The Water Taboo: Restraining the Weaponisation of Water in International Conflict

  • Date: –12:00
  • Location: Brusewitzsalen, Gamla Torget 6, Uppsala
  • Doctoral student: Grech-Madin, Charlotte
  • About the dissertation
  • Organiser: Department of Peace and Conflict Research
  • Contact person: Grech-Madin, Charlotte
  • Disputation

Why do nation states in conflict with one another refrain from weaponising water? Water has long been a standard weapon of armed conflict. In the post-World War II period, however, nation states in international conflict have made concerted efforts to restrain its weaponisation.

This is puzzling given the absolute vitality of water to an adversary, a long historical record of water weaponisation, and water’s heightened military utility in the face of rising scarcity. Distinct from existing scholarship, this study contends that water has become embedded in a global normative inhibition – a “water taboo” – that denounces its weaponisation as morally unacceptable. Through qualitative case research involving elite interviewing and historical analysis, this study examines the water taboo. Three focal points include its existence, how it evolved over time, and most importantly, how it influences states’ decisions on whether or not to weaponise water. The study first outlines the water taboo. Next it analyses the taboo’s historical origins, and later its strengthening from the 1950s to the present via a confluence of broader humanitarian and environmental protection movements. It then examines the taboo’s influence in a “hard” case of India in the 1999 Kargil War, and “deviant” case of the US in the 1991 Gulf War. Altogether, the study contributes that: (i) a moral aversion to weaponising water exists; (ii) it has evolved through multiple phases of norm strengthening in the past seventy years; and (iii) it influences state behaviour at an instrumental level and, in some cases, more internalised level of compliance. Where the taboo is not fully internalised, this study finds that the taboo’s influence is mediated by levels of military necessity, operational dependence of the military on politicians, and embeddedness of belligerents in the international community. These findings firmly extend IR and Peace and Conflict literature into the domain of water, and suggest future avenues for research and policy to charter long-term peace and security around water.