In the current literature in International Relations and Conflict Studies, water as a source of conflict is either extremely over- or exceedingly underrated. In order to account for the dynamics of water conflicts, it is argued in this article that the study of water conflicts should be linked to comprehensive theories of social conflict and world society. A theoretical framework is developed based on a combination of securitization theory, modern systems theory and sociological neo-institutionalism. The usefulness of this framework is illustrated through two empirical cases of water conflicts, namely Spain and Egypt/Sudan. This study contributes to an understanding of the evolution of water conflicts as a result of securitization practices, the dynamics of these conflicts as complex social systems and as the outcome of local adaptations to and of ‘world cultural’ frames.