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Water scarcity leads to conflict? Not a foregone conclusion

by steven-heywood | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 24 July 2012 10:38 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The idea that climate change will inevitably lead to an increase in violent conflict over scarce natural resources is an increasingly common position in public discourse, but is it necessarily true?

By Steven Heywood

“Countries have not tended to go to war over water,” Ed Davey, the UK's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently noted, “but I have a fear for the world that climate instability drives political instability.”

The idea that climate change will inevitably lead to an increase in violent conflict over scarce natural resources is an increasingly common position in public discourse, but is it necessarily true?

If any resource is susceptible to conflict, it is water. Water is vital for drinking, washing, agriculture and industry, and a large proportion of the world's freshwater is shared between nations, with 214 major river systems shared by two or more states and 19 countries receiving more than half their water from outside their borders.

As climate change affects glacier melt and drought patterns, many countries are likely to find decreasing water resources creating problems for their growing populations and economies.

However, the discourse that this situation will inevitably lead to 'water conflict', as countries try to secure as much of the dwindling resource for themselves as they can, is problematic in two major ways.

Firstly, climate change does not drive political instability, as Ed Davey claims, but is only one of a constellation of factors that can lead to violent conflict.

Rather than causing conflict in a previously peaceful situation, climate change can act as a 'trigger' or 'multiplier' in situations where the basis for conflict already exists due to economic, social, cultural or historical factors. In actual fact, a team of academics led by Aaron T Wolf found that the number of incidents of serious international conflict over water is very small – just seven in the last four decades, and five of those were in the already volatile Middle East.

Secondly, by framing the problem in terms of conflict and security, we are encouraged to look to the same framework for solutions. In more developed countries that will be less affected by climate change, this can include further securing and militarising of borders to keep out refugees from climate-related conflicts.

Countries threatened by resource scarcity may believe they need to act pre-emptively to secure resources from their 'enemies'.

Instead of assuming the inevitability of conflict, it is possible to see water scarcity as an opportunity for cooperation, with states and communities realising the mutual benefit available to them through working together rather than competing.


Creating truly participatory methods and institutions to share diminishing water resources justly can be seen as a form of 'environmental peacebuilding', allowing connections to be made and understanding to grow in situations that were previously hostile.

One way of doing this is through water treaties between nations. History suggests that cooperative agreements over water tend to be extremely robust, and continue to be adhered to even in times of water stress or conflict over other issues – one of the best examples is between India and Pakistan, who continued to abide by the provisions of the Indus Treaty even during the height of the conflict over Kashmir.

Another is the Trifinio Plan in Central America, which began as an environmental and water cooperation plan, and has since expanded to include joint health provision and increased cross-border trade between countries that were in turmoil a few short years ago.

Agreeing equitable ways to deal with increased water scarcity will be a key element to avoiding climate-related conflict in the future.

And this means that future water agreements will need increased cooperation on data-sharing and monitoring, robust conflict resolution and arbitration mechanisms to overcome disputes and perhaps most importantly, clear and transparent ways of dealing with variability in water supply – this will need wide consultation and careful negotiation between countries to find the most mutually beneficial scenario – a process which, if it goes well, can pave the way for future collaboration.

None of this is easy, but it is possible, and provides a more positive outlet for international action on climate change than the conflict narrative, which encourages militarised responses to the problem of water scarcity rather than cooperative ones. As Davey says, “countries have not tended to go to war over water” - let's keep it that way.

Steven Heywood is a programme assistant, specialising in the human impacts of climate change at the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva. The views expressed are his own.

This blog is part of AlertNet's "The Battle for Water" multimedia report. Find out more here.

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