Water scarcity and conflict: Not such a straightforward link



Water insecurity is increasing worldwide. This raises the chance of competition, conflict and instability in communities, countries and regions everywhere. In response to the challenges, the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership designs innovative tools and services to identify emerging water-related security risks. The aim is to foster dialogue and early targeted action to prevent or mitigate crises.

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    The issue in the headlines

    Conflicts around water are increasingly in the headlines: clashes between farmers and herders in the Horn of Africa, disputes over large dam projects in Central Asia and the Nile River Basin, violence in the Lake Chad region, and state fragility in Iraq and Iran (driven at least in part by water issues). These examples show some of the many ways that conflict can arise around water and how water can trigger or exacerbate conflict, acting as a “threat multiplier”.

    Numerous policymakers from national governments, regional organisations and international institutions have underlined the risks associated with conflict due to water scarcity. Many have called for targeted action to counter the threat. The media, too, has picked up on this issue. Journalists point out – often in alarmist terms – the perceived direct links between water scarcity (and other climate change-related water challenges) and violence and instability. Some even suggest that water wars between countries are just around the corner, or that the world will soon be at war over water.

    Think tanks and research institutions have intensified their investigations of the role of water in conflicts. This interest is driven by the realisation that climate change will likely aggravate this complex relationship. The widespread attention to water’s role in conflicts has led to growing concern, not least in the context of burgeoning migration.

    However, the heightened – at times apocalyptic – concern often misses the bigger picture. Water and water-related challenges do not necessarily and inevitably lead to disagreements, conflicts and insecurity. The links between water and conflict are far more complex, diffuse and dependent on a number of intervening factors. It is this mix that determines whether, how and to what extent water-related risks indeed become security issues, for example, intensifying conflict or sparking destabilising migration.

    That means action can be taken to reduce water-related risks. Well-considered and targeted actions can potentially avert conflicts, ensuring that the feared vicious cycle between water-related risks and conflict and insecurity does not emerge. We need to shape water challenges into virtuous cycles of water cooperation and water-based peacebuilding. This is where the WPS Partnership comes into play.

    The WPS Partnership

    The WPS Partnership develops innovative tools, approaches and services to understand the origins of water-related security risks and their implications for conflict and insecurity. It designs actions that can be taken in a timely, targeted and effective manner to mitigate risks and prevent or reduce negative outcomes.

    Addressing water-related challenges requires, first and foremost, an understanding of the links between water and conflict. Where and how do water and security issues intersect, and how do their connections play out?

    Water-related risks

    Water-related risks concern, for example, whether water is too scarce, too unreliable, too abundant or too dirty. If so, why? Who, or what, has access to sufficient and clean water, and who is deprived?

    Water availability depends on hydrological factors, and can change due to natural conditions over time. People’s use of water for livelihoods and other activities can change as well. While water scarcity can be caused by natural conditions, such as drought cycles, it is often created or at least worsened by over-abstraction, unsustainable land use, deforestation, intensified irrigation and modification of ecosystems (leading to deterioration of the services ecosystems provide).

    Pollution – from households, industry or agriculture – is another factor that can deteriorate water availability, as it can make water unfit for use. It can even affect regions with otherwise abundant water resources.

    Changes in water availability, particularly water scarcity, increase competition between water users, making conflict more likely. In the Inner Niger Delta, for instance, farmers, herders and fishers compete for increasingly scarce water and land resources. Infrastructure development upstream is set to that increase competition further, which is likely to result in even more limited water availability and shifts in water use patterns.

    In India, drought has triggered serious conflict between water users at the local level, many of whom depend on water for their livelihoods. Conflict has also emerged between Indian states, as they too compete for water and related development opportunities.

    Similarly, in Iran, consecutive droughts and overuse of limited resources have led to severe water scarcity, retreating groundwater levels and the drying out of riverbed wells. Conflicts between users are common in Iran, both between urban and rural areas and between provinces. Internal migration is also on the rise due to farmers having to abandon their lands in search of other economic opportunities.

    The dependence of individuals, societies and states on water resources varies within and across societies. Some are more vulnerable than others. Their vulnerability affects the likelihood and the extent of conflict. What options do people have to counter water-related risks? Local responses to changes in, for instance, water availability vary. They are determined largely by people’s ability to cope with change, which itself has numerous determinants. Thus, whether and to what extent conflict erupts when water is scarce, is also dependent on numerous factors.

    To better understand and anticipate water-related conflicts, the WPS Partnership collects, processes and analyses vast amounts of water-related data globally: data on precipitation, on drought events, on reservoir levels and on the development and impacts of water infrastructures. The WPS Partnership also collects data on social, economic, political and demographic conditions. It uses these to gauge underlying vulnerabilities to water stress. These data are updated every three months in order to predict water-related conflicts in the near future.

    The WPS Partnership also deploys hydrological tools, group model building, human responses to change, and conflict analysis and sensitivity methods. These allow it to conduct more detailed, in-region analyses together with local stakeholders. Such analyses feed into dialogue processes and help local stakeholders and decision-makers identify potential risk-mitigating solutions. Data and dialogue are crucial for developing conflict-sensitive plans to help prevent crises from erupting.

    Conflict caused by water-related risks

    A second dimension that needs to be understood is conflict as a consequence of water-related risks. The disruptions that the WPS Partnership seeks to avert in cooperation with local stakeholders go beyond violent conflict and include other forms of human insecurity and socially destabilising outcomes. Large-scale losses of livelihood, mass migration and famine are just a few examples. These can amplify disputes between rival ethnic groups and delegitimise local or national governments, leading to the related risk of state failure. They can enable violent groups to emerge, be used to justify acts of terrorism, or trigger deterioration of diplomatic relations between states.

    In the Nile River Basin, for instance, Ethiopia’s development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in a shared upstream basin has raised concerns in Egypt (downstream) about impacts on its own water use opportunities. Egypt has registered formal protests against the project. The wrangling has already led to verbal threats from policymakers on both sides and in the largely state-run media.

    In Syria, some researchers assert that internal migration, political instability and civil strife were triggered in part by multiple years of severe drought, against a backdrop of unsustainable water use associated with the country’s food self-sufficiency policies. This caused farmers to migrate en masse to urban areas, where they met spiking food prices. Research has sought to clarify the exact role water scarcity played in unleashing the Syrian civil conflict. This shows the importance of studying water’s role in conflict and cooperation, to understand the complexities.

    In contrast to earlier research findings, conflicts over water seem to play out at the national and subnational level, rather than at the international level. At the international level, actors are far more likely to solve conflicts in a cooperative manner, avoiding violent clashes. At the national and subnational level, violent conflicts related to water occur more often, leading to insecurity more broadly.

    The WPS Partnership contributes to better understand water-related insecurity and conflict by analysing a range of conflict-related data and linking it to water, relying on global and regional datasets as well as in-depth case studies of specific regions. Localised analytical tools, for instance, are an important entry point to start informed discussions with concerned stakeholders over the different types of conflict as well as possible responses.

    How water-related risks and conflict are actually linked

    As a third dimension, it is critical to understand how the first two dimensions – water-related risks and conflict – are actually linked. This is a prerequisite for understanding in what circumstances water-related risks do or do not lead to conflict. Water-related risks can even lead to cooperation in some conditions. Clarifying these various pathways can help us turn vicious cycles into virtuous ones.

    Yet, the links are never straightforward. They meander along various intervening factors in the broader regional socio-economic and political context. The following are some examples of these intervening factors, both water and non-water related, which the WPS Partnership seeks to identify and analyse:

    ● The specific geographic and hydrological conditions in a region, as for example, semi-arid and arid regions face very different challenges than the tropics or subtropics
    ● The dependence of a community, country or region on (external) water resources for survival and socio-economic development
    ● The number and variation of actors and interests involved in water resources, and their impacts on water resources
    ● The technical, human and financial capacity available to deal with water-related challenges and to mitigate negative human, economic and social impacts of, for instance, short-term water scarcity
    ● Marginalisation of certain groups
    ● Political system fragility, including the legitimacy of leadership and governance capacity

    Analysing the challenges

    Analyses by the WPS Partnership have found that it is the capacity of societies to deal with changes in water resources (such as changes in availability) that predetermine the likelihood of conflicts occurring. How dependent, for instance, is a society on water resources for socio-economic development and thus its overall well-being? What capacity does it have to hedge against water risks? What is the quality of its existing water management system, including relevant human, technical and financial capacities? Do communities have established formal or informal mechanisms to peacefully address disagreements? Does the government have the population’s trust to deal with water-related issues – and indeed to conduct overall international relations with neighbouring states?

    In Iraq, for instance, deteriorating water quality and therefore reduced water availability sparked protests in the city of Basra and elsewhere in 2018. Likewise, reduced flows of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, due to water management measures in Iraq and water use and development upstream in Turkey, Syria and Iran, have made it increasingly difficult to supply water to cities and agriculture. This has generated dissatisfaction with government services and forced people to leave their homes and farmlands and migrate to other parts of the country or beyond. In combination with the overall challenging security situation, this has cast a shadow on the Iraqi government’s legitimacy, providing fertile grounds for full-fledged water conflicts to emerge.

    However, other avenues are possible. Evidence shows that even in settings where many factors indicate a high likelihood of competition, disagreement or conflict, alternatives are possible. Water can provide a basis for cooperation, even beyond the water sector.

    In the Colorado River Basin, for instance, numerous factors – diminishing rainfall, frequent droughts and increased water use due to population growth and farmland expansion – hint at a high risk of conflict among different user groups. Yet, despite regular disagreements between the different US states and between the United States and downstream Mexico, the situation has never seriously erupted. Instead, cooperative approaches have been established and developed over time. These include an international agreement on basin management between the United States and Mexico setting out technical cooperation mechanisms for specific water resources management issues (such as the Colorado Drought Contingency Plan signed by both nations), as well as local community engagement.

    Similarly, in the water-scarce Orange-Senqu Basin of southern Africa, recurrent droughts, together with growing populations and increased water use for socio-economic development, have not led to conflicts between the riparian states. Instead, Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia have intensified cooperation via the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM). This has led, for instance, to the countries’ decision to mandate ORASECOM to carry out feasibility studies, paving the way for extending an existing water sharing and transfer arrangement and related infrastructure.

    What really matters: Preventing, mitigating and resolving water-related conflicts through dialogue

    Conflicts, particularly conflicts related to water, exact a significant human, political, economic and social toll. Policymakers around the world acknowledge the need to counter the potential for water insecurities to drive conflicts. Ideally, well-considered and targeted actions need to be taken as early as possible, so that conflicts can be prevented rather than resolved.

    Whether water-related challenges trigger or exacerbate conflicts depends on the resilience of the countries involved, as well as the effectiveness and legitimacy of their governance systems and their ability to peacefully address discontent and disputes. It won’t be enough to supply technical solutions – like constructing additional storage capacity to deal with rainfall variability. Such solutions may even escalate disputes, especially if they are not designed in a conflict-sensitive way. Groups that feel marginalised might not feel that their needs and interests are acknowledged and met.

    This raises the need for inclusive processes that involve potentially conflicting parties in shaping solutions. Carefully and skilfully structured dialogue processes can transform water from a potential source of conflict into an instrument of cooperation. That dialogue needs to take place at different governance levels, aligned with the exact nature of the conflict – from the local to the provincial, national, regional or global level – in an integrated and multi-level manner.

    In most cases, the dialogue will also need to be cross-sectoral. Both agriculture and energy, for example, are key drivers of water challenges and also the most vulnerable sectors to the impacts of water scarcity. Other sectors, too, can contribute towards increased resilience of communities or help reinstate the rule of law, removing incentives for undesired behaviour.

    To identify effective solutions that do justice to the complexity of water-related conflict, dialogues need to be informed by a mix of locally grounded expertise in water management, socio-economic development, conflict prevention and resolution, as well as peacebuilding. Multidisciplinary cooperation is therefore of utmost importance to identify the various root causes of conflict and linkages between water and conflict and to develop adequate responses.

    Given the complexity of the topic, comprehensive capacity building is called for of those involved in the prevention, mitigation and resolution of water-related conflict. Embedding capacity building into dialogue processes can help level the playing field between different stakeholders, creating a setting in which participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. Establishing a joint appreciation of the problem is vital to allow for better analyses of the status of water resources and their role for different actors in society. This helps us understand the origin of competition over water, the links between water and wider conflict dynamics, and the most beneficial solutions for all involved.

    The WPS Partnership in action

    The WPS Partnership’s engagement in Mali highlights the importance of combining a dialogue process with capacity building. Here, dialogue is carefully linked to existing projects supporting cooperation and stability. Capacity building is based on a sound understanding of the interests and strategies of the stakeholders as well as the water resources system and its importance in society.
    The process involves actors at the local level who represent different water user groups. In Mali’s Inner Niger Delta, they include farmers, herders and fishers. At the national level, representatives of different ministries are involved, including agencies responsible for security. At the international level, participants include external actors active in water management, stabilisation and peacebuilding in Mali.

    The Mali example demonstrates that a successful multi-stakeholder dialogue process needs to be based on a sound and shared understanding of the issues at stake. The current status of water resources has to be known, and how water is used by different actors. Are any changes planned in water resources use? If so, what impact could these have on existing structures? What options do the different stakeholders have to respond to the current or future situation, including changing their livelihoods, migrating to other parts of the country or abroad, joining violent or terrorist groups, or taking up other socio-economic opportunities?

    This is where the WPS Partnership’s combination of cutting-edge analytical tools comes in: to understand the links between water and conflict, to identify opportunities for participatory development, and to generate inclusive and informed dialogue for practical, collaborative and conflict-sensitive solutions.

    While water seems inseparable from competition, disagreement and potential conflict in many parts of the world, ample evidence indicates that water-related conflict can be prevented, mitigated or resolved. The WPS Partnership has analytical tools to understand water-related challenges and offers a proven approach to address these challenges in a timely and targeted manner. Its work proves that multi-stakeholder dialogue processes can turn vicious cycles of conflict into virtuous cycles of development.

    About the authors

    The authors are affiliated with the WPS Partnership, a collaboration of organisations supported by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Current partners include IHE Delft Institute for Water Education (lead), the World Resources Institute, Deltares, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, Wetlands International and International Alert. Associate partners are New America, Oregon State University and the Pacific Institute.

    Susanne Schmeier, Emma Meurs and Rozemarijn ter Horst are with IHE Delft. Jessica Hartog is with International Alert. Joyce Kortlandt works for Wetlands International, and Karen Meijer is with Deltares. Rolien Sasse is an independent consultant.

    Read the full magazine issue

    The complex link between climate change and conflict – Volume 8, Issue 4 (Autumn 2019)
    Why are climate change and conflict intrinsically linked? In the autumn edition of our Great Insights magazine, contributors from across Africa and Europe answer these questions – and more.
    31 October 2019
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