Myths, legends and written histories reveal repeated controversy over freshwater resources since ancient times. Scrolls from Mesopotamia, for instance, indicate that the states of Umma and Lagash in the Middle East clashed over the control of irrigation canals some 4,500 years ago.

Throughout history, water has been used as a military and political goal, as a weapon of war and even as a military target. But disagreements most often arise from the fact that water resources are not neatly partitioned by the arbitrary political borders set by governments. Today nearly half of the land area of the world lies within international river basins, and the watersheds of 261 major rivers are shared by two or more countries. Overlapping claims to water resources have often provoked disputes, and in recent years local and regional conflicts have escalated over inequitable allocation and use of water resources.

A small sampling of water conflicts that occurred in the 20th century demonstrates that treaties and other international diplomacy can sometimes encourage opposing countries to cooperate--but not always before blood is shed. The risk of future strife cannot be ignored: disputes over water will become more common over the next several decades as competition for this scarce resource intensifies. --P.H.G.

U.S. 1924

Local farmers dynamite the Los Angeles aqueduct several times in an attempt to prevent diversions of water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

India and Pakistan 1947 to 1960

Partitioning of British India awkwardly divides the waters of the Indus River valley between India and Pakistan. Competition over irrigation supplies incites numerous conflicts between the two nations; in one case, India stems the flow of water into Pakistani irrigation canals. After 12 years of World Bankled negotiations, a 1960 treaty helps to resolve the discord.

Egypt and Sudan 1958

Egypt sends troops into contested territory between the two nations during sensitive negotiations concerning regional politics and water from the Nile. Signing of a Nile waters treaty in 1959 eases tensions.

Israel, Jordan and Syria 1960s and 1970s

Clashes over allocation, control and diversion of the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers continue to the present day.

South Africa 1990

A pro-apartheid council cuts off water to 50,000 black residents of Wesselton Township after protests against wretched sanitation and living conditions.

Iraq 1991

During the Persian Gulf War, Iraq destroys desalination plants in Kuwait. A United Nations coalition considers using the Ataturk Dam in Turkey to shut off the water flow of the Euphrates River to Iraq. <

India 1991 to present

An estimated 50 people die in violence that continues to erupt between the Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the allocation of irrigation water from the Cauvery River, which flows from one state into the other.

Yugoslavia 1999

NATO shuts down water supplies in Belgrade and bombs bridges on the Danube River, disrupting navigation.

See also Where the Water Will Be in 2025

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