Water and conflict: an unavoidable link?

On the 5th of December, the Water, Peace & Security (WPS) Partnership launches its Global Early Warning Tool. Susanne Schmeier, Emilie Broek, Rolien Sasse, Charles Iceland, Rozemarijn ter Horst, and Karen Meijer discuss how this can contribute to prevent the escalation of water-related conflicts and turn instead water into an opportunity for peace.

On the Congo River – Conflict and cooperation over resources
(Photo Credit: Susanne Schmeier)

Concerns over water and conflict are on the rise…

Over the last decade, concerns have been raised by politicians and media alike that “water wars between countries could be just around the corner” (The Guardian 2012) and that “the world will soon be at war over water” (Newsweek 2015). Along these same lines, policy platforms such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) have added to this sense of urgency. For the last five years, the WEF has listed the risk of water and climate crisis and the failure to adapt to those among the greatest global risks (WEF 2019). Individual countries have themselves also identified water as a national security challenge, as many “will experience water problems – shortages, poor water quality or floods – that will risk instability and state failure” and thus lead to tensions (Office of the Director of National Intelligence 2012, iii).

Recent developments in a number of countries seem to reinforce these concerns. The explosion of tensions in Iraq – related to the lack of access to safe drinking water for which protesters in 2018 in Basra and in 2019 in Baghdad blamed the government (Bunyan 2019; HRW 2019) – is one such prominent example. Others can be found in Iran, where water concerns have been among the key grievances for the protesters (Jones et al. 2019), and in various African countries, where competition over water has been related to violent clashes between individuals and communities, such as in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta (WPS 2019). In addition to violent protests in individual countries, deteriorating relations between countries that share water resources have also raised concerns. The dispute over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, or worries over the potential impacts of Turkey’s dams on the Euphrates-Tigris River on downstream neighbors Syria and Iraq that already suffer from various water-related challenges, are two such examples.

In spite of these often alarming and seemingly straightforward links between water-related challenges and conflict risks, there is still limited knowledge about the exact relationship between the two. Although the international community acknowledges the need to address water-related risks for reasons that go far beyond the water sector, finding the most effective, timely and targeted manner to do so remains a daunting task. This is especially true during times of multiple crises and high pressures on time and resources of policy-makers around the world.

The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership sets out to explore these links and help concerned communities, countries and the international community to develop timely and effective responses.


… while the understanding of the link between water and conflict remains limited

While the link between water and conflict is hardly contested, how exactly they are linked, through which factors and to what extent remains often unexplained. Key questions in this context are: does water scarcity lead to violence between different water users or water-using sectors? Can changes in water availability trigger conflict between those depending on water for their livelihoods? And why does this happen in one place but not in another or at a certain point in time but not at another? Which factors determine whether the presence of a water-related threat, such as a drought or water quality deterioration, leads to competition, conflict or violence? What is the role of water in many of the world’s complex crises that are shaped by multiple factors including water? And will climate-induced changes in the hydrological cycle make the world a less safe place?

In most accounts, the linkages between water and conflict are traced back to rather straightforward competitions over scarce resources (Gleditsch et al.  2004; Theisen 2012; Ide 2015). Critchley and Teriff (1993) very early on in the debate on environmental and water security found that competition over resources can directly lead to conflicts, when they are becoming increasingly scarce; are essential for human survival; and can be physically appropriated or controlled. Freshwater has increasingly motivated such competition, especially in regions of dense populations, limited water availability and climate change. Because freshwater is limited, is intrinsic to basic human survival, and can be controlled through unilateral man-made developments such as hydropower dams and large-scale irrigation schemes, it can motivate such competition (Hensel et al. 2006). Likewise, when water resources become scarce (or are perceived to become scarcer for individuals or societal groups), pre-existing tensions can be amplified. Especially in cases of transboundary waters, and when one state gains unequal advantage over the use and development of the water, it can become tied to the domestic securities and political priorities of the countries (Cascão et al. 2019). In the Nile River Basin, climate change is contributing to a growing scarcity of its water resources. When coupled with the pressures of population growth in the basin, which by 2050 is expected to double, it has led to rising tensions among the riparian actors (Yihdego et al. 2017). In a region that is already characterized by low economic development, inefficient water management systems and political unrest, a decreasing amount of water resources amplifies pre-existing conditions.

The Nile River at Murchinson Falls (Photo Credits: Susanne Schmeier)

Other studies have, however, shown that the link is far more nuanced and complicated (Gleick 2014; Uexkull et al. 2016; Selby et al. 2017; Bruin et al. 2018; Gleick/Iceland 2018; Schmeier et al. 2018). In particular, it is less the link between water and conflict itself that matters, but the elements that form the link – or the intervening factors that shape it. Violent conflict does not emerge because of water. However, when social and political systems fail to provide the basic services of water provision or water allocation between actors, are unable to resolve disagreements between different users or are in any other way incapable of dealing with the impacts of changes in the hydrological cycle, it can lead to a rise in water-related tensions.


Poverty and insufficient development opportunities are a key driver of water-related conflicts (Photo Credit: Susanne Schmeier)

In Iraq, for instance, concerns over the lack of safe drinking water, limited access to electricity and high unemployment, have become linked with wider concerns about corruption, inequality and low government performance. When protests were cracked down with force, anger among the protesters increased. Hence initial riots about basic needs escalated into a more violent and deeper political crisis, as the state legitimacy was undermined. In such instances “the social compact starts to deteriorate when institutions are no longer perceived as legitimate and credible because of their inability, unwillingness or general neglect to support inclusive and equitable policies, provide functional services, and broadly meet the public’s implicit or explicit needs and expectations” (Sadoff et al. 2017, 11). In Iraq, it was the combination of a water crisis and other issues, in the context of weak governance that led to an escalating conflict.

To truly understand the links between water and conflict – and thus be able to design and implement interventions that prevent water-related conflicts – it is necessary to move away from the mere discussion over water and comprehend the multiple pathways and intervening factors that translate a water-related risk into a security or conflict threat.


Using current understanding to enable preventive action

Despite the fact that there are still uncertainties, the rising concerns and the possibility of severe humanitarian and security risks require that information be forward-looking, and that it support timely and effective action to prevent or mitigate water-related crises. The WPS partnership’s global water conflict forecasting tool, which is launched today – 5 December 2019 – at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva, allows us to begin analyzing these linkages at a larger scale and thus provides a sound starting point for preventive action. The more detailed zoom-in analytical tools of WPS further enable a deeper and more concise analysis and understanding of the different factors at play and their specific influences on how humans, societies and entire countries respond to water-related threats. The WPS partnership also offers tools and approaches for supporting local experts and international community representatives alike to pool their knowledge and based on data-driven analyses develop responses to crises before they escalate.

Map of water conflict hotspots identified by the WPS Early Warning Tool (www.waterpeacesecurity.org)

… moreover, water can be a source of cooperation

Once the driving forces between water and conflict have been understood, they can be used not only to prevent or mitigate conflict, but also to foster peace. While sharing water resources may spark tensions, if managed properly, it can also facilitate cooperation (Gleditsch et al. 2004; Petersen-Perlman et al. 2015).

However, for such cooperative scenarios to take hold, the actors must perceive them to be in their own self-interests and they must accept the legitimacy of the governance institutions that regulate any conflict of interest between them. In other words, and for the specific case of water resources shared between states, “the glue for a cooperative framework must be derived from the self-interest of each participating state” (Wu & Whittington 2006). Individual actors, communities, provinces or entire countries must perceive that the most effective use of their shared water resources can “only be possible if the unequal and otherwise, conflicting parties work cooperatively, rather than if one side grabs all that it wants” (Spector 2000).

Several cases around the world demonstrate that these cooperative scenarios are possible, especially when the vicious cycle between water and conflict has been disrupted by addressing the intervening factors that perpetuating it.

In the Orange River Basin, for instance, increasing water demand and climate change impacts on water supply have not led to conflict – even though all the ingredients for a water conflict would appear to be present. Instead, countries in the basin have engaged in a multi-layered cooperation system – including a transboundary river basin organization (ORASECOM) – which coordinates national development so that transboundary harm and thus conflict is prevented. The cooperation system also facilitates joint projects, including the recent extension of a water transfer scheme to Botswana, which had been hit particularly hard by drought over the past few years.

Water crises will thus not always lead to conflict. The link between water and conflict is complex, often indirect and shaped by numerous other factors. The recent alarmist reports make it appear as though ‘water wars’ are the inevitable realities ahead of us. However, this does necessarily need to be the case. By closely examining the underlying factors linking water to conflict, something can be done to prevent escalation. For this purpose, a thorough understanding of the hydrological system as well as the other contextual factors is crucial, as are systems of governance and dialogue to ensure tensions and conflicts of interests are resolved in peaceful way. The need to manage water resources collectively can, in some cases, even improve collaboration between states or actors, thus enhancing peace overall (Sasse 2017).

The role of the Water, Peace and Security partnership

And this is where the WPS partnership comes in. Its tools, approaches and services are created to help uncover the origins of water-related risks – from both local and global perspectives – and turn calls for action into real engagement for conflict prevention and mitigation, ensuring that required measures at the local, national and international level are taken in effective and timely manners. Ultimately, it is a sound understanding of the link between water and conflict and the manifold factors that shape it that will help turn vicious water-conflict cycles into virtuous cycles of water and peace.

Cite this blog post
Susanne Schmeier (2019, December 5). Water and conflict: an unavoidable link? FLOWs. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os12

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