In 2001 then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared: “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.” A year later he revised that position, saying water problems could be a “catalyst for cooperation”.
Delivered after decades of “water war” threats that never materialized, Annan’s conflicting statements hint at the complexity of understanding how water and conflict interact.
Ahead of a water security summit in Malaysia on 23 April called the 2014 Aid & International Development Forum, IRIN talked to experts to learn more.
“If you come at it analysing water like other resources, you’ll see an absence of conflict in a lot of situations where you might expect to see conflict,” explained Janani Vivekananda, the environment, climate change and security manager at London-based International Alert’s peacebuilding issues programme.
In fact, some scholars point to an ancient Babylonian conflict 4,500 years ago as being the only true “water war” to have ever occurred.
But when one fifth of the world’s population faces water scarcity and another 1.6 billion people live in countries where infrastructure is too weak to get water to where it is needed, why is there not more violence over this precious resource? And how dire are warnings from the US Central Intelligence Agency such as: “During the next 10 years, many countries… will experience water problems - shortages, poor water quality, or floods - that will risk instability and state failure, [and] increase regional tensions”?
By way of an answer, experts point to unique characteristics surrounding water: it is a natural resource that makes it both valuable and a challenge to control; there is an international legal framework that encourages local cooperation; and there is also a ubiquitous understanding that sustained water access is vital for life to continue.
Managing tensions over water
“The water wars issue is more complicated than a direct parallel to other resources,” explained David Michel, director of the environmental security programme at The Stimson Centre, a peace and security research organization in Washington. “It’s important to make distinctions between the types of resources and the paths by which they can contribute to conflict,” he said.
“Water - as opposed to other conflict resources such as diamonds - is not lootable, meaning it’s not a resource you can pick up and walk away with,” explained Michel, pointing out that a cubic metre of water weighs a ton.
“It’s also not geographically fixed like timber - where if you control the land the forest sits on, then you control that resource completely.”
Displaced children getting potable water from a water point at Mweso IDP camp. Pooled Funds funds water, hygiene and sanitation improvement project for IDPs in Mweso, Masisi territory. North Kivu
However, water remains inextricably linked to livelihoods, local cohesion, and political tensions, others say.
In a 2012 report on India-Pakistan relations, for example, the International Crisis Group listed water disputes as an impediment to the countries’ cooperation.
The report pointed to India’s mushrooming energy needs to fuel its economic growth clashing with Pakistani farmers’ dependency on the shared waters, and noted that: “With India constructing several dams in the Indus River Basin, the Pakistani military and jihadi groups now identify water disputes as a core issue, along with Kashmir, that must be resolved if relations are to be normalised.”
A protracted and bloody battle between tribal groups living in the Lake Turkana region straddling the 861-km Kenya-Ethiopia border has flared up in recent years over water availability and access.
International Rivers, a US-based environmental group, explained: “The indigenous peoples of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana are extremely poor, but well-armed. They have a long history of resource conflicts over water, fisheries and grazing land.”
“In times of drought the populations will move to wherever the resources are. It does trigger conflict quite often… In years of scarcity they are happening almost every day. Will water-based conflicts increase? Certainly. But there’s all kinds of different solutions,” Jeanine Cooper, former head of office for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kenya, explained in an interview published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences.
Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a US-based think tank that works on freshwater issues, said he is worried about “a world in which water is an increasingly scarce resource and politics play a powerful role in deciding water allocations - across borders, and perhaps more importantly within borders.”
The Pacific Institute maintains the Water Conflict Chronology, a database that charts a 5,000 year history of water-related conflicts. And while the principal legal architecture for international fresh water is the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, another database housed at Oregon State University in the US lists 3,600 water-related treaties and agreements, as well as examples of indigenous methods of water dispute resolution.
“We need strong institutions - equitable economic reallocation schemes, communications management, and law - to manage tensions over water,” said Gleick. “I’m not sanguine about the history of cooperation holding true in the future if we don’t start paying closer attention to the disputes over water that don’t care about international borders or diplomacy.”
International law, local cooperation
Patricia Wouters, a law professor who founded the Dundee Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science in Scotland, and is chairing a panel entitled Water Governance and Pathways for Collaboration at the Kuala Lumpur conference, explained that “water security is less about a military security way of thinking and more about understanding what legal cooperation means.”
In a paper entitled Reframing the Water Security Dialogue, Wouters argued: “The focus on the military analogy detracts from the task of finding new and effective legal rules and management regimes… and thus frustrates approaches that might offer new insights in addressing old, but evolving complex problems.”
A vender in southern Bangladesh prepares his rice for market. Rice is a staple part of the Bangladesh diet
Wouters told IRIN: “The rule of law means something slightly different in each place, as do the tactics of incremental diplomacy - but the international legal system enshrines cooperation for managing water and associated tensions or conflicts, not a military-style analysis.”
According to Wouters, the 1997 UN convention importantly focuses on the use of water in the immediate present moment: “The framework obliges states to use water resources in an equitable and reasonable manner. States have to ask ‘what is reasonable and equitable for this proposed use of this river at this time?’”
However, even without a strong legal framework, there is evidence that cooperation over water occurs.
Two thirds of the world’s transboundary waterways and aquifers lack any formal cooperative management framework.
“A lot of energy goes into trying to support non-existent or fragile transboundary waterway agreements,” International Alert’s Vivekananda said. “But what really keeps the peace... is often that you have local-level and policy-level understandings that water needs to be shared for everyone’s benefit.”
More important than oil
“I’ve interviewed people in Kenya in places where there is ongoing tension over oil fields, and they still tell me water is more important to them,” said Vivekananda. “Oil can come and go as a source of income and prosperity, they say, but water is for survival,” she stressed, adding that this mutual understanding can explain why historically international conflict has not broken out over water.
“It’s such an important resource that both parties know they have to cooperate. The risk of not cooperating is too high,” she said.
According to Michel, understanding water and conflict is a matter of appreciating the complexity of the resource.
“Water is food production, it’s drinking, it’s fisheries and transportation, it’s a solvent, it’s sanitation, it’s cooling, and it has religious significance,” he said. “When you’re managing water you’re managing all of these things too.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission.