Water conflicts over the years: This chart shows the number of water-related conflicts reported for each year from 1980 to 2015. The data were compiled by the Pacific Institute and published in the organization's chronology of the world’s water conflicts. Graphic: Robert Hopwood / The Desert Sun

By Ian James
18 February 2016

(The Desert Sun) – Violent conflicts over water have been flaring in places from Yemen to Peru, and an updated global list shows a sharp rise in the number of water-related clashes reported over the past three decades.

The Pacific Institute, a think tank that focuses on water issues, has been keeping track of water conflicts since its founding in 1987. The list now includes 11 new examples from 2015, ranging from the bombing of a water pipeline in Syria to deadly clashes in Somalia.

The latest edition of the Water Conflict Chronology also lists a feud in Peru that was chronicled by The Desert Sun and USA TODAY in a series about the worsening problem of groundwater depletion. In that dispute, farmers in the Peruvian town of Ocucaje have challenged an effort by a company to start pumping from three wells. Water from the wells would flow through several miles of pipes to a farm that produces table grapes for export.

The dispute turned violent in August, when protesters set fire to some of the company’s plastic pipes and a protester was punched after a group of men stopped a car she was riding in.

"If somebody is injured in this type of dispute, we include it," said Peter Gleick, the organization’s president. "It’s an example of the kinds of tensions that arise when people argue and fight over water."

Over the years, the Pacific Institute has compiled a comprehensive data set extending back over the past century and even to accounts of conflicts in ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia. The chronology includes a total of 367 entries.

“There is a trend. It’s definitely growing over time. It’s hard for me to tell whether there’s a real trend or whether it’s better reporting,” Gleick said. But the numbers have been rising significantly over the past couple of decades, and Gleick said growing demands on water supplies may be playing a role. He said the fastest increase has been in “sub-national" conflicts between groups or factions within a country. There also have been plentiful examples of military conflicts in which water is used as a weapon, a target or a tool of warfare.

Some of most disturbing incidents in the past year, Gleick said, have included the targeting of water infrastructure – both intentional and unintentional – by fighters in parts of the Middle East and Ukraine, as well as attacks on water pipelines in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, Islamic State militants cut off and diverted flows of water from a dam. As Yemen descended into chaos, armed fights over water sources erupted.

There have been far too many examples recently, Gleick said, "where we’re fighting over water or using it as a weapon."

"If we managed water better, I think we could reduce the risks of conflicts over water," Gleick said. He also called for more pressure by governments, the United Nations and other agencies to prevent conflicts and stand up against violations of international agreements when water infrastructure becomes a target or a weapon of war. […]

“By any measure or any method, there are too many people who are facing water scarcity,” says Gleick. [more]

Global list of water-related conflicts grows

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