Water Conflicts

Case studies relating to water conflicts

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Aral Sea - Exploitation

The Aral Sea was once one of the largest lakes in the world, between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. 

The lake used to cover an area of around 70,000 km2. Declined to 10% of its original size by 2007 due to mass irrigation projects formed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s (made Uzbekistan become world's largest exporter of cotton). Volume dropped by 80% over 40 years


Unemployment in the region as fishing became impossible. Large amounts of pollution due to eutrophication from irrigated farmlands, causing serious health problems in local populations.Child mortality rate of 75/1000. Overall damage estimated at around $1.3 bn


The 'stans' (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan) signed pledge to use 1% of budget to help restore Aral Sea. Dam project in 2005, sea level risen by 25 m since. 

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Colorado River - Conflicts/Exploitation

The Colorado river runs through the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California, as well as north-western Mexico. 

Reasons for Conflict

U.S. government has given each state a designated amount to take from the river each year, according to mostly economic status and population, as agreed by the Colorado River Compact.

California is America's wealthiest and most populous state, and despite only a small part of the river flowing through California, it has been designated the highest proportion.This is because California has an arid climate in its southern regions, so a lot of water needs to be irrigated to help its large agricultural output. Its population (almost 40 million) is six times larger than the next most populous allocated state, Arizona. California is also essential to the USA's economy, therefore its needs outweigh other states'.

Water supply from the river goes to almost 40 million people. There is conflict between who should be assigned the most, especially between industries and farmlands, and also Native Americans. Around 80% allocated to farmers, and < 20% for cities. Intra-state disputes; for example, Arizona gives all of its allocated water to its cities Phoenix and Tucson

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Ogallala Aquifer - Water Stress

8 U.S. states, from South Dakota to Texas. Water is drilled from here and used for 20% of USA's agricultural output.

Water Stress

The Ogallala aquifer has been heavily exploited causing a 150 ft decline in Nebraska since 1950s. Environmental Protection Agency has declared there is an abnormal amount of sulfate, chloride and other chemicals in the aquifer, which are above standard levels. New demands for biofuel to secure USA's energy puts additional stress on te aquifer, and an estimated $20bn could be lost from the decrease in agriculture. Desertification around the aquifer is causing the degredation of grasslands, which means more carbon dioxide is released contributing to climate change, and exacerbated erosion of the aquifer.

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China's North-South Water Transfer - Solution

China has an ongoing water transfer scheme, involving transfering water from the abundant south to the scarce north. Mostly transferred from Yangtze to Yellow and Han rivers. Northern China is heavily industrialised compared to the south, however receives much less rainfall, meaning its rivers are running dry. Danjiankou Reservoir is being diverted to Beijing


More than $80 bn spent by 2014, making it one of the most expensive engineering schemes in the world. Danjiankou reservoir causes mass flooding and evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, which causes more cost and tension between Chinese people and their government.


Allows the rich northern region of China to develop more sustainably which contributes the most to China's economy. This will mean eventually Chinese people will benefit from the project.

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Middle East - Water Conflicts

Turkey has plans to build dams on transboundary Tigris and Euphrates rivers, running through Turkey, Syria and Iraq, to increase the volume of water accessible to the arid southern region, Anatolia.


Turkey's plans are strongly opposed by Syria and Iraq, as it will hinder their economic growth and food production; these are both developing countries therefore agriculture is a large part of their economy. This prokect is known as the GAP project, has an estimated cost of $18.7bn and is also opposed by Turkish people, as an ancient town will be flooded from the reservoirs and a mass evacuation will need to take place.


Turkey estimates that the project will benefit Anatolia, as it can increase its agricultural output and help it to develop.

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Water Scarcity - Physical/Human

Water scarcity is the insufficient access of water in a region which does not meet the demands of water usage. This can be attributed to physical or human factors.

Physical Factors

The biggest cause of water scarcity is climate change, where already arid regions have exacerbated water stress due to desertification, espcially in northern Africa. This can also make natural events such as ENSO more severe in areas such as eastern Australia and western South America. Increased temperatures can decrease rainfall in arid regions and increase rainfall in tropical regions, as well as creating impermeable land.

Human Factors

Water conflicts such as those in the Middle East are huge problems, as they create winners and losers; for example Turkey's GAP project will help develop its dry regions and make it more water secure, but whilst reducing the access Syrians and Iraqis have to the water. Economic water scarcity occurs in areas with abundant supplies, but have little access to it due to unaffordable technology to extract the resources.

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Top-down, Bottom-up Water Strategies

Bottom-up projects include Water Aid, established in 1981. An example of a technology is hand-pumps in Zambia, a country where almost 5 million people don't have access to water. Hand pumps are cheap and easy to use, therefore limited education is needed, but Zambian communities have access to the vital resource.

Top-down projects include Akosombo dam, built in 1960s in Ghanian government, and cost an estimated $230m, $100m more than expected. This left Ghana indebted and in a poverty cycle.

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Nichola Hattam

Really helpful - thanks! (I think that the GAP scheme was cost about double the estimation though - $34bn!!

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