Research looking at hotspots for water-scarcity-related conflicts

Published: 10 May 2016

‘We need a much clearer understanding of the interactions between climate change, water scarcity, food production, inequality and social unrest to better identify the countries worldwide where hotspots of water scarcity-related conflicts may emerge in the future. Only then will we be able to devise measures to reduce those risks.’

That is the conclusion of Deltares after an analysis of the currently available data, models, literature and the production of a set of maps showing the countries with potential conflicts related to water scarcity.

‘The current information is still not adequate to identify those hot spots with a greater degree of certainty,’ concludes Deltares expert Karen Meijer. ‘That’s because existing studies of relationships between water scarcity and conflict either describe specific situations or show, on the basis of statistical analyses, whether or not there is a relationship between different factors. A statistical relationship is not enough to design effective measures. The causal relationship must be clear. For example, there is no consensus about the role of climate change in the conflict in Syria and Yemen. There is literature about both Syria and Yemen that states that water scarcity caused by climate change has contributed to the conflict. Other literature blames the scarcity on increased water demand or inefficient water policy.’

Countries where water-scarcity-related conflicts are possible in the future. Ranking of countries based on the conflict potential related to water scarcity, as determined by combining country rankings for social-conflict risk factors/coping capacity and susceptibility to water scarcity (agricultural dependence, poverty and inequality). This applies only to those countries where water scarcity is expected to increase in the future.

Improving maps of freshwater scarcity and conflict potential

A better understanding of the relationships between climate change, water scarcity, food production, inequality and social unrest is needed. Deltares will therefore be improving the existing maps.

Boy looking to wooden boat on cracked earth.

Boy looking to wooden boat on cracked earth.

The research institute’s approach will, in addition to its existing close collaboration with the World Resources Institute (WRI), be combining its specialist water knowledge with the food models of the WUR and the socio-economic and governance knowledge of the Clingendael Institute. Updates of the latest knowledge and insights will appear online regularly.

Strong combination

Professor Eddy Moors, Head of Climate Change & Adaptive Land & Water Management at Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR): ‘You need water to produce food. In many countries, agriculture accounts for up to 80% of

Drought at corn field

Drought at corn field

the total demand for fresh water. When the demand for water exceeds availability, we describe this as “water scarcity”.

By combining the strengths of Wageningen and Deltares, we can bring together the availability of water, the distribution of water and water use. That is a very strong combination.’

Social instability



Dr. Louise van Schaik, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute: ‘Food shortages due to drought make people move away from barren land because they have lost their income. They go to the cities, which are often overcrowded already. It is mainly the poor who are extremely vulnerable to rising food prices. Driven by hunger and despair, they can be more receptive to revolutionary ideas that may, if no steps are taken, result in social instability and in violent conflicts such as food riots. Our contribution is that we can link the literature about potential conflicts and the associated political debate with the knowledge about water and the data at Deltares.’


‘If we can apply all the information from our water models to food production, inequality and social developments, then we will be in a better position to identify countries where there is a risk of conflicts in the future. That allows authorities to take early action,’ is the summary from Deltares.

Possible measures relate to better water management by governments and to the development of innovative solutions that contribute to the more efficient use, distribution and storage of water.

Presentation at Adaptation Futures Conference in Rotterdam

Karen Meijer

Dr. Karen Meijer of Deltares will, also on behalf of the Clingendael Institute, be giving a presentation at the ‘Freshwater availability under drought conditions as a potential driver for water conflicts’ session at the 2016 Adaptation Futures Conference in Rotterdam on Tuesday, 10 May from 13.30 to 15.15. There will be an opportunity for debate at the Deltares stand after the session.


Deltares has developed a video about the relationships between climate change, water scarcity and potential conflicts.