To avoid future water wars, Europe must coordinate water management

The democratic management of water – one of our most important common resources – should be strengthened at the European level to mitigate the issues caused by drought and prevent future conflict
The Seudre river in France's Charente-Maritime region | Photo: Alamy

By Benoît Biteau

Benoît Biteau (Greens/EFA, FR) is Vice-Chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI)

05 Oct 2022

Over 4,000 years ago, the city of Umma declared war on its neighbour the city of Lagash, in modern-day Iraq, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This conflict is known as one of the earliest organised battles ever fought.

Why should we care? This war was also the first recorded “water war”. The conflict was sparked by the diversion of water to canals by the king of Lagash, depriving Umma of fresh water. More recently, the border tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which flared again last month, are also related to clashes over the management of transboundary water resources.

As Europe is going through its worst drought in at least 500 years, this story should be a wake-up call. Climate change is upon us. Resources such as water that were once abundant are now scarce. When people are thirsty and hungry, violence is never far away. The spectre of water wars looms, either locally between different users, such as farmers, industries and citizens, or on a national level, between countries.

Resources such as water that were once abundant are now scarce. When people are thirsty and hungry, violence is never far away.

My home region in France, Charente-Maritime, is a living laboratory for the water conflicts that could spread through Europe. Irrigation farmers, other farmers, environmental associations, oyster producers and concerned citizens confront each other about the allocation of water. Should it go to irrigate corn fields in an outdated agricultural model? Should it be saved to contribute to biodiversity preservation? Or should it flow downstream for the production of oysters?

Far from putting forward a proper reflection on systemic issues and organising a democratic debate to answer these questions, the French state has continuously backed the irrigation farmers. Even at the expense of its own laws: five existing agricultural reservoirs have been ruled illegal, and the situation worsened with the radicalisation of both sides.

Here in Europe, home to the highest number of shared river basins in the world, we could face many water conflicts like this, and disputes could quickly become existential. In mid-August, the Oder River in central Europe was the stage of a massive ecological disaster: more than 100 metric tonnes of dead fish were found within the course of a week. One of the causes could have been the extremely low level of the river, resulting in algae blooms.

This crisis led to unprecedented diplomatic tensions between Poland and Germany regarding who should be held responsible for the problem. Germany accused Poland of not reacting quickly enough, and Poland pointed fingers at German industry for potentially releasing toxic substances. It ultimately ended well, with a common press conference featuring the two countries’ environmental ministers, but climate change will only worsen resource scarcity, which will fuel tensions.

The European Union means peace. It was built for and around this concept. Despite its failures and shortcomings, it has not yet failed on that initial promise. However, times are changing, and we cannot keep relying on old recipes. The democratic management of our common resources should be strengthened at the European level.

The democratic management of our common resources should be strengthened at the European level.

Transboundary quantitative water management and allocation is totally neglected by European water laws and treaties. In fact, the issue of water quantity goes almost entirely unaddressed in European Union legislation. It is an omission that must be fixed in light of the climate crisis and considering how water disputes could fuel political tension among Member States and citizens.

This is why I introduced the idea of an EU Water Conference. Water is common and should be managed as such. All stakeholders must sit around the table to agree on shared water quantity management rules. The process should ensure citizen involvement: access to water is a fundamental human right, and citizen participation is the best way to guarantee this right while strengthening the European project. The Conference should establish rules for the management of transnational shared river basins as well as a general prioritisation of water use, notably in cases of droughts.

In its resolution voted during the plenary of September, the European Parliament pushed this idea, acknowledging what is at stake. The events of this summer should flow into our political action, making water be the source of a renewed Union.


Water Drought