not better in the coming years.

Eileen Wray-McCann: And what do you see as our human alternative to conflict with this in mind?

Peter Gleick: Well, the best way to reduce conflicts over water are to take water out of the equation. It’s to make sure that water resources are available for basic human needs and for agricultural purposes. It’s to make sure that when water crosses a border, international or sub-national, that there are agreements among all of the communities involved about how those water resources are going to be shared. It means ensuring that we don’t contaminate our water resources, and that the limited water that might be available in a region remains safe and accessible to local communities. In many ways, reducing the risk of conflict over water simply means moving toward more sustainable water management overall, something that’s also been an objective and a goal of the Pacific Institute for over 30 years. If we can move toward sustainable water management and use and planning, then I believe the risk of conflict over water is going to go down, and that’s a goal we should be shooting for.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Wonderful. And don’t tell the guy who said, what, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’?”

Peter Gleick: Yeah, you know, that’s a classic saying. “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting,” especially in the western United States. Unfortunately, water is for fighting at the moment, and we have to figure out how to make sure that it’s not in the future.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Peter, thank you for giving us a chance to glean some wisdom from, I guess, the less successful side of humanity’s history with water. I look forward to talking with you again on many more water issues, and I must say, I’m particularly motivated to hear about the many positive efforts and creative solutions around the world that you are encouraging with your work. Thank you so much, Peter.

Peter Gleick: Well, thank you, it was my pleasure.

Eileen Wray-McCann: Peter Gleick, co-founder and President Emeritus of the Pacific Institute, which curates the Water Conflict Chronology at its World Water site. You’ll find the timeline and the interactive map at, where you can click on  “water conflict” in the heading.

This has been “Speaking of Water” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann, thanks for listening.

Audio file time: 21:03