Water, conflict and peace

Water is a basic condition of life. We depend upon it for daily use, for agriculture, for industry and infrastructure. A shortage, an excess and deficient quality can all undermine welfare, impair human security, hold back economic development and in some circumstances generate conflict. The London-based Foreign Policy Centre has published Tackling the World Water Crisis, an edited collection of articles in which mine looks at the peace and security issues around water.

Background conditions

Here are some components of the general context: 

  • 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water;
  • 2 billion don’t have adequate sanitation;
  • the combined population of “water-stressed countries” today is reckoned to be about 2.4 billion;
  • by 2015 it’s thought that about 120 countries will be water-stressed;
  • Southwest China had its worst drought in a century this year affecting 24 million people;
  • the Gobi Desert is expanding by about 2500 square miles each year and its edge is now only some 40-45 miles from Beijing, which frequently suffers severe dust storms;
  • a barely reported drought in the Sahel right now affects 10 million people;
  • at the current rate of consumption and with no improvement in water retention or new sources, some estimates indicate India is on course to exhaust its freshwater supplies by the middle of this century;
  • some analyses indicate Yemen’s capital Sana’a will run out of water around 2017.

These enormous pressing problems explain why the issue of water is not an environmental issue but a fundamental feature of the global political landscape. Or, to put it differently, they explain why an initially environmental issue is a fundamental political challenge. 

Management of risks and resources

World population today is about 6.8 billion. It is expected to be about 9 billion by 2050. Feeding the people is one of the biggest challenges the world community faces in the next half century. To achieve that, the problems indicated by the bullet points above require efficient and creative management

  • to find better ways to store and move water so there is less wastage,
  • simultaneously to increase the productivity of agriculture so as to use less water in producing more food,
  • to involve ordinary people and their communities in identifying the problems and making the decisions that affect their lives,
  • and in arriving at equitably shared solutions to common problems so as to minimise conflict risk.

If management of resources and risk is deficient, the consequent problems could be overwhelming – both in the sense of overwhelming poor countries and in the sense of overwhelming the international system’s ability to cope.

As when thinking about the relationship between climate change and conflict, it is misleading to think in terms of a simple causal relationship. The problem is not that water scarcity or climate change more generally will cause violent conflict plain and simple. Rather, the problem is that water scarcity or climate change more generally will inter-act (and, indeed, already are inter-acting) with other features of the social, economic and political landscape to increase the risk of violent conflict. It is where poverty is rampant and governance is weakest and most arbitrary that the risks are greatest and management of them is least effective.

Water wars or cooperation?

In recent years there have been two common statements about the relationship between water and security. The first is that the wars of the future will be about water rather than, say, about oil. Contrariwise, the second is that so far there have been very few international conflicts over water and that shared water resources have more often led to cooperation than conflict.

If the optimism of the second insight vitiates the gloom-laden first, there is sadly some reason to temper that optimism. To begin with, some of the cooperation is between unequal powers and the resulting agreement has been one-sided. In such cases, cooperation masks conflict rather than resolves it.

More importantly, pressure on water resources is likely to grow over the next 40-50 years as the world population continues to grow, urbanisation proceeds apace and more countries, by dint of succeeding with a high growth economic strategy, enter the water-intensive phase of development that China and India are now in.

Global warming, climate change and water

As the globe warms, the consequences for water are the key area of natural consequences that shape the impact of climate change on people and societies. Warmer air retains moisture more than cooler air, which produces a nasty two-sided effect. Many dry areas are, broadly speaking, likely to become drier because the air will more efficiently hold water and deny them rainfall; meanwhile many wet areas will, broadly speaking, get wetter because when the air is ready to dump its water on them there is more water in the air to fall as rain. There are, in addition, areas where drought is likely though it has not previously been experienced very much. There are also areas where the rains will still come but at different times, disturbing both natural cycles and farming patterns. And there are regions where severe weather events are changing their precise location, subjecting new places to typhoons, for example, where residents are not so experienced in dealing with the problems.

Overall, then, climate change will increase water scarcity in some places and increase water excess in others. Both effects are capable of diminishing food security. In different places, the precise effect may be extended drought or an intensification of the monsoon into a shorter period, or less dramatic variations that are nonetheless significant for agriculture. At the extreme, even a rich country like Australia has seen rice production decline vertiginously. In South and Southeast Asia, rice production faces long-term risks of catastrophic proportions, which would have deeply damaging effects for the societies for whom rice is a staple food.

Social consequences

From these effects on food security and livelihood security, there follows a train of knock-on effects – the consequences of consequences – with which regular readers of this blog are now familiar.

It is worth picking one point out of the discussion of conflict effects – the importance of thinking about consequences at different levels. So-called water wars are one thing (so-called because it is axiomatic that no war ever has a single cause, so what might look like a water war when viewed through the lens of water scarcity may look like a completely different kind of war if viewed through the lens of bad governance, ethno-national difference, regional power politics, individual leaders’ political ambitions etc). But the destabilising effects of climate change and its water impact might lead in a different direction.

An article on Reuters AlertNet focuses on the effects of the falling water levels in Lake Naivasha near Nairobi. Less water means less fishing and for those who cannot find other jobs and income it seems that some have turned to crime, for recorded levels of crime in the area are on the increase.

The politics of water management

If water deficiencies are linked to insecurity and conflict risk, it follows that good water management is a part of peacebuilding and peacebuilding can be a part of good water management: both are essential components of human security.

To make this general point via a specific example: in 2008 the Nepalese government knew the Koshi River was at risk of bursting its banks because of a damaged river barrage and contracted an Indian company to carry out repairs in good time. Unfortunately, though the company was ready to start work, a dispute between the labour unions got in the way.

This was not a dispute between labour and management so much as a dispute between the unions themselves, reflecting their conflicting political alignments. These partly reflected divisions in the civil war in Nepal; it had been settled by agreement in 2006 but its conflict divisions persist. Neither the provincial government nor the national government, itself divided between parties whose local and unions representatives were busy feuding, were able to intervene and resolve the conflict over the work on the river barrage.

Accordingly the work on the barrage was not done and the Koshi flooded, displacing over 60,000 people in the Terai region where scores of armed militias are active. The failure of central government to act fed regional resentment and thus instability.

This case shows how conflict complicates good water management, while the absence of good water management (despite good intentions) exacerbates conflict.

To manage the Koshi and rise to other comparable challenges in other developing countries requires the framework of a well functioning state. Where it does not exist because of war or corrupt neglect, the framework of a proper state has to be built. Issues of climate and water management are thus issues of peace and governance; like so much else in development, it is a serious error to let them drift into the category of technical problems that can be quickly fixed.

What is required instead is the slow work of building peaceful states, making it possible for ordinary people in their communities to play their part in the mass of small-scale actions that will be the primary motor for solving the problems of water management. Neither technical nor top-down fixes will meet the bill. But experience in a variety of places is beginning to offer grounds for optimism that small-scale practical solutions can be mobilised and can work. In a report issued by International Alert last November, my colleague Janani Vivekananda and I went into this question and identified some telling examples.

3 responses to “Water, conflict and peace

  1. Pingback: Water, conflict and peace « Dan Smith's blog | Water First International

  2. Very interesting piece, Dan. I certain agree with the conclusion. I feel it’s probably the case – as with nearly all of the issues around sustainability – that technological and top-down fixes will not be enough to solve the challenges we face. Getting individuals and communities engaged and active will be part of the battle. I would stop short of calling it a ‘big society’ – but the sentiment of getting everyone on board is an important one.

  3. Dije muy seriamente en 2001 -después de estudiar la evolución del consumo de agua de mi pueblo desde 1935 a 2000- así como otros parámetros de consumo de finales siglo, que si no poníamos coto al derroche de agua potable, ésta sería la causa de la IIIGM.

    Veo que no andamos muy distanciados.

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