How Water Scarcity Breeds Violence

Wednesday, February 14th, 2024

Where essential resources are scarce, the likelihood of violence of any type goes up. When people get desperate, they fight with others to secure enough resources for themselves and the ones they love. Constant strife, or even constant discomfort, is bound to make anyone irritable. 

This concept makes sense intuitively. But it’s still shocking to stumble upon the words of an individual who’s been abused or assaulted due to water scarcity in one of our project reports.

On our blog, we’ve posted before about how water scarcity correlates to domestic violence and gender-based violence. But it’s not only women and girls who are at risk of becoming victims of violence when people don’t have enough clean water. It’s everyone. 

Women wait for their chance to collect water at a well in Sierra Leone.

Water scarcity has been shown to triple the likelihood of social conflict in an afflicted area. Water stress heightens emotions. This is understandable — not only is drinking water essential to our survival, but we use water for so many daily tasks. Living without it is impossible.

Wherever there is scarcity, there is violence, and this holds true for clean water scarcity as well. When people can’t meet their basic needs on a regular basis, over time, this constant feeling of being deprived can cultivate a “sense of futurelessness.” It’s hard to conceptualize long-term consequences when you don’t even know when you’ll be able to drink your next cup of water.

People have been fighting over water since the dawn of recorded history, and very likely before that. And while the Pacific Institute has done a commendable job keeping track of water-related conflicts over all of history and geography, their records don’t account for smaller-scale, person-on-person conflicts that our interviewees tell us about on a regular basis.

Whom It Affects

Water-collection in sub-Saharan Africa is almost always the job of women and children, who are more vulnerable to physical and sexual attacks on the long routes from home to the water source, and even at the water point itself. 

“To access water, I have to move about three kilometers away from [my] home through the sugarcane plantations, with a lot of fear that I might be raped by the sugarcane cutters,” explained 15-year-old Catherine A. from Rubani Community in Uganda.

A woman walks along an isolated path through a sugarcane plantation in Kenya carrying a water container on her head.

In some cases, returning home without water for any of a number of reasons may pose a safety risk. Broken water containers, long lines, fall injuries, and a lack of water at the source are all logical reasons not to bring water home. Nevertheless, a water-fetcher returning home without water severely inhibits the proper running of a household, causing tempers to flare.

11-year-old Lampard from Kyamaiso Kyamunyweri in Uganda used to fight for his chance to fetch water before we installed a new water point in his community last year. 

“As a child, while at the water point, the elder people don’t like queuing [and they] end up using force to draw water, and this increases on our time spent at the water point,” Lampard explained. 

“Other children and elder people steal our jerrycans while at the source. I remember last week when I fell with the bicycle, and all the jerrycans got broken, and my parents beat me.”

Waiting at the water point makes people short with each other, too. People in line find issue with how others are collecting their water, especially at an open source like a scoop hole or a stream where the method of collection might make the water “dirty” for the next person collecting it. 

“There has mostly been tension at the stream in the morning,” said 15-year-old Ibrahim from Kirma Community in Kenya. 

“Many people rush to fetch water in the morning. I [find] it very difficult to get a single bucket of water in the morning before going to school. The overcrowding at the stream creates tension among people. Everyone is in [a] hurry to fetch water in the morning. Sometimes the overcrowding would result in quarrels and fights.”

For adults who earn their own income, waiting in line for water is doubly frustrating: not only does the wait steal time away from other important tasks, but their income evaporates the longer they wait.

“As a trader, I need water before going to my business center,” said 38-year-old trader Marian from Tintafor Community in Sierra Leone. “I always go to my business center late due to the water crisis, and this could result [in] a loss of customers. This really affects me and my family due to the reduction in profit I make for the day. I will not be able to feed my family with the right amount of food if my profit is less for the day.”

The Other Side of the Coin

Once a community gets access to a steady supply of water, the desperation that fuels violence lessens. When this happens, we get reports that household relations improve.

“I am very happy that the distance to the water point has been reduced and I will no longer be beaten by my parents for delaying at the water point any time,” said 12-year-old Isingoma from Kihara Community in Uganda.

“I plan to support my father to spray (water) the gardens since we now have enough water at home. [I] also plan to improve my academics since I will no longer have to waste a lot of time moving around looking for water compared to before.”

“My days are more happier since my mother doesn’t have quarrels with me because of bringing water that is brown,” said eight-year-old Shaline from Musangaro Community in Kenya. 

“She really used to despise water that appears contaminated. I can now be at peace with my mama. Sometimes I needed something from her, then I [would] remember I was on bad terms with her, [so] I had to shy away. But for a good couple of months, it has been really good.”


Water scarcity is not just an inconvenience; it’s a catalyst for violence, hardship, and suffering for countless individuals and communities worldwide. 

The Water Project provides sustainable water solutions to communities in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Safe, reliable water points not only quench a community’s physical thirst, but also sow seeds of peace, stability, and hope for a better future. 

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Jamie Heminway

Jamie is a storyteller by nature. In joining the Water Project, she’s finally found a workplace where that pesky bleeding heart of hers can be put to use (and, less importantly, that BA in English Language & Literature from New England College).