"Water Wars:" The Fight For Earth's Most Precious Resource

Population growth and global warming are increasingly causing fights over water between U.S. states and among the countries of the world.
Marcia Wendorf

Picture the desert landscape of a Mad Max movie populated with vigilantes devoted to acquiring not gasoline — but water.

This scenario isn't as far-fetched as you might think. "Water wars" describes conflicts between countries, states, or groups over the right to access water resources, usually freshwater. Freshwater is necessary for drinking, irrigation, and electricity generation, and conflicts occur when the demand for potable water exceeds the supply, or when allocation or control of water is disputed.

Worldwide "water wars"

The first known war over water took place between the Sumerian states of Lagash and Umma around 2500 BCE. A dispute over the Gu'edena (edge of paradise) region of Mesopotamia led Urlama, King of Lagash, to divert water, thus depriving Umma. Urlama's son Il followed in his father's footsteps and he cut off the water supply to Girsu, a city in Umma.

Today, the world's exploding population and global warming are the two main factors that are igniting water wars. Conflicts over water are brewing between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter's construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam located in the headwaters of the Nile River. The Nile has been Egypt’s major water source since antiquity.

Currently, Egypt is using more water than its internal, renewable resources can provide. Demand for water is projected to only grow due to rapid population growth and rising temperatures, and this will put strains on Egypt’s economy.

India has been building dams that neighboring Pakistan views as a threat, and Turkey has been diverting water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which affects Iraq and Syria. China has been on a "dam building spree" along the Mekong. New evidence indicates that China's dams have restricted flow and led to severe drought in the lower Mekong basin, which is an important water and food source for Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 790 million people, or 11 percent of the world's population, don't have access to clean drinking water. Ninety-six percent of the Earth’s freshwater is contained in underground aquifers, while the remaining four percent is in streams, lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Satellite images have shown that groundwater depletion is occurring in arid and semi-arid portions of the world.

Flashpoints can develop if those upstream take water from their downstream neighbors, or, since aquifers cross boundaries, if neighbors pump more than their fair share of groundwater.

U.S. "water wars"

As Los Angeles expanded during the late 19th century, it outgrew its water supply, and L.A.'s mayor, Fred Eaton, came up with the plan to divert water from the Owens Valley to L.A. via an aqueduct. Eaton tapped William Mulholland to oversee the construction of the project, which was completed in 1913.

"Water Wars:" The Fight For Earth's Most Precious Resource
"Chinatown" Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rights to the water were acquired through subterfuge, lies, and political pressure, and the farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley were starved of water. In 1924, they unsuccessfully tried to destroy the aqueduct. Screenwriter Robert Towne used this "water war" as the subject of the 1974 movie, Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

In 1935, Arizona Governor Benjamin Moeur dispatched 100 National Guard troops to the Colorado River to stop California from building the Parker Dam. Moeur feared California would "steal" Arizona's water, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Arizona, stating that California was illegally exporting water. However, Congress passed a law overturning the Supreme Court's decision and allowed California to go on with its water plans.

Arizona National Guard troops
Arizona National Guard troops Source: Phoenix Public Library

Water laws in the U.S. conform to four major legal principles:

  • "First in time, first in right" - this "prior appropriation" doctrine is used in most U.S. states, and it says that the first one to claim and begin using water is guaranteed as much of it as he or she needs for as long as it's needed; a related doctrine is called "Use it or lose it"
  • The reasonable use doctrine - regulatory agencies or courts decide whose use of the water will have the most benefit for the community
  • The English rule of absolute ownership - grants landowners complete autonomy to pump whatever quantity of groundwater can be extracted from beneath their property
  • "The correlative rights doctrine" - adopted by California and Vermont specifies that groundwater is to be shared by all owners of land above an aquifer.

What the future holds

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutrous Ghali, said, "The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics." Ghali's successor at the U.N., Kofi Annan, in 2001 said, "Fierce competition for freshwater may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future."

The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the trend of people moving to desert cities in southwestern U.S. cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix have seen rapid growth.

The West also has a long tradition of libertarianism, which repudiates federal oversight and sometimes even state law. This reflexive individualism can often ignore science, and fights over water have become political.

In her 2019 book Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West, Heather Hansman stated that between 2000 and 2014, inflow into the Colorado River decreased by almost 20 percent, with around one-third of that due to global warming. Hansman wrote, "Between evaporation, reduced inflow, and increased use, the West is sucking itself dry."

When burgeoning cities in the Southwest want more water, they use their large municipal coffers to purchase water from agricultural users, in a process known as "buy and dry." Water that once nourished crops now pours out of shower and sprinkler heads, and this has led to concerns over the food supply.

In the future, access to water will determine where people can live in the U.S. West, and Western cities will have to build water reserves for future residents.