By: Keeba Smith

Certain human rights are needed to have a good quality of life. These rights are food, water, clothing, and shelter.  We sometimes take for granted that not everyone has the same access to these rights as most Americans have.  According the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than 180 million people are deprived of access to clean water in countries affected by conflict, violence, and instability.  Americans use more water taking a five-minute shower than the average person in a developing country uses for an entire day.  More children die from diarrhea caused by dirty water and lack of sanitation than malaria, measles, and HIV/AIDS combined.


If 70 percent of the Earth is covered by water, how can there be a water shortage?  Simple.  Only 3 percent of the world’s water is freshwater.  Freshwater is what we drink, bathe in, and irrigate our farm field with.  Two-thirds of the 3 percent is unavailable for our use because it is tucked away in frozen glaciers and snowfields.  At the current rate of consumption, by 2025, majority of the world may face water shortages.

Water scarcity can be demand-driven, supply-driven or it can be the result of structural inequalities between different groups of water users.    Demand-induced scarcity results from the water needs of increasing populations.  Violence and disaster can uproot many people from their homes.  Many are forced to congregate in areas where water sources are simply unable to supply a population influx even though water is a basic human right.  Supply-induced scarcity results from rivers running dry, lowered water tables, polluted groundwater and surface water courses.  Structural scarcity is when more powerful segments of water users confiscate a larger part of the scarce resources, resulting in the ecological and economic marginalization of the less powerful.  Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis often disrupt and pollute water supplies, and spread diseases that magnify the original event’s impact many times over.

These are the current categories for the types of water conflicts:

  • Control of Water Resources: where water supplies or access to water is at the root of tensions.
  • Military Tool: where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation or state as a weapon during a military action.
  • Political Tool: where water resources, or water systems themselves, are used by a nation, state, or non-state actor for a political goal.
  • Terrorism: where water resources, or water systems, are either targets or tools of violence or coercion by non-state actors.
  • Military Target: where water resource systems are targets of military actions by nations or states.
  • Development Disputes: where water resources or water systems are a major source of contention and dispute in the context of economic and social development


Humans need to drink water to survive.  The majority of the human body (60 percent) is composed of water.  Without clean water our bodies get dehydrated, are susceptible to disease, and cannot fight illnesses.  Water is more important for the body’s survival than food.  The human body can survive approximately more than a month without food but can only live without water for about a week.  The lack of water reduces the amount of blood in the body forcing the heart to pump harder in order to deliver oxygen-bearing cells to the muscles.  It can lead to dizziness, headaches, clumsiness and exhaustion.  Without water, a person can fall into a coma and die.


Wars and disasters can contaminate once-reliable water sources or cut people off from them altogether.  Between 1980 and 2005, there were 21 civil conflicts, 16 of which involved water. In five, water was the sole contributor.  El Niῆo years, when the climate is warmer and dryer, account for 21 percent of all civil conflicts causing severe droughts.

The history of conflicts over water resources are usually long and violent.  Disputes over scarce water resources during periods of droughts have resulted in deaths and destruction of water system infrastructure.

  • Yemen: It may become the first country in the world to run out of water.  It is an impoverished desert country with years of conflict, instability and misgovernment.  Majority of Yemen’s water supply is used for agricultural purposes.
  • Egypt & Ethiopia: Egypt feels they have historical and legal rights to the Nile waters.  Ethiopia is challenging those rights and may start a “water war.”  Egypt is the largest desert oasis in the world with 90 million people living on the river banks.  It depends on the Nile for 95 percent of its water for drinking, agriculture and electricity generation.  Ethiopia is where the source of the Nile lies and feel they have a right to it as well.


Safe drinking water and sanitation in schools may serve as a way to keep students in school, increasing economic opportunities and increasing the health of the children.  Hand washing in school can cut diarrhea by 30 percent.  The rate of child mortality before age five will decline.  Poverty rates will lessen.  Hunger levels could be cut in half if water were used more efficiently on farms.  Countries can negotiate peace agreements through a designated joint water committee for conflict resolution.


Everyone has a right to clean water.  In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize “the right to safe and clean drinking water as a human right.”  Water conflicts have risen because people were denied their rights.  If everyone has access to clean water, then there would not be any water conflict.