Almost 40% of the world’s population is concentrated in 263 river basins shared between two or more countries. The inhabitants who must share these precious water resources often become rivals, and these situations can escalate into conflict. When a river crosses a border, water becomes an instrument of power and the country situated upstream, whether or not it is more powerful in other ways, gains the advantage because it can theoretically control the water supply of its downstream neighbor. More recently, conflicts have broken out over the sharing of water from large cross-border groundwater supplies, an increasingly exploited resource.
Today, disputes over water are too numerous to list. Many are in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Fortunately, however, there are also many unexpected examples of co?operation between countries on the issue of water. Why is this? Perhaps because water is too crucial a resource to fight over. One of the most encouraging examples is the cooperation between India and Pakistan: despite other tensions between the two countries, they have continued to share financing for projects to manage the Indus river.
Conflicts over water resources are often conflicts about water use at a local level, within the same country, between farmers, cities, industries, and dam-builders. To resolve this, there is a need all over the world for basin water management systems and cooperation between upstream and downstream populations on issues such as water quantity and quality, fish migration patterns, and flood defenses. Indeed, basin water management is not only a sound ecological principle but a democratic principle that the United Nations wishes to promote across all continents.