Analysis and Synthesis -21st Century

Water, Peace and Security: Are water and conflict linked and what actually links them?

Water, Peace and Security: Are water and conflict linked and what actually links them?

Susanne Schmeier (IHE Delft), Chris Baker (Wetlands International), Judith Blauw (Deltares), Charles Iceland (World Resources Institute), Karen Meijer (Deltares) and Rolien Sasse (independent consultant)

Conflict risks around water have increasingly made headlines in the past years. And policy-makers and their advisors have also been vehemently warning of conflicts that will occur around (increasingly scarce) water resources. Media has raised concerns that “water wars between countries could just be around the corner” (The Guardian 2012) and that “the world will soon be at war over water” (Newsweek 2015; see also SciDevNet 2018,
Newsweek 2018). And the policy community, especially around diplomacy and defense circles, has warned that “access to vital resources, primarily food and water, can be an additional causative factor of conflicts” (CNA 2007) and that in the near future, many countries “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) and “will contribute to instability in states” (Office of the Director of National Intelligence 2012). Lately, these discourses have also been linked to migration. In the context of the refugee and migration debate especially in Europe, a number of policy-makers have identified natural resources and namely water crises as a key contributor to conflicts and instability, ultimately making people leave their countries.
Responses by policy-makers that clearly target the migration dimension of the water conflict nexus include, for instance, the Lake Chad Conference organized in Nigeria and attended by a significant number of high-level policy-makers from Europe in February 2018.

These alarmist reports try to make us believe that water can be directly linked with insecurity and conflict. It narrates that water resources get increasingly scarce and the benefits derived from them – from water supply to electricity generation and from food production to industrial uses – decrease. As individuals, communities, provinces or entire states experience such (perceived) water challenges and fear for their benefits, they engage in competition over these resources with other actors. This can lead to minor disagreements or full-fledged violence. Examples most commonly referred to include violent clashes over water between herders and farmers in different countries in West Africa and around the Horn of Africa as well as the verbal threats of war by Uzbekistan against Tajikistan over the Rogun Dam or by Egypt against Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. At the same time, it can lead to situations in which governance structures erode as state legitimacy is questioned, with people sometimes turning towards other activities than those for which they require water resources – ranging from leaving their lands to joining violent groups. The rise of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Region is a frequently quoted example for this. And it can lead to the destabilization of governments that cannot (anymore) live up to people’s expectations regarding the supply of water and other basic services on which government legitimacy partly relies. Examples referred to include the conflict in Syria and recent protests in Iran.

These claims about water being inevitably linked to insecurity and conflict are, however, often shortsighted and alarmist but miss the bigger picture. Water and water-related challenges do not necessarily and inevitably lead to disagreements, conflicts and insecurity. While there is a causal link between water and security threats, other factors ultimately determine how this link plays out and whether water-related challenges indeed lead to disagreement, open conflict, displacement or instability. And, even more importantly, something can be done to prevent such escalation.

This is where the Water, Peace and Security partnership engages: The Water, Peace and Security partnership develops new tools and services to understand the origins of water-related security risks, to call for action where required and to support such action being taken in an effective and timely manner. It thus provides the knowledge base for effective policy action towards cooperation and peace over water and beyond.

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