The Politics of International Freshwater Resources

In: Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan (ed), Potential Global Strategic Catastrophes: Balancing Transnational Responsibilities and Burden-sharing with Sovereignty and Human Dignity (Berlin: LIT, 2009)

1 Pages Posted: 29 Dec 2008 Last revised: 24 Nov 2017

Date Written: June 15, 2009


Policy challenges associated with national and international freshwater systems have attracted increasing academic attention in recent years. In practical terms, freshwater is one of humanity’s most valuable and vulnerable natural resources. Surface waters, such as rivers and lakes, which are the most accessible sources for human consumption and use, constitute only a tiny fraction of water on Earth. Only 2.5 percent of global water (1,365 x 10^6 cubic kilometres) is freshwater (i.e., 35 x 10^6 cubic kilometres). Of those 2.5 percent, 0.3 percent is stored in rivers and lakes, 30.8 percent in groundwater, and 68.9 percent in glaciers and permanent snow cover (most of it in inaccessible places, such as Antarctica). Of the approximately 110,000 cubic kilometres of precipitation per year over land, around 42,000 are river runoff.

At the end of the Cold War, many policy–makers became more aware of potential non–military threats to international peace and security. In this context, and in view of the UN’s 1992 Rio summit on sustainable development, water issues began to attract considerable public attention. Statements such as “the wars of the next century will be over water” (Ismail Serageldin, former vice president of the World Bank) started to make headlines. Some academics jumped on the bandwagon. Hughes Butts, for example, states that “History is replete with examples of violent conflict over water, from competition for desert oases and water holes to the battles between the Mesopotamian cities of Lagash and Umma in 4500 B.C., to the fighting between Syria and Israel over Syria's attempts to appropriate the headwaters of the Jordan River in the 1960s”. The “water wars” argument has also gained ground in the context of the recent debate on climate change and problems in the global food supply. One out of six people on Earth does not currently have adequate access to safe freshwater. By the middle of the 21st century, up to three quarters of the world’s population could experience serious water scarcity – most studies regard 1000 cubic meters per year per person as a threshold below which it becomes very difficult to cover basic needs for drinking, hygiene and food.

In this paper, we review key contributions to social sciences literature on international freshwater issues. This literature has exposed serious flaws in the water wars argument, but has also produced many useful insights into the conditions under which water allocation and pollution problems lead to cooperation or conflict and how key problems could be dealt with. We focus on international freshwater issues, and on contributions by political scientists, leaving out a large body of international water management literature produced by scholars in law, history, economics, anthropology, and related disciplines.

Keywords: water, cooperation, conflict, international, river

Suggested Citation

Bernauer, Thomas and Kalbhenn, Anna, The Politics of International Freshwater Resources (June 15, 2009). In: Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan (ed), Potential Global Strategic Catastrophes: Balancing Transnational Responsibilities and Burden-sharing with Sovereignty and Human Dignity (Berlin: LIT, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Thomas Bernauer (Contact Author)

ETH Zurich ( email )

Center for Comparative and International Studies
Building IFW, office 45.1, Haldeneggsteig 4
Zurich 8092, 8092
+41 44 632 6466 (Phone)
+41 44 632 1289 (Fax)


Anna Kalbhenn

European Central Bank (ECB) ( email )

Sonnemannstrasse 22
Frankfurt am Main, 60314

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