Water wars: is water the new oil? No, it’s even worse 

A scarcity of this resource can have consequences for economic stability, even to the point of triggering armed conflicts, according to a study published by Politecnico

We are used to turning on the tap and seeing plenty of water gush out, without worrying that it might run out. We take it for granted that we will have enough to quench our thirst and wash ourselves, but also to produce primary goods such as food and electricity. Although this attitude is changing in our country because of drought, in some developing countries water is a commodity for which people even kill: a study conducted by a group of Politecnico researchers and published in the prestigious journal Nature Sustainability investigated how water is linked to violent conflicts in the Lake Chad basin in Africa, trying to specifically understand what role this resource plays in triggering the conflict itself. We spoke to two of the authors, researchers Nikolas Galli and Maria Cristina Rulli, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: here is what they told us.

Nikolas Galli
Maria Cristina Rulli

Although the phrase commonly used in English is water wars, in this case, Galli and Rulli explain, the expression is wrong: "So far, we have never had evidence of water wars in history, except perhaps one in the time of the Sumerians in the 3rd millennium BC", Rulli points out. "The term war in international law has the meaning of aggression by one state against another; in the cases we investigated, it is therefore more correct to speak of conflicts, not wars".


"We chose to focus on the area of the Lake Chad basin because it is a region that suffers from serious institutional and environmental fragility", Galli explains. "It is also often misrepresented, which is why we decided to analyse the issue of conflicts in the area in a more scientific way". One of the conclusions reached by the analysis is that water is only one of the factors at play in triggering conflicts: "There are typical socio-economic drivers behind the emergence of conflicts, such as religious or political reasons that often interact with each other and with hydrological dynamics", Galli explains. Very often, moreover, the areas most prone to conflict are those that already have a history of conflict behind them. And climate change, which brings with it the threat of desertification, is an accelerator of these drivers.

Matt Palmer on Unsplash

As the problems of water scarcity and droughts become increasingly serious in the Old Continent too, will it be our turn to be involved in water wars in the future? "I hope not", commented Rulli. 'We are in a somewhat different historical phase and I hope we will not have violent conflicts like we see in Central Africa, but if we are talking about conflicts over resources, those already exist. When the resource is scarce and there are multiple users (such as the agricultural, energy or domestic sectors), managing the water resource incorrectly can lead to conflict situations'. We are talking about a social and economic conflict, of course, which does not escalate to violence, but can still have important consequences on our way of life. In this regard, Rulli cites an episode that occurred in Texas and New Mexico during a severe drought: 'Farmers were selling the water they had in concession for agricultural use to energy producers, who paid huge amounts for it: the result was that energy was being produced instead of food'.

Is thus water the new oil? 'Water is more valuable than oil and we have finally realised that now. Access to water and sanitation are in fact recognised by the United Nations as human rights. As such, it should be given a value but not a price”, says Rulli.


On 6 April, a new article came out that expanded on the topic covered in the Nature Sustainability study: "We deepened the water-conflict link to also include food", explains Rulli. "We focused on urban conflicts in Central America, analysing the role of water not only as a strategic resource in its own right, but also as a resource for food production".


We conclude with a question: what has this research taught you? "The importance of transdisciplinarity", replies Rulli. "Having a solid scientific basis is essential, but not sufficient: one has to be modest and open to collaboration with other colleagues who are experts in other fields, especially when dealing with global social issues, as in this case". Galli responded along the same lines, stating: "The most important moment in our research was when we realised that we could see better what we were looking for when we accepted the complexity of the problem, without trying to simplify it. When analysing such important and at the same time complex phenomena, one must be modest, and study them with the awareness that, more often than not, we lack the tools to understand them completely".