Water on Boil: Weaponization of Water in Contemporary Geopolitics

Authors: Rahul M Lad and Prof. Ravindra G Jaybhaye*

A huge Kakhovka dam in the Russian-controlled area of southern Ukraine has been devastated on June 6, unleashing a flood of water in Southern Ukraine. The military of Ukraine and The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are accusing Russia with blowing up the dam, but Russia has placed the responsibility on Ukraine. Simultaneously, the tensions between Afghanistan and Iran have risen to the point where recent border incidents have left both countries on high alert. The Helmand River is the main source of discontent in a disagreement over shared water resources, which is the root of this conflict.

These two separate incidents confirm that water will remain continue to be one of the contested resource in future. Water, unlike other natural resources, endowed with the ability to move spatially. This unique feature makes it likely to be contested. But the aforementioned incidents, particularly the destruction of the dam, implies the severity of the conflict manifold. Although historically, countries have not often used water as a catalyst for conflict, the aforementioned events have forced humanity to reconsider this in the near future. The use of water as weapon against the adversaries is thus, dangerous trend.

Russia-Ukraine War and Use of Water as a ‘Weapon’

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has seen the use of water as a weapon immediately following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Following annexation, Ukraine built a dam along the North Crimean Canal, a primary source of water to the Crimean peninsula which accounts for 85 percent of the peninsula’s water supply. This almost cut off all water access to the Crimean Peninsula, which is under Russian control, and diverted water to the Kherson region of Ukraine. This move was intended to punish Russian aggressiveness and force a Russian retreat—a strategy that was clearly unsuccessful. Since then, the conflict got culminated in the destruction of a Kakhovka dam, potentially escalating it into uncharted territory. The massive Dnipro River in Ukraine is blocked off by the dam, creating a sizable water reservoir. The dam itself is hundreds of metres broad and 30 metres high.

The reservoir it contains holds an estimated 18 cubic kilometres of water, about the same volume as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Bursting the dam might cause a wall of water to flood settlements below it, including the nearby town of Kherson. The use of water as a weapon resulting in a number of issues, such as water scarcity, energy issues, flooding, hydroelectricity production, and Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant cooling system issues, among others. The canal system that irrigates much of southern Ukraine, including Crimea, would undoubtedly be devastated as a result.

Iran-Afghanistan Conflict

The two Asian countries, Iran and Afghanistan, locked in a water dispute over river Helmond. Clashes erupted once again between Afghan and Iranian border security forces in the Afghan border province of Nimruz on 27 May 2023, resulting in the deaths of two Iranian security forces and one Taliban border guard. Both sides blamed each other for the incident, with the Taliban accusing Iran of firing first and Iran accusing the Taliban of violating a water-sharing treaty.

A water allotment treaty signed between Iran and Afghanistan in 1973 is the only mechanism available for the water sharing of the Helmond river.  According to this Helmand Water Treaty, Afghanistan should annually share 850 million cubic metres of water from Helmand with Iran, at twenty-two cubic meters per second with an option for Iran to purchase an additional four cubic meters per second in “normal” water years. But, Iran accusing Afghanistan for the disregarding the principles outlined in the treaty. “In recent years, this treaty has not been adhered to by Afghanistan’s rulers, including the Taliban,” CIP’s Toossi told Al Jazeera, adding that Kabul has delivered only “a fraction of the agreed amount”. Amid these tense situation, Iran Warns Afghanistan by saying that The Islamic Republic of Iran reserves its rights to take necessary measures and emphasizes the full responsibility of Afghanistan in this regard. So far, both sides have committed to ease the tension by expressing need to engage in dialogue.

These kind of incidences underlines the dangerous trend of water weaponization in the tense situation against the adversaries. Some countries find it lucrative because water as a military tool can have a disastrous impact across the border.

Weaponization of Water and International Law

As per the principle 4 ofThe Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure’, the parties to the conflict should refrain from using water infrastructure and water-related infrastructure as a means of warfare. Furthermore, Principle 6 makes it clear that infrastructure related to water is assumed to be a civilian object and as such cannot be attacked or damaged unless it is being used for military purposes.

The Madrid Rules of 1976 by the International Law Association addressed the use of water infrastructure and water itself in the context of armed conflict. To safeguard the civilian population and the environment, the rules outline two particular prohibitions: a) When it would result in disproportionate suffering for the civilian population or significant harm to the ecological balance of the area in question, diverting rivers for military objectives should be outlawed. Any diversion that is carried out with the intention of endangering or destroying the fundamental ecological balance of the affected area, the minimal circumstances for the survival of the civilian population, or the intent to terrorise the populace should be forbidden (Article III). b) When there are serious risks to the civilian population or significant harm to the ecological balance of the area, it should be forbidden to cause floods or interfere with the hydrologic equilibrium in any other way (Article V).

During the drafting of the UN Watercourses Convention, it was proposed by the Special Rapporteur at the time to include provisions on employment of water and water infrastructure as means of warfare. Even though these proposals were later excluded from the draft convention, the paragraphs of the draft Article 13 exclusively curb to use water as weapon against civilians.

The use of water infrastructure as a means of warfare is not specifically regulated by international humanitarian law; however, during armed conflicts, the right of the parties to the conflict to choose methods and means of warfare is not unlimited.

The aforementioned International laws have direct or indirect references regarding the possible use of water as a weapon. The essence of the laws is to prevent the use of water as a means of warfare, and to ensure that access to water resources is not restricted or denied as a tactic of war. 

Stopping the Water Weaponization Tide

It is absolutely necessary to find practical answers to this problem since humanity cannot afford to use water as a weapon. When national governments are the primary offenders of water weaponization, Marcus King and Emily Hardy of Georgetown University claim that international law can be a helpful tool.These laws and treaties might include inter alia the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions on deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure. But, one drawback of these agreements is that each pact has a small number of signatories, and nations with access to significant water resources like Syria, Turkey, and China are absent. However, the consensus of the majority of countries is required in order to forbid governments from using water as a weapon. To start, all members of the United Nations Security Council, notably the permanent members, should be required to sign and approve these kinds of agreements. Because it looks unusual when the nations in charge of upholding global peace and tranquilly aren’t parties to security-related agreements.

 Additionally, there should be strict penalties for any country found to be using water as a weapon, including economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. It is also crucial to establish an international body that can monitor and investigate any suspected cases of water weaponization. This body should have the power to impose sanctions on offending countries and provide assistance to affected populations. Moreover, it is essential to raise awareness about the dangers of using water as a weapon and promote peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue and diplomacy. Finally, investing in water infrastructure and management can help prevent conflicts over water resources in the first place. By prioritizing cooperation over competition, we can ensure that water remains a source of life rather than a tool of destruction. 

*Prof. Ravindra G Jaybhaye, currently working as a Professor in the Geography Department, at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, India. His research interest includes Ecotourism, South Asian Studies, Remote Sensing and GIS, Solid Waste Management, Sustainable Development, etc.

Rahul M Lad
Rahul M Lad
I am Rahul Mahadeo Lad, Senior Research Fellow in the Geography Department at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, India. I am pursuing Doctorate on "Geostrategic Assessment of Transboundary River Water Sharing in South Asia Region. My research interests include transboundary river water sharing, South Asian studies, geopolitics, water politics over shared river water, International relations etc.