Water resources and indicators of conflict: A proposed spatial analysis

Yoffe S., and B. Ward.  Water International, Volume 24, Number 4, December 1999.

The Paper
Works Cited


Analysis of current economic and environmental trends reveals increasing competition over access to and use of freshwater resources, at the same time that population growth, industrialization, and potential climate change are adding stress to those resources. Given these trends, it is hardly surprising that in the policy literature and the popular press the issues of water and conflict are being raised together with increasing frequency.  The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database project at Oregon State University, delineates 261 international river basins.  Professionals concerned with security related issues have an interest in being able to identify which of those basins may be prone to conflict over water resources, from both a perspective of intra-state and inter-state instability and conflict.  Having such knowledge allows for the possibility of “preventive diplomacy,” whereby diplomatic intervention prevents the escalation into violent conflict of disputes over shared water resources.  Identification of basins prone to water conflict requires a framework that incorporates a wide array of physical, social, economic, and political variables, the implications of these variables at different spatial and temporal scales, and the linkages across scales.  This paper proposes a methodology for defining potential indicators of international water conflict and portraying these indicators spatially within a Geographic Information System.  Indicators will be defined across multiple scales in a parallel analysis of global, regional and basin attributes. While indicators should be viewed with a healthy skepticism, they still provide value when defined through an effective analytical framework that takes into account the availability and appropriateness of relevant data and information sources.


International river basins, conflict, indicators, geographic information systems (GIS).


Analysis of current economic and environmental trends reveals increasing competition over access to and use of freshwater resources, at the same time that population growth, industrialization, and potential climate change are adding stress to those resources. Given these trends, it is hardly surprising that in the policy literature and the popular press the issues of water and conflict are being raised together with increasing frequency.    Water is a critical resource linked to a wide array of socio-economic activities, and it is becoming increasingly scarce and degraded as world populations grow beyond the ability of governments and infrastructure to support them. The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database project at Oregon State University, delineates 261 international river basins.  Professionals concerned with security related issues have an interest in being able to identify which of those basins may be prone to conflict over water resources, from both a perspective of intra-state and inter-state instability and conflict.  Having such knowledge allows for the possibility of “preventive diplomacy,” whereby diplomatic intervention prevents the escalation into violent conflict of disputes over shared water resources.

Identification of basins prone to water conflict requires a framework that incorporates a wide array of physical, social, economic, and political variables, the implications of these variables at different spatial and temporal scales, and the linkages across scales.  This paper proposes a methodology for defining potential indicators of international water conflict and spatially analyzing and portraying these indicators within a Geographic Information System (GIS).  Indicators will be defined across multiple scales in a parallel analysis of global, regional and basin attributes.

This is a proposed methodology and the research has not yet been conducted.  Many problems are foreseen with regards to the quality and applicability of available data, as well as to the use of GIS to analyze and display the data.  Nonetheless, while indicators should be viewed with a healthy skepticism, they also offer a means to weave together understandings from case studies and theoretical literature into a model of the relationships between water resources, and social, political, economic, and environmental patterns and processes across regions.  This proposed research would offer a means to explore those linkages and to compare the importance of specific linkages from region to region, river basin to river basin.  This research also offers chance to explore the use of GIS for social science research and the problems and applicability of incorporating social science data related to water into a GIS system.  Such experimentation may provide useful insights for the use of GIS in the management of international freshwater resources.

A comprehensive analysis requires a global comparison. Given the time and effort, not to mention computer memory, required to gather and analyze (spatially and statistically) data for the globe’s 261 international river basins and their riparian countries, research will begin with a pilot project to test the feasibility of the approach.  Four basins, each representing different histories and levels of river basin development, will be examined – the Salween, Mekong, Indus, and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Mehgna (see Figure 1 – Map of Basins).  The Salween offers an undeveloped and relatively low populated river basin that lacks a treaty among the riparian states, which all have different and conflicting development plans for the basin.  The Mekong is similar in climate and topography to the Salween, but has a greater population and, although it remains relatively undeveloped, does have a treaty and a structure for joint international management.  In contrast, the Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Mehgna represent highly developed and populous basins in which there have been recent or ongoing conflicts over water resources.


The river basin was chosen as the key unit of research for a number of reasons.  A river basin incorporates a large number of watersheds or catchments, which are defined as “a topographically delineated area drained by a stream system - that is, the total land area above some point on a stream or river that drains past that point.”  Similar in definition to a watershed, a river basin covers a much larger area and comprises all the land which drains through that river and its tributaries into the ocean or an internal lake.  Because it represents a hydrologic unit, incorporating both freshwater and groundwater, the river basin is often used as a physical, biological, or socio-economic unit of management  (Brooks, Ffolliott et al. 1997).  As a unit of research, the river basin fits well within the framework of the TFDD, which is designed around the concept of international river basins.  Using the river basin as the frame of reference also fits well with the trend in changing definitions of transboundary water in international law.  Such definitions frame future debates and agreements concerning the joint management of transboundary freshwater resources.  Perhaps most importantly, however, framing questions in terms of rivers basins offers a way to look at water issues that allows one to get around problems associated with the fact that most data is classified by country and fails to account for within-country variation.  River basins, by providing a focus on the water resource, is a natural framework of study when considering the relationship between conflict and freshwater resources.

Our approach combines global level analysis with regional and basin specific information (see Table 1). At the global level, country data is available that describes attributes specific to countries and to country boundaries.  Indicators at these levels might include: the degree of democratization within a country; the existence of disputed boundaries; GNP; a country’s rank in the Human Development Index; or freshwater availability per capita.  Because global level data often masks regional or intrastate differences, basin- and river- specific information and analysis will also be incorporated.  Such indicators may include: population levels and land use within a basin; the quantity, quality and timing of river flow; the existence of treaties for the river basin; or the presence of minority groups with political aspirations.

Parallel analysis of global, regional and basin attributes also offers the potential to examine inter-scale interactions.  It may be that some indicators are relevant at one scale, but not at others. The purpose of this analysis is to better understand the physical, political, environmental, and socio-economic patterns and processes that impact, or are impacted by, water resources and to find those combinations of attributes, or indicators, that provide some indication of the potential for water conflict.  Having identified regions or basins prone to conflict over water, one can then add further information specific to the area in order to provide additional context within which the level of potential for conflict may be evaluated.  The basin-specific information may also offer further insights as to how water is, or should be, managed in a region.

A list of potential indicators, including data sources, data caveats, and how to obtain data will be compiled.  Indicator selection will be informed by theoretical and empirical literature on causes of water conflict, and the relationship between water resources and environmental, social, demographic, economic, and political processes. Once indicator data is obtained, the list of indicators will be further refined using statistical and spatial analysis techniques.  The validity and credibility of indicators will also be evaluated by backtesting the indicators against both existing water treaties and incidences of water conflict.

If one assumes that every water treaty represents an attempt to address an existing (perceived, or potential future) conflict, then one can examine selected indicators from the time period prior to a treaty and use statistical methods to evaluate the relationship among those indicators and the incidents of conflict (Wolf 1999). There are, however, problems associated with this method.  Data for many of the indicators will only be available for the latter half of the 20th century.  It may not be possible to examine indicators for treaties signed prior to the 1950s.  Moreover, the past is not necessarily a good predictor of the future.  This caveat will need to be taken into account when developing indicators and their ranges for predicting future water conflict.  It should also be noted that this method of back-testing will not allow for testing of indicators regarding internal, i.e., sub-national, conflict.  There are databases of internal conflicts, however, and such datasets, while not without their own problems, offer a backdrop against which to test indicators of intrastate conflict.  The initial focus of the project, however, will be on international conflict.  Intra-national conflict will be considered in terms of how such conflict may contribute to larger scale instability and conflict.

A database of water-related treaties is available through the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database Project (TFDD), directed by Dr. Aaron Wolf, at the Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University (Wolf, Kinsler et al. 1999). The TFDD is a searchable database of summaries and the full text of  150 water-related treaties, with plans for the addition of approximately a hundred more over the course of the coming year.  Dates covered by the treaties range from 1874 to 1996, although treaties signed before the mid-20th century are often incomplete and some sources contain only excerpts or annotated treaty summaries.  The database also contains condensed treaties, some with direct quotes from the treaty text.  Treaties in the TFDD address the fresh water needs of the signatories and, for the most part, do not include transportation, fishing, or boundary treaties.  The treaties do deal with one or more of the following issues: water rights, water allocations, water pollution, principles for equitably addressing water needs, hydropower/reservoir/flood control development, and environmental issues and the rights of riverine ecological systems.

In selecting indicators, care will be taken that each indicator answers a potential question or questions, a – so what? – that asks what purpose the information serves.  Much of the research will involve exploring the relevance of various indicators to answering the question of what conditions favor conflict over water.  Some data will set the stage, that is, provides a description or situational context.  Other data are actual indicators whose presence, absence, or patterns indicate the likelihood of conflict.  By patterns, one can explore whether a data’s trends and discontinuities indicate the likelihood for conflict.


Indicators are proxy variables, used to simplify and amalgamate large quantities of data.  They represent a compromise between accuracy and precise information, but provide a simplification of complex systems that facilitate evaluation of those systems. Indicators are used for a variety of purposes, including: assessment of states; determining linkages; and improving decision-making and planning (Gustavson 1999).  For the purposes of this project, indicators will be selected that point to potential areas of water-related conflict.

A key element in selection of indicators is an understanding of the scale at which those indicators will be used.  Indicators of potential water-related conflict represented at the global scale, for example, should be viewed with skepticism, since it is impossible to accurately represent complex relationships between states at such a broad scale.  Because of this, other indicators will be used to examine relationships at the regional and basin scale.  It may be that different indicators will be more effective at different scales, since the same indicators may not have equal relevance across scales.

In general, good indicators should satisfy the following conditions, although these properties might vary depending on the situation.  A good indicator should: correspond to the selected application; have an explicit value; sufficiently simplify the target system characteristics (Gustavson 1999); have an empirical or theoretical link with the security issue at hand; and, have an adequacy of spatial and temporal coverage so that they can be effectively represented and modeled (Lonergan, Gustavson et al. 1999).

In addition, there should also be a means for testing an indicator’s accuracy and relevance.  In part, an indicator’s relevance may be supported by the existence of empirical or theoretical links with water resource conflict or related issues.  For instance, the indicators used in this project will be predictive of conditions that might lead to dispute.  The Jordan, Indus, Nile, and Aral basins have all been sites of conflict.  They also all represent internationalized basins.  If one assumes that there is a causal link between the internationalization of a basin and incidents of conflict among the states that now share that basin, the presence of ethnic minorities with nationalistic aspirations becomes a potential indicator (Wolf 1999).

This example reiterates the need to study past situations that have brought about disputes or led to instability, in order to determine what indicators might be useful.  There are a number of potential indicators that could point to water-related instability, both at the basin and country level.  Access to clean water supplies, for example, has historically been tied in with political stability (Wolf 1999), and water-related problems exist in many areas of the world.  Much of the developing world falls below the “basic water requirement” (BWR), as outlined by Peter Gleick (1998, p.44), meaning that people of these countries are not getting sufficient clean water to meet their daily water needs.  Worldwide, nearly 250 million people suffer from water-related diseases and 5-10 million die from them each year (Gleick 1998).  It would be difficult to argue that these data are not evidence of the potential for instability, if not for conflict.

At the global level, the Index of Human Insecurity (IHI) is an example of a set of indicators developed to facilitate identification of vulnerable or insecure regions, in order to aid decision-makers in development assistance efforts.  It is considered an “aggregate measure of human welfare that integrates social, economic, and political exposures to and capacity to cope with a range of potentially harmful perturbations” (Lonergan, Gustavson et al. 1999).  The IHI identifies four “key system components” – the environment, the economy, society, and institutions.  Within each of these four indicator categories are four variables, each of which measure either a key structural relationship (e.g., linkages, defining characteristics) or a key functional relationship (e.g., processes, flows) of the system.  Where data in a time series are missing, IHI developers utilize statistical techniques to establish a complete time series for all indicators and all countries, where there is sufficient initial data.  The IHI presents a model upon how water-specific indicators might be framed.  There are, however, significant problems with the IHI.  The index for each year is specific to that year, making it difficult to compare changes in a country’s IHI from across years.  It may also be that there are one or two indicators, such as GDP, that account for the majority of variation in the IHI (see Figure 2).

Another, water-specific, global level indicator is water stress, which measures freshwater availability per capita within a country.  This measure, however, does not account for a country’s ability to adapt to water stress, such as with more efficient irrigation technology.  Leif Ohlsson (1999) has developed a Social Water Stress Index (SWSI) to incorporate a measure of a country’s adaptability (see Figure 3).  The SWSI is a water stress index (freshwater availability per capita) divided by UNDP's Human Development Index and then divided by 2 (rounded to nearest wholes).

While the SWSI is an improvement upon the WSI, neither of its key components, the Human Development Index nor the Water Stress Index, incorporate measures of percent of population with access to fresh water or sanitation services, incidence of water related disease, water quality/pollution trends, and/or efficiency of existing water uses and water delivery systems.  These measures provide more accurate representations of water stress and are increasingly important as one’s analysis moves from large scale to small scale.  In addition, since data often over or underestimate freshwater availability or use, a country's adaptive capability may be a more accurate indicator in terms of future trends.  As two further caveats, freshwater availability, also measured as total renewable surface and groundwater, typically includes flows from other countries.  That is to say, not all of the annual renewable water supply may be available to a country to which it is credited, as some flows are committed to downstream users.  The annual average figures also hide large seasonal, inter-annual, and long-term variations.

There are a number of other potential indicators, each of which requires more detailed research in order to evaluate their theoretical and empirical validity.  Overall population growth rates within a country may indicate infrastructure development pressures on that country (see Figure 5).  Population density within a basin can indicate the degree of direct pressure on the water resources of that basin.  Population density outside a basin may also be an indicator of development pressure, particularly if that population is looking for new sources of freshwater (see Figure 6).  Relative power and riparian position of countries within a basin can indicate the likelihood for international conflict (see Figure 8).  Weaker nations, for example, are unlikely to attack upstream hegemons and upstream nations would not have cause to attack (Wolf 1999).  Internationalization of a basin is also an impetus for conflict (see Figure 9).  The degree of democratization of countries sharing a river basin is also an indicator of conflict, as political science research indicates that democracies are unlikely to go to war against each other.

Also telling are basic physical and topographical variables.  Areas of high elevation make good dam sites (see Figure 7).  High seasonal and annual precipitation fluctuations can indicate pressure to build water projects that would regulate and improve the predictability of flow, particularly if other variables indicate that a country is looking to expand its irrigated agriculture or its hydropower capacity.

Other layers of information that would potentially be incorporated include the following spatial and attribute data: land cover or land use classification; areas of irrigated agriculture; areas prone to flooding or drought; location of major freshwater fisheries; location and size of urban areas; internal administrative boundaries; major roads and railways; the portion of government money spent on defense versus education and health spending (see Figure 4); incidence of waterborne disease; and, water quality (as measured by the presence of organic and inorganic chemicals in river systems).

The data listed above represent a broad range of information.  The key to these layers is to ask what their relevance is to indicating water conflict.  As one moves from global and country level indicators to the regional or basin scale, the need for context increases.  For instance, it becomes important to understand at greater length the past and current relationships between co-riparian states within a watershed.  It is also important to note, for example, existing and planned water development projects among the riparian states (see, for example, Figure 10).  Projects in conflict with each other may create tensions.  More generally, by understanding the specific socio-political situations, and by incorporating them into our watershed scale indicators, we can better understand the factors at play within a region or watershed.

Lastly, another potential area of study is that of internal basins within a state.  By looking at the amount of stress within an internal basin, information about the potential pressure for development of international resources might be learned, since it is likely that a given country would look to develop its internal sources before dealing with the development of shared resources.


A number of the attribute data mentioned above can quite effectively be represented within a Geographic Information System (GIS), such as ESRI ArcView, and much of the spatial information mentioned previously would be extremely difficult and at times impossible to analyze without the use of a GIS.  Key water-related indicators can be defined through the use of various GIS processes.  Examples of this include: studying areas that are prone to flooding or drought using Remote Sensing technologies; performing spatial analysis on road networks within watersheds and countries to determine areas of high industrialization; analyzing differences in variables (e.g., power, population growth, and river development) between upstream and downstream riparians within an international basin; and, the relationship between river development and water-borne diseases.

While GIS has its advantages, there are also certain limitations to the technology. These limitations include problems of temporal analysis, multiple scales, and data quality and interpretation.  The examination of indicators at an international, national and sub-national level introduces questions of scale that will need to be further addressed, as well-tested methods for translation across scales are lacking.  Linked to problems of scale is a lack of frameworks, for understanding the interaction of human and environmental systems, that do not require high levels of abstraction.  A model that is too abstract loses its interpretive value (Goodchild 1996).

Another difficulty associated with this project, and with understanding human-environment interactions in general, is the incorporation of temporal change into the GIS. GIS mechanisms build on those of cartography and produce static maps.  Incorporating representations of temporal change into GIS is still in its infancy and represents an area of further research for the field of GIS (for an overview of time in GIS, see Langram 1993).

GIS technologies are designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze and visualize disparate sets of sets of geographically referenced data.  While a wide range of data is available for this project, socioeconomic and demographic data is difficult to collect, spans a range of temporal and spatial scales, may have incomplete coverages, is not systematically checked for error, and may have unsuitable archiving or retrieval formats (Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change 1992).  Moreover, data quality is not just a measure of data accuracy, it also includes the interpretation placed on the data.  GIS technologies rarely capture the uncertainty associated with maps, presenting them as being uniform in the availability and accuracy of their data. Given the often coarse nature of the data (geographic, biophysical, socioeconomic) that will be examined in this project, some way of measuring error and uncertainty would be extremely useful.  Unfortunately, uncertainty modeling is a recent GIS development and not broadly supported.


Water is a critical resource at an international level, with 261 international rivers covering almost one half of the total land surface of the globe.  It is linked to a variety of socio-economic factors, and has become prominent in literature on environment and international conflict.  This paper presents an approach to parallel analysis of variables related to water-related conflict on global, regional, and basins scales, with the hope of finding combinations of attributes, or indicators, that provide an indication of potential water conflict.  It is important not only that these indicators have an empirical or theoretical link with conflict or related issues, but that there is also a means for testing their usefulness and accuracy.  A possibility for testing indicators exists in studying historical evidence surrounding past water conflicts, particularly those that were resolved through treaties.

Such indicators, even when tested against historical evidence, should be viewed with some skepticism, since it is quite difficult to establish causal relationships between variables and water-related conflict.  It is also potentially errant to assume that by studying historical evidence, one can accurately predict what future events will take place.  Previously un-experienced pressures, such as increased resource scarcity and rapidly increasing populations, particularly in areas that are already faced with water stresses, are difficult to account for because there is a lack of comparable historic situations.

This skepticism, however, does not suggest that water-related indicators of conflict are without value. Our belief is that through research, access to potentially useful information, effective spatial representation and analysis of that information, and contact with various regional experts, reasonable indicators can be developed.  It simply is important to note that an indicator or set of indicators, no matter how well thought out and planned, cannot predict potential conflicts with complete reliability.

With the proper approach, effective analytical framework, and access to appropriate data sources, we feel that there is great potential for establishing water-related indicators of conflict.  A strong base of information and research has been gathered, and can now be built upon to create a series of water-related indicators that will be valuable in the 21st Century.

Works Cited

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Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change (1992). Report of the Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change. Global environmental change: understanding human dimensions. P. C. Stern, O. R. Young and D. Druckman. Washington, DC, National Academy Press.

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Gleick, P. (1989). “The implications of global climatic changes for international security.” Climatic Change 15(1/2, October).

Gleick, P. H. (1998). The world's water: the biennial report on freshwater resources. Washington, D.C., Island Press.

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Langram, G. (1993). Time in geographic information systems. Washington, DC, Taylor & Francis.

Lonergan, S., K. Gustavson, et al. (1999). The Index of Human Insecurity, a project of the Global Environmental Change and Human Security Program (GECHS), unpublished paper, Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Canada.

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Ullman, R. H. (1983). “Redefining security.” International Security 8(1).

Westing, A., Ed. (1986). Global resources and international conflict: environmental factors in strategic policy and action. New York, Oxford University Press.

Wolf, A. (1999). Backtesting indicators against existing water treaties.

Wolf, A. (1999). “International watersheds: historical decisionmaking, digital databases, and indicators of potential conflict.” unpublished paper, Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.

Wolf, A. (1999). 'Water wars' and water reality: conflict and cooperation along international waterways. Environmental Change, Adaptation, and Security. S. Lonergan. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Press.

Wolf, A. T. (1998). Hydrostrategic decisionmaking and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Transformations of Middle Eastern natural environments: legacies and lessons. J. Albert, M. Bernhardsson and R. Kenna. New Haven, CT, Yale University: 221-273.

Wolf, A. T., J. Kinsler, et al. (1999). Transboundary freshwater dispute database. Corvallis, OR, Oregon State University.


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