Water is the basis of life. The access, possession and control of water therefore mean power, make it a potential source of conflict. But the hypothesis that as nations run of out of water they may go to war is one-dimensional and linear. It underestimates other factors including how nations operate, what motivates war and the actual cost of war.

Shared water resources i.e. the approximately 276 water bodies, lakes and rivers shared by some 148 countries around the world, are generally seen as issues of potential conflict. Empirical evidence reveals, however, there have been more instances of cooperation than conflict over shared water resources in the past decades. On occasion countries have used their shared water resources to forge ties often leading to cooperation in other spheres as well.

Since the 1950s, 37 so called ‘water wars’ have been fought over shared water resources, about a third in the wider Middle East region alone. Although in many cases (such as present-day Syria) water might not have been the initial cause of conflict, they do form a contributing factor. In the same period, over 200 agreements or treaties have been signed by neighbours over this shared resource. These treaties address the issue of sharing, pollution, transboundary management, navigation, hydropower projects and many others. Water, an extremely emotive subject, linked to history, religion and the future of our existence, is also at its very basis, a resource that has brought people and communities together.

Such findings support the alternative perspective that a key, oft overlooked, reason for water insecurity are not a dwindling resource to grab and hoard, but the gross mismanagement of the resource both in terms of access and quality. The resource issue would thus be transformed into a mere albeit complicated management issue. Detrimentally, a demand centred view also absolves governments and other stakeholders from better management practices and policy decisions. Globally for example, including in many parts of Europe, water use for industry and agriculture is heavily subsidized, leading to inefficiency.

There are several examples of water cooperation that display an underlying notion that it ultimately promotes human security, and is intimately connected to the health, food or energy security of all participating nations. In Western Africa the three nations of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania that had little cooperation, decades of conflict and a difficult history of colonization came together in the 1960s to draft what is possibly one of the best river sharing and management examples in the world, which lead to the creation of the Senegal River Basin Organization. It encompassed equality and equitable sharing ideals, joint management and protection of the river and important structures like dams, and other infrastructure on the shared river as well as joint responsibility of all expenses.

In Latin America, the scientific community from Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina came together to create alternative spaces leading to development in hydropower and joint warning systems in the La Plata Basin. On the other side of the world, in South East Asia, the four riparians of the Lower Mekong River created a data collection, sharing and management systems that is commendable, completely diluting the culture of secrecy that is often embedded in bureaucracies that direct water policy.  Water cooperation then, most importantly, is not only about signing a treaty, but collective management from infrastructure projects to floods and quality control. The drivers of success vary, from sustainable management practices to using the resource as a means of building trust and dialogue, but it is found that the common underlying tenet is ultimately political will and foresight. The examples of success underline that national interest and regional stability can be mutually reinforced and compatible if human and water security are given a priority.

Climate Change is an outlier and unknown disruptor in the equation making long term planning all the more difficult. Mean sea levels are expected to rise which will affect cities across the world, from Bombay to Beirut to Barcelona. Populations rise and migration patterns that place a stress on resources are key concerns and in reality certain regions are more water scarce than others. Instances of a switch in approach to efficient demand side management has yielded results and need to be scaled up. Policy resolutions such as the 2016 UN High Level Panel on Water is a move in the right direction. Other positive developments include the decision to resume talks between Ethiopia and Egypt, China’s tentative increased engagement in the lower Mekong basin, the creation of a regional convention on water and conflict in Central Africa and unique global partnerships to share technology, research and experiences.

Even in rather water rich places like Europe and the United States there has been a growing recognition that water has a strategic relevance interconnected with regional and global developments. From trade to the renewable energy boom and from migration to robotics, water plays an important role in our future. Europe for example is looking to shift its cargo from road to water to cut down carbon emissions, however much of the infrastructure on major waterways is dated and will require huge investment to modernise. While ships might be cheaper, the cost to the rivers must also be considered.

Similarly, other countries around the world are moving to clean energy, investing in solar and nuclear power, but the unaccounted for effects on water resources is still being calculated. For example, some of the ideal spots for solar energy in developing nations, spearheaded by global institutions and corporations, don’t always take into account the vast amounts of water required to clean and maintain the panels. Transboundary water cooperation then is not only about the security of the resource but about the economic development of a nation, with a cascading effect on invested nations.

Real long term cooperation on water security, – that is according to the UN “sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods human well-being, development and above all peace and security” –, is difficult, but not impossible. It requires concerted effort from the international community, an understanding of what is at stake, joint investment that is financial, technical and human.

Facing growing populations, the demand for water will rise drastically in many parts of the worlds, especially Africa and South and Central Asia. And unpredictable changes in the climate are likely to have effects on water supply all over the world, even in the developed economies of North America and Europe. There is also no denying that water, or the quest for it, does cause conflict, directly or indirectly. Thus it is all the more necessary to develop and promote the idea of mutually beneficial transboundary cooperation on water security. Otherwise we might indeed face more ‘water wars’ that are unnecessary and literally fruitless.

Director at Kubernein Initiative

Ambika Vishwanath is the Director of Kubernein Initiative, a Mumbai based policy advisory. She has worked for over a decade on hydro-diplomacy and the relationship between water, conflict and development in several basins around the world including Asia, parts of Africa, Europe and the Middle East region.

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