Water Conflict: A Lesson from Matt Damon’s Ice Bucket Challenge



Matt Damon jumped on theASL Ice Bucket Challenge bandwagon, joining millions of Americans who dumped icy water over their heads. However, Damon put a twist on the challenge by using ice-cold toilet water to symbolize the lack of clean water available around the world. The point that Damon was trying to stress is that 2.4 billion people lack proper sanitation, making most western toilet water cleaner than their drinking water. In fact, a majority of the world cannot take a hot shower, get clean water from the tap or even flush a toilet.

Water is a powerful resource that is an obvious necessity in everyday life, but has developed into a controversial resource in many parts of the developing world. Beyond health reasons, almost all everyday activities rely on the presence of water. Countries, cities and towns around the world depend on water for economic vitality. Just imagine the various things water allows society to accomplish: maintain a drinking water supply, provide transportation, assist trade and commerce, power generation, industrial use, provide a food supply, agriculture and beyond. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why water is a lynch pin for conflict.

Historic Conflict

Dating as far back as 2500 BC, water has incited conflict as access to water and the amount of freshwater available is unequally spread throughout the world. Water conflicts typically begin as supply is not meeting demand, and more often than not countries who share water boundaries tend to develop rocky relationships as the need for water escalates into conflict.

Of course many factors can influence why water supply cannot meet demand, but they all have dire consequences when they occur. From drought to unsanitary conditions to the backbreaking work of carrying water far distances, all these conditions impact people’s access to water.

Equitably sharing a body of water that may not be equitably split along two national borders has time and time again caused wars and conflict. To make matters worse, harsh droughts and other climate change related ills have exacerbated conflicts as water supplies continue to get dangerously low.

The Fight over Water

For example, aggression has built up for decades in various areas of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Nile River basin and along the Ganges River where pollution, hot temperatures and large populations deplete water sources, which fan the flames of tension. Conflict is over both surface and ground waters as droughts around the world have negatively impacted the supply of drinking water.

In 2013, fighting in North Darfur found new kindling as the scarcity of water and other resources plagued the region. Tribes from around the country were battling for control of what little water reserves existed and it resulted in 500 deaths and over 100,000 displaced people.

Water scarcity and sanitation is such a critical problem that India’s newly elected President, Pranab Mukherjee, campaigned on solving economic woes and sanitary issues by promising to put a toilet in every home. A problem so far from most American and western minds, you’d only hear one of our politicians talk about toilets in a gaff.

In addition, two and half times more people lack water than live in the United States and 3.4 million people die from water related illness each year. With such staggering numbers and the amount of conflict surrounding the resource, the need for a long-term solution is essential.


The United Nations and World Trade Organization have created programs, have frameworks for conflict mediation, and encourage cooperation with the focus on economic progress as a reward for decreased fighting. A 2013 study titled Blue Peace for the Nile focused on finding solutions for the water crisis for countries in the Nile basin by supporting cooperation that is sustainable and finds ways to solve fighting over the water supply for the long-term future.

The study focused on ways to get national leaders around one table to address water issues across borders and use water to find peace. Recommendations included finding ways to be cooperative with the support of a strong government network to work on water conservation and ecological efforts to improve the lives of all citizens within the Nile basin.

While these goals seem lofty, there exists a dire need for a solution, which must include restoring and in some cases providing new healthy sources of drinking water. At the local level, with the help of NGOs, nonprofits and community partners, access to clean water and proper sanitation is a reachable goal. However, water conflict has the ability to threaten the global environmental security and peace and it is on the hands of the international community to find a framework that stops conflict and brings a daily supply of freshwater to those who need it.

So do not panic or react with disgust as Matt Damon pours toilet water over his head. Save your disdain for the tragic reality that 2.4 billion people live without reliable water sources as violent conflict dictates the allocation of what precious little exists.

About Melaine Furey

Melanie Furey is a research professional from Cleveland currently working abroad in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica. Most recently Melanie worked as US Senator George V. Voinovich's Research Coordinator where she carried out several research projects on topics including the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, diversity in the United States and American political parties. Now Melanie works as a teacher and is conducting independent research on US foreign policy, Costa Rica and Central American issues and other related topics while abroad. Melanie holds a B.A. in Economics from Allegheny College and a Masters Degree in International Relations from Cleveland State University.
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