What actually links water and conflict
Water and security have increasingly made headlines in the past years, with both the media and policy-makers warning of conflicts that will occur around growing water scarcity.
As individuals, communities, provinces or entire states experience 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. 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. And it can also 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.
These claims about water being inevitably linked to insecurity and conflict are, however, often shortsighted and 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 preventsuch escalation.
For any policy action on water and conflict, it is, first and foremost, important to understand the link between water and conflict and the different factors that determine its existence, its intensity and its timing. The first dimension that needs to be understood is the nature of water as a risk. Water can be too little, too much or too dirty — with water scarcity playing a particularly important role.
Water and water-related challenges do not necessarily and inevitably lead to disagreements, conflicts and insecurity.
The second dimension that needs to be understood is water-related insecurity — both in terms of human (in)security and conflict. While this has been scientifically investigated, the linkages themselves are not well understood. Both the water and the conflict dimension have been defined by numerous researchers and academics. What is, however, largely lacking is a thorough understanding of the pathways between the two. The question is thus how water and conflict are linked — and what actually links them.
The link between water and conflict is never direct and straightforward. Instead, the causal pathway between the two resembles more a meandering river with numerous arms than a straight canal. And it is influenced by a number of intervening factors that will ultimately determine the link between water and conflict in its direction, its extent, its timing and its intensity. It is the combination and the interaction of these factors along the causal chain that matters. These factors determine whether water- related challenges (hydrological change, sudden extreme events, increasing water demand or change caused by infrastructure development) lead to conflict (and if so to what extent) or whether they can be prevented or mitigated. They thus also determine which policy action will be effective in a given context.
This is why the Water, Peace and Security partnership studies the pathways between water and conflict and the intervening factors. Based on this, it advices relevant stakeholders to take appropriate action to prevent the deterioration of such situations. For our first case study we went to Mali, a region strongly affected by water and security tensions, where we met with local leaders, national and international government representatives and civil society to discuss how water, peace, and security are related to each other and how an intersectoral approach can be developed and implemented to address the ongoing water and security challenges in the Inner Niger Delta.
Find out more about this project at the Paris Peace Forum 2019. Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.
Dr. Susanne Schmeier, LLM, Coordinator of the Water, Peace and Security Partnership.
In this role, and as a senior lecturer on water law and diplomacy at IHE Delft, she conducts research and provides capacity building and advisory services on water and environmental conflict and cooperation, law and management. She has previously worked in several water-related coordination and project management positions at the Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and with international and regional organizations, including the World Bank and the Mekong River Commission. She has published widely on water resources management and the legal and institutional dimensions of effective cooperation over water and other natural resources. She is also a member of the German Federal Foreign Office’s Climate Security Expert Network and UNESCO IHP’s Expert Advisory Group on Transboundary Water Management