Tuesday 5 June 2018

Managing Water Crisis Of The Future Today And Avoid Conflicts

Written by By Scott Moore, New Security Beat

In 1995, World Bank official Ismail Serageldin warned that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water—unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.” Since then, the world’s water resources have come under ever-greater strain. At the same time, institutional frameworks for managing water resources remain weak throughout most of the globe. Only about a quarter of the world’s international river basins have adequate governance arrangements to prevent and resolve conflicts. Does this mean that we can expect the 21st century to be wracked by water wars?

Colorado River, May 2012. Pic: Denny Armstrong.

The short answer is no: Few (if any) countries have actually gone to war over water in recorded history. But the longer answer is maybe: Water has played a clear role in many forms of conflict within nations, including violent skirmishes between villages in Guatemala, riots between ethnic groups in India, and legal disputes between U.S. states. In my new book, Subnational Hydropolitics, I find that water conflicts within countries break out because shared water resources are often linked to identity politics—but that these conflicts can be resolved by building platforms for cooperative decision-making among water users.

Scarcity Is Not Destiny

In recent years, compelling evidence has emerged of a link between severe water scarcity, migration, and instability. Cases like Syria suggest that severe drought can drive sudden mass movements of people from the countryside into cities or across borders. Under the right circumstances, a weak central government, civil unrest, or other tensions might allow drought-driven migration to spark a wider violent conflict.

When I began researching the history of water conflicts across a wide range of countries, I expected to find similar examples where severe water scarcity stoked conflict between water users. But instead I found the exact opposite. Moderate scarcity does create temporary tensions, as demonstrated by protests by farmers in India’s Krishna River basin during a mid-1980s drought.  But severe scarcity typically—and surprisingly—leads to lasting cooperation.

Perhaps the best example is the Colorado River Basin, home to one of America’s longest-running interstate water disputes. The onset of a severe drought in the late 1990s served as the catalyst for an increasingly comprehensive set of agreements between the states using the river to share the burdens of water shortages—in contrast to previous decades, where despite generally higher water volumes, the states incessantly sued and fought each other in the courts and Congress. When it comes to water and conflict, scarcity is hardly destiny.  

Instead, I found that water can quickly become a touchstone for a range of tensions over language, ethnicity, culture, and religion. When this happens, water can be the source of prolonged conflict and dispute within countries. Fortunately, my research also shows that even long-running water conflicts can be resolved when outside groups—including national leaders, research institutions, and NGOs—work together to build institutions at the watershed and river basin level. These institutions provide a platform above the political fray to help users of a common water resource make consensus-based, cooperative decisions that can make water use not only less contentious, but also more sustainable. 

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How to Prevent and Resolve Subnational Water Conflicts

After analyzing cases of successful cooperation as well as conflict, I found that policymakers can help prevent and resolve subnational water conflicts by taking five key steps:

Take local politics seriously: There’s a long-standing tendency on the part of water specialists, national governments, and multilateral institutions to focus on international (rather than subnational) relations. But local politics drive conflict and cooperation over water at the subnational level more than the international level. Governments, multilateral institutions, and researchers should devote just as much attention to preventing water conflict at the subnational level as they do at the international level.

Encourage the involvement of outside groups: Given the political sensitivity of water issues, officials are often hesitant to engage outside groups, including NGOs and multilateral institutions. But these groups provide valuable resources and perspective, and often the right motivation to form institutions that can prevent and resolve water conflicts. Passing laws giving NGOs and other players the right to provide input on water decision-making is a good starting point.

Create inclusive structures for water governance: Good water governance is hard, but the best way to achieve it is to create institutions at local, regional, and national levels that bring different stakeholders together. France’s Water Agencies, for example, include farmers, factory owners, and everyday citizens alongside government officials. This form of inclusion helps keep nascent conflicts in the boardroom rather than the courtroom or, worse, in the streets.

Support water users with good data and expertise: Inclusion should be balanced with expertise. While France’s Water Agencies are governed by inclusive councils, they also include substantial in-house data collection and scientific expertise. This capacity helps non-water specialists make better, more locally appropriate, and more sustainable decisions.

Leadership is key: At the end of the day, the most powerful means of preventing and ending water conflicts comes from good, engaged leadership. National leaders are often reluctant to become involved in local or regional water conflicts; after all, it’s usually a thankless task. But when they do so, as U.S. officials have done in the Colorado River basin over the past 25 years, national leaders can play a powerful role in bringing parties to the table and brokering consensus. Ending water wars makes for a powerful political legacy.

It’s tempting to believe that given the dire state of the world’s water resources, people will be more likely to fight over it in the decades to come. But there’s just as much reason to be hopeful as to be alarmed. Water conflict is far from inevitable—and with the right institutions and incentives, cooperation is far more likely.

Scott Moore is a political scientist and water policy expert and author of the forthcoming book Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins from Oxford University Press. Sources: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, Science Advances, Scientific American, “Subnational Hydropolitics” by Scott Moore, Transboundary Water Assessment Programme. This article was originally published on New Security Beat.
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