K4D Helpdesk Report

Water, Climate Change, and Conflict

Published on 10 June 2021

There is a growing global water crisis and that this is one of the of the most significant threats the world is facing. Climate change is one of the key drivers of the water crisis as it changes the global water cycle, increases variability in availability and water stress and scarcity, as well as degrading water quality.

Water can also be a risk for conflict and instability. It can also be a trigger for conflict at the local level. However, a range of factors and intervening variables are likely to influence whether conflict arises. At the international level, whilst political tensions in some basins are, water historically has more often led to cooperation than conflict between countries.

This paper considers interactions between water, climate change and conflict as a spectrum that includes protests, through political tensions to violent conflict, at different scalar levels of analysis. However, the local, intrastate and international levels are linked.

This Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development (K4D) Programme rapid literature review provides a snapshot of this literature and largely focuses on literature from 2017 onwards. Whilst in the literature, water and climate change are often linked to conflict and instability through climate change’s impacts on water security, the consensus in the literature reviewed for this report is that this does not mean there are direct causal linkages. Establishing whether or not incidences of water-related conflict, or conflict over water is increasing, is challenging and contested.

Cite this publication

Cooper, R. (2020) Water, climate change, and conflict. K4D Helpdesk Report No.895. Institute of Development Studies. DOI: 10.19088/K4D.2022.030


Rachel Cooper

University of Birmingham

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Institute of Development Studies
Cooper, Rachel


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