Water - Conflict or cooperation?

Since the end of the 1980s, the link between environment (degradation), (violent) conflict and security has formed part of both public and political debates as well as social science research. In the 1990s, several comprehensive research projects were devoted to the topic of “Environmental Destruction as a Cause of War” (the title of one project’s final report). Since then there has been a firmly established field of research on environmental conflicts and environmental security.

In the context of this discourse on “environment and security”, conflicts over the use of water resources have long been considered particularly charged and subject to escalation. Notably, this applies to rivers and international river basins, which encompass almost half of the earth’s surface and are home to around 40 per cent of the world’s population. This has led to the proposition that the wars of the future will be “water wars”. The starting point can be more or less outlined as follows: “Water flows and rivers know no borders. Moving bodies of water are the most obvious example for the general contradiction between the natural borders of ecoregions and the historical borders of national states” (Bächler et al., 1996, p. 122). Transboundary watercourses can become the cause and object of international conflicts. As there are currently more than 260 international river systems which in turn have more than two riparian states, this means a substantial number of such (potential) conflict constellations. Numerous states are dependent on water resources which have their source outside the territory of that state. Egypt and Turkmenistan, for example, are almost entirely dependent on water inflows from other countries. Dependence of more than one-third is already considered to be high and critical, especially in arid and semi-arid regions that suffer from a scarcity of water.

The ability of freshwater to be a source of conflict comes from the fact that it is a renewable resource and therefore one which can be ecologically degraded. Generally speaking, ecological degradation can occur in two forms: As an overuse of the resource (that is, its use to such an extent that the natural regenerative capabilities are quantitatively exceeded) and as the contamination of the resource (that is, its use to such an extent that the regenerative capabilities are qualitatively impaired so that the forms of use previously possible are no longer available—pollution, contamination). Both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of ecological degradation make conflicts at transboundary rivers possible.

Conflicts between the residents of international rivers have been viewed as particularly charged and subject to escalation due to the constellation of upstream/downstream residents, which can lead to clear differences in position and clashes of interest, both in terms of the quantitative (absolute and relative distribution of water), and the qualitative aspect (pollution and contamination).

  • Conflicts relating to the absolute distribution of water, which arise from the consumptive use of the divisible commodity water, draw from the absolute asymmetry of opportunity between upstream and downstream residents. The upstream resident consumes the water (for irrigation projects, municipal supplies, etc.) for their own purposes and thereby cuts water off from downstream residents. The downstream resident no longer has access to water consumed in this way for their own use. Moreover, they have to battle with the ecological impact of a diminished flow of water (e.g. destruction of wetland habitats, lakes drying up, intrusion of seawater into the lower course of the river), i.e. the upstream resident can externalize the costs of water removal at the expense of the downstream resident.

  • Conflicts over the relative distribution of water are also related to the quantitative aspect. However, in this case, it is not about the consumption of the resource but about the relative distribution of the water runoff at the point in time—that is, the upstream resident temporarily holding back water for their own purposes (dams for generating power and for inter-seasonal regulation of water flow). In doing so, the resource is not withdrawn from the downstream resident entirely, but they are temporarily deprived of it. This can also lead to conflicts between upstream and downstream residents as the downstream resident bears costs (no availability of sufficient quantities of water at certain times for their own purposes, such as irrigation etc.,—possibly even at a time when water is particularly urgently needed (dry season) and has to cope with ecological damages (e.g. salinization).

  • Conflicts due to transboundary water pollution ultimately occur because the upstream resident can pass on the costs of (over)use of the watercourse to the downstream resident—at least temporarily and partially. Mechanization of agriculture, the use of fertilisers and pesticides, the discharge of municipal wastewater, industrial emissions of toxins, mining residues, etc. contribute to the qualitative degradation of the resource. In comparison to conflicts surrounding the absolute and relative distribution of water, this is about its quality.

From these conflict typologies and the ability to add charged escalation to conflicts, the assumption can be made that violent conflicts—especially regarding the absolute distribution of water in transboundary river basins in water-scarce regions—should be reckoned with. Somewhat exaggerated, this argument became the proposition that “water wars” will be the violent conflicts of the 21st century. To illustrate this thesis, the proponents drew on particularly intensive conflict settings at individual international river courses. Time and again, for example, the cases of the rivers Nile, Jordan, Euphrates/Tigris, Amu-Darya/Syr/Darya and Brahmaputra-Ganges were referenced as cases where there is a threat of violent conflict.

A comprehensive survey was ultimately presented in Basins at Risk (BAR)—A project from Aaron T. Wolf’s project group at Oregon State University. The empirical findings of this project group, which are outlined in the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Data Base (TFDD) made a significant contribution to putting the “water war” proposition into perspective. This database contains all interstate interactions in transboundary river basin areas over the last 60 years. Of the documented interactions all over the world between riparians, the substantial majority (approx. 70%) were of a cooperative nature. In the database, there is not one single event which could be qualified as a “water war”. Even for conflicts over the absolute distribution of transboundary river basins in semi-arid or arid regions, no automatic tendency towards violent conflict could be determined. At the same time, the research group also identified 20 'basins at risk', that is river basins in which an escalation or even the outbreak of violent conflict in the foreseeable future cannot be ruled out. These are Aral Sea, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Han, Incomati, Jordan, Kunene, Kura-Ara(k)s, La Plata, Lempa, Limpopo, Mekong, Nile, Ob, Okavango, Orange, Salween, Senegal, Tigris-Euphrates, Tumen, Zambezi.

It must be stated that the BAR project has two blind spots. First, it only records interstate interactions. Potential internal conflicts, which make up the vast majority of contemporary wars and violent conflicts were not taken into consideration. Thus, potential violent conflicts and also manifestly violent conflicts over water resources in transboundary river basins at a national level are not recorded. Second, in the context of climate change (altered precipitation patterns and higher variability), aspects which could have a significant impact on future conflict constellations are neglected as indicators to identify the river basins mentioned above.

To prevent violent water-related conflicts, both domestic and transboundary, there is a need to more heavily involve those poor and marginalized sections of the population who have been disadvantaged so far in water management. It is true, stakeholder participation is now a much-loved phrase that all sides like to use, but the actual implementation meets with considerable internal and external difficulties and opposition. One possible approach may be going back to local, traditional, pre-state organizations and methods of water management and conflict settlement. Especially in regions where the state is relatively weak and which therefore do not have effective public institutions, this type of traditionalist “informal” institution helps rural populations in particular to tackle their daily problems.

International donors and state authorities that are set solely on modern water management in a state context, still barely give a glance to this dimension, however. They usually understand water management as an (inter-)state matter only. But this is inadequate for the prevention of conflicts. A link between modern state, traditional local and civil society actors and institutions, however, can lead to new approaches and not just to an exclusively state-centred focus for action. International organizations, donor states and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) could contribute to this change by providing information, sharing knowledge and engaging in capacity-building.

In conclusion, it can be said that while water scarcity in and of itself is not a potential cause of violent conflicts, the societal organization of the resource management certainly is. The United Nations World Water Development Report rightly states: The water crisis is not a natural phenomenon independent of human activity, but a crisis of regulations. Consequently, good water governance on both sides is required, from both donor and recipient countries.

Sources and further information:

BICC 12/2015

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