Decoupling Water and Violent Conflict

A basic human need, water can be the source of social conflicts. With safeguards, including informed government policies and management decisions, the dangers can be defused.

As the saying goes, water is the stuff of life. It is a basic human need, the lifeblood of critical ecosystems, and a basis for livelihoods and cultures for countless communities around the world. There are no substitutes for water’s most important uses. Recognizing A water’s importance, the United Nations (UN) has declared it to be a human right.

Water is also the stuff of social conflict. Control of this strategic resource shapes global trade and investment in diverse sectors such as agriculture, minerals processing, apparel, and electronics. Reconciling the many uses of water is never easy, and as demand grows, competition among them heats up. Climate change, with its potential for profoundly affecting the water cycle globally and locally, adds a volatile new element to this mix.

Apparent intensified global competition around water has led some observers to foresee growing risks of violent conflict. The Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, warned the World Economic Forum in 2008 that “environmental stress, due to lack of water, may lead to conflict, and would be greater in poor nations. . . . As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.” In the United States, a report released by the National Intelligence Council in May 2012 also drew a stark picture, warning that “During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important U.S. policy objectives.” Although deeming it unlikely that countries would wage war over water in the near term, the assessment cautioned that “water problems—when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.”

Is there a looming threat of violence and instability around water? Are rival uses and growing demand for limited supplies poised to take a dangerous turn? What are the real risks, and what can be done to minimize them? Current knowledge about these questions is far from complete, and factors such as climate change and economic uncertainty confound confident forecasting. Nevertheless, what is known suggests important and perhaps surprising answers to these questions.

On the one hand, there is already extensive violence around water in today’s world, and little has been done to institutionalize the means to prevent or effectively manage water-related conflicts. On the other hand, the greatest risks come not from countries going to war over shared river basins or from rival factions launching civil wars to control water supplies. Rather, the danger is in a more complicated mix of bad water management, the marginalization of water-related livelihoods, and the undercutting of critical services provided by freshwater ecosystems, compounded by the inability of many governments to manage such challenges legitimately and effectively. These problems have little to do with growing water scarcity per se; rather, they are rooted in shortsighted, archaic, or unfair policies that affect water. The risks are real, but they are also fundamentally different than typically portrayed.

Is water growing scarce?

Obviously, water is scarce for anyone who lacks safe, affordable, and reliable access to it. Despite some progress in improving access, almost 1 billion people lack safe, reliable supplies of drinking water. More than 2 billion lack adequate sanitation. An estimated 2 million people die annually from preventable water-related diseases. The World Health Organization has estimated that 10% of the global disease burden could be eliminated simply by improving access to clean water and sanitation. Like people, ecosystems also face health risks when denied adequate supplies of water. Studies suggest that freshwater ecosystems, which provide vital goods and services such as clean water, biodiversity, flood protection, and recreation, are as endangered as any other type of ecosystem on the planet, given all the damming, dumping, draining, and diverting to which they have been subjected.

In global terms, freshwater availability is limited by the water cycle. Humans currently trap and use less than one-fifth of global runoff (the portion of the water cycle between rainfall and the sea), suggesting substantial possibilities for future growth. But after subtracting floodwaters that cannot be captured and the water in extremely remote river basins, the proportion trapped and used by humans rises to about half of what is realistically available. Tapping groundwater offers a temporary supplement, but those resources are being drawn down at unsustainable rates in many aquifers. Desalination of seawater is growing in some locales, but will probably remain a niche solution for the foreseeable future, given its cost and energy intensity. And none of this considers the substantial proportion of runoff that is best left alone to sustain the health of essential freshwater ecosystems. This combination of factors gives rise to what some experts have dubbed the gloomy arithmetic of water: growing populations and growing demand encounter a more or less fixed supply. Projections suggest that as much as one-third of the world’s people will live in river basins marked by significant water deficits within a few decades.

But before accepting these circumstances as a guarantor of scarcity and conflict, several cautions are in order. First, water is used with astonishing inefficiency in many agricultural, industrial, and municipal applications. The United States uses less water today than it did in 1980, despite a one-third increase in population and a more than doubling of gross national product, primarily by reducing some of the grossest inefficiencies, particularly in agriculture. Tightening supplies and rising prices can generate social conflict, to be sure. But they can also stimulate innovation and more efficient use. A recent study found that up to one-third of California’s urban water use could be saved with current technologies, and 85% of those savings are available at lower cost than that of securing new supplies.

Second, scarcity can be caused as much by the laws, policy decisions, and economic practices that govern water as by the physical limits of supply. Water supplies can be protected through water-quality measures and prudent landuse practices that keep watershed ecosystem services functioning. The failure to do so makes less water available for its most valuable uses. Inappropriate incentives, such as heavily subsidized electricity for pumping groundwater, can cause overuse of water. Unwise subsidies may also lead water users away from effective, longstanding practices that enhance supplies, such as rainwater harvesting or the maintenance of community water tanks.

Third, and more controversially, so-called “virtual water” must be considered in any assessment of water scarcity. The term refers to the water embodied in goods manufactured or harvested in one place but consumed in another. Simply put, many processes that use water can be accomplished with less water use, or with less pressure on scarce water supplies, simply by doing them elsewhere. For example, cotton grown in the deserts of Central Asia or the U.S. southwest relies on costly irrigation schemes and makes little sense in water terms when compared with, say, the rainfed cotton crops of West Africa. Relying on virtual water by importing water-intensive products promises its own tensions and conflicts, particularly when an imposed reliance on volatile world food markets hurts local food security, or when land grabs lock up large tracts of prime farmland for remote consumers. This practice offers a reminder, once again, that there are important social variables—laws, policies, economic incentives, and management decisions—that sit between how much water is physically available and how it is ultimately used.

The wild card in all of this is climate change, which promises profound, if sometimes hard to specify, consequences for the water cycle. Climate models generally agree that precipitation and evaporation will be accelerated with global warming; that current weather patterns will tend to shift toward the poles; and that, very roughly speaking, dry regions will tend to get dryer and wet ones wetter. Water supplies from glaciers and snow cover will see a net decrease in a warmer world, and precipitation patterns are projected to become more variable and more concentrated, with a higher proportion of total rainfall coming in storms of higher intensity. Climate science also suggests an increase in extreme weather events, although the evidence here is less clear-cut. The big message, of course, is that all of this will impose very difficult adjustments on water systems and uses around the world, even in places where water does not become less available.

The adjustment problem is complicated by the fact that water as a resource is already notoriously difficult to manage well. Water supplies are highly unevenly distributed across the landscape and can be highly variable from season to season and year to year. And because water flows, it is hard to capture and even harder to establish effective and enforceable rights to its access and use. Water can be moved beyond the river basins, lakes, and aquifers in which it resides, but often only at great economic, social, and political cost. Moreover, water is notoriously difficult to price properly, because of the many externalities that surround its production and the many public-goods aspects of its use. Managing water well is as difficult as it is essential.

Need for proper focus

Given all of these factors, fears about a future of violent conflict around water are not surprising. Most of the concern has centered on the specter of dangerous competition for water supplies in international river basins. Two-thirds of the world’s major rivers either cross borders or form borders between countries, and virtually all of the world’s non-island nations share at least one important river with one or more neighbors. This can create complex and difficult hydropolitical relations. Shared use by two or three countries can create stark asymmetries in the balance of power between upstream states that control the headwaters and downstream states in the floodplain or delta. In cases in which large numbers of countries share a river, such as the 6 countries arrayed along the Mekong, the 10 through which the Danube passes, or the 12 sitting in the Nile watershed, the complex challenges of collective action may inhibit cooperation and heighten tensions.

The good news is that although countries may sometimes use bellicose rhetoric when discussing water supplies, there are no significant examples in the historical record of countries going to war over water. The most comprehensive study to date, which looked at water-related events in shared river basins during the second half of the 20th century, found that cooperative events, such as treaties, scientific exchanges, or verbal declarations of cooperation, outnumbered instances of conflict, such as verbal hostility, coercive diplomacy, or troop mobilization, by roughly two to one; and that even the most severe episodes of conflict stopped short of outright warfare. Moreover, when conflict episodes did occur, they were typically not the result of water scarcity. Rather, the key factor was the inability of governments to adapt to rapid changes, such as when part of a country split off to become a new one or when a decision to build a large dam was made without consulting downstream neighbors.

The reasons for the lack of violent conflict are not surprising: War between nations is an increasingly rare event in world politics, water relations are embedded in broader relations between countries, and there are far less costly alternatives than war to improve water availability or efficiency of use. Well-designed cooperative agreements can go a long way toward managing shared rivers in a fair and peaceful manner.

But there is also bad news. First, the absence of historical water wars provides no guarantees about the future, especially if the world is entering an era of unprecedented competition for water supplies. Even if war is unlikely, there is a risk that governments will increasingly use water as a tool of coercive diplomacy, injecting tensions into international diplomacy and complicating opportunities to find cooperative water solutions. Second, well-institutionalized cooperation is not common and can be difficult to create. Fewer than half of the world’s shared rivers have a treaty in place governing water uses other than transportation, and many of the existing accords are archaic instruments that lack a foundation in best practices for water management. Catalyzed by the World Bank, the Nile basin states have been negotiating since 1999 but have not hit on a formula for a basinwide treaty. Several upstream states in the basin signed a separate deal in 2010, but it was vehemently opposed by downstream Egypt and Sudan.

There are some examples of enduring agreements in tense neighborhoods, including those on the Indus, Mekong, and Jordan rivers. But even among basins that do have modern agreements, few contain all countries in the basin, and many of the more impressive agreements on paper have not been implemented effectively. In 1997, the UN General Assembly approved a framework convention setting out core legal principles that should guide basin-level cooperation, including equitable water use, avoiding significant harm to other basin states, sound environmental management, information sharing, and peaceful dispute resolution. But the convention has languished, with only a handful of UN member states having ratified it.

Thus, there is a clear need to strengthen institutionalized cooperation. But the deeper problem is that some agreements may actually increase the risk of conflict. Most of the violence around water plays out on a local scale, such as a localized catchment, rather than on the scale of an international drainage basin. This means that many of the most immediate risks of escalating water conflict are found at the subnational level rather than in relations between nations. A mutually acceptable agreement may smooth tensions between countries (arguably, the smaller conflict risk). But if that agreement embraces poorly conceived water development plans or imposes unmanageable costs of adjustment on local communities, it may worsen the larger conflict risk of tensions within the watershed and complicate the challenge of managing water equitably and effectively.

The Mekong, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau and culminates some 4,000 kilometers downstream in the delta region of southern Vietnam, provides an important example. A cooperative arrangement among the four lower riparian countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam) was established in 1957, culminated in a treaty at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and evolved into a stronger, modernized agreement in 1995. The agreement has been a vehicle for the exchange of information among participants and for efforts to engage upstream nonmembers China and Burma. Bringing those countries fully into the regime would certainly stabilize regional interstate relations. But what if the effect of doing so is an acceleration of poorly planned dam development throughout the basin? The consequences for the millions of people who live in the delta and depend on the river’s unique seasonal ebb and flow for their livelihoods in fishing and agriculture could be severe in terms of dislocation, human insecurity, and destabilizing social conflict.

Incentives for conflict

The emphasis on conflict risks in shared river basins also overlooks the changing character of violent conflict in world affairs in recent decades, with domestic or civil conflict outstripping interstate war as the primary threat to peace. Do a country’s water circumstances enhance the risk of civil war? Two decades of scholarly research and debate, although not resolving the issue, have reframed thinking about this important question. There are many documented instances in which scarcities of renewable resources, including water, but also forests, grazing land, and fisheries, have generated localized violent conflict. But efforts to correlate water scarcities or drought with the onset of civil war have for the most part not found a statistically significant link. Civil wars are driven primarily by factors such as political exclusion and economic marginalization, often accompanied by or channeled through ethnic, religious, or other forms of cultural bias. Although resource scarcities may be an element in creating those conditions, it is clear that important social variables, such as the quality of governance, the inclusiveness of institutional processes, and the equity of economic arrangements, play a key mediating role between environmental pressures and any social outcomes. Another way of stating the findings: Countries that have these properties have substantial ability to manage resource conflicts peacefully, whereas countries that lack them are already at much greater risk of civil conflict, irrespective of resource pressures.

Indeed, to the extent that there is a direct connection between natural resources and civil war, it seems to stem from resource abundance, not environmentally induced scarcity. According to the UN Environment Programme, at least 18 civil wars since 1990 have had a direct link to natural resources, either because the conflict was about control of the resource, or because control of the resource generated revenues that enabled combatants to sustain the conflict. The link between resource abundance and civil conflict—a variation of the so-called resource curse—is particularly pronounced for petroleum, but has also been documented with regard to high-value resources that are easily looted, such as alluvial diamonds or hardwood timber.

This link raises a provocative question about water. As demand growth and climate change make existing water supplies more valuable, perhaps dramatically so, could water become a conflict resource along the lines of oil, precious minerals, or hardwood timber? To answer this question requires understanding the causal mechanisms at work behind the association between resources and conflict. Much attention has been given to the idea that high-value resources can lead to civil violence by creating economic incentives for secession or insurgency: splitting off to create a new state if the resource is in a remote region, or seizing control of the state itself if necessary to control the resource. Here, the difficulty of capturing and controlling water resources suggests that there may be little in common with oil, although the salience of water in driving the burgeoning phenomenon of agricultural land grabs represents a different but no less troubling sort of resource capture.

However, the heart of the problem is not simply an incentive to struggle for control of economically useful resources, but rather the type of governance that springs up around such resources. The problem is not simply that revenues are large (in principle, a good thing for the host government and the nation). The problem is that such revenues fluctuate wildly in unstable world markets, breed corruption and patronage, and exempt governments from doing the hard political work of legitimate taxation, a critical source of broader political legitimacy. As researcher Michael Ross has put it, “States whose revenues are massive, unstable, opaque, and do not come from taxes, tend to have some strange qualities”—including proneness to civil conflict.

Although revenues from water are unlikely to rival those from oil any time soon, there are ways in which water projects can emulate some of the worst features of the resource curse. Dams and infrastructure for large-scale hydroelectric or irrigation schemes are vast capital-intensive public works projects that lend themselves to corruption and the cultivation of patronage networks. Moreover, an abundance of high-value resources can lure governments into embracing bad development models, with excessive borrowing against presumed revenues, social illegitimacy, and a failure to manage risk properly. And if the project is to export electricity or agricultural commodities, it links the country’s economic fate to highly volatile international markets in food and energy.

An example is the controversial Belo Monte dam project in the Brazilian Amazon. Although Brazil’s government has embraced Big Hydro as a centerpiece of the country’s energy future, the myriad uncertainties around projects designed to work for half a century or more make them highly risky ventures. An independent study that modeled plausible scenarios for the dam’s future, based on several key parameters that will shape its ultimate profitability, illustrates the problem. The researchers found that in less than one-third of the scenarios they modeled did Belo Monte turn out to be an economically rational undertaking over the full course of its usable life. In all of the other scenarios, profitability was derailed, sometimes disastrously, by some unfavorable combination of energy prices, inadequate stream flow, better economic uses of the river and surrounding land, and other uncontrollable factors. The dam has also fostered intense protest and dissent, not unlike the local controversies surrounding oil extraction in the Niger delta, the western Amazon, and elsewhere. Thus, rather than avoiding outright civil war over scarce water supplies, the larger problem is to avoid the toll of the resource curse on the political-economic capacity and social legitimacy of governments, by finding a prudent path of water development.

Finding a prudent path

The picture emerging from what is being learned about water and conflict, at both the international and national levels, is that the problem is more complex than simply zerosum competition for scarce water supplies. If there is a risk of large-scale violence, it stems not from physical water scarcity but from the institutionalized arrangements that shape how actors govern water. The risks—of destructive competition, failures of cooperation, and perhaps even violent conflict—increase when such arrangements are ineffective, illegitimate, or unable to adapt to changing circumstances. International cooperation initiatives and national policy reforms that frame the problem narrowly as water scarcity will not be effective conflict-management tools.

Indeed, poorly designed responses at the national or international level could easily make matters worse. Most of the expressions of grievance, confrontational events, and episodes of actual violence that occur around water take place on a local scale. Comprehensive data on episodes of water-related protest, rioting, strikes, and other forms of contention and confrontation are lacking, but accumulating evidence suggests that they are abundant. Globally, an estimated 40 million to 80 million people have been displaced as a result of dam construction, many forcibly and most without adequate compensation. A keyword search of world news coverage for any given month will turn up several episodes of protest around water pricing issues, poor water service delivery, contentious infrastructure projects, water pollution controversies, or land grabs that cut off water access. An events database compiled by researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo identified 1,850 “conflictive events” around water in the Middle East/North Africa region from 1997 to 2009, or one episode every 2.5 days.

Most contentious episodes around water are not violent. Nor are they necessarily a bad thing, because protest may be a healthy expression of citizen concerns and may provide a needed stimulus for positive change. But such episodes underscore the high stakes for people’s livelihoods and the health of communities and can be taken as early warning signals of failed or illegitimate policies. Nor is it enough to fall back on calls for broader political reform. Democratization does not by itself reduce the frequency of contentious episodes around water and may even increase them, because of the greater political space it affords for expressing dissent.

There is also worrisome evidence that water-related stresses, including but not limited to scarcity of supply, may stimulate more than just peaceful protest. One recent study, covering 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa over a 20-year period, found that deviations from normal rainfall patterns led to an increase in social conflict, including demonstrations, riots, strikes, antigovernment violence, and communal conflict between different social groups. The researchers found an upsurge during both unusually wet and unusually dry years, with the link to violent forms of conflict being stronger in unusually wet years. Another study, targeted more narrowly on East Africa, found a similar pattern of increased conflict around rainfall extremes, with higher rates of antigovernment rebel activity in unusually dry years and higher rates of intergroup conflict in unusually wet ones.

It remains unclear whether social tension and violence in these instances are triggered by the effects of extremely dry or wet years on people’s lives and livelihoods, by the grievances that result from how governments respond or fail to respond, by the perception that certain conditions are political opportunities to be exploited, or by all of the above. But again, the message is that the problem is not simply one of scarce water. The dangers lie in the turbulence of adjusting to change and in the risks that result when legitimate, welladapted responses are not forthcoming.

Moving ahead

Spurred by a fear of conflict over scarce water supplies, the international community, including bilateral donors, the World Bank, and nongovernmental organizations such as Green Cross International and the World Wildlife Fund, has sought to strengthen international water diplomacy in several ways. Efforts include promoting ratification of the UN Watercourses Convention and fostering dialogue efforts such as the Nile Basin Initiative, the German-funded River Basin Dialogue for Africa, and a host of basin-specific initiatives. To be helpful in managing water-related conflicts, such efforts must recognize the local and national dimensions of conflict risk, rather than simply the international dimension. And they must tackle the complex roots of a problem that cannot be reduced to preventing scarcity-induced water wars.

Perhaps the most important policy reform is to strengthen people’s rights to water and its benefits and give them a greater voice in water governance. In this light, the UN took an important step by recognizing the human right to water and the obligation of states to respect, protect, and fulfill water rights. The human right to water is also implicit in internationally recognized rights to food, survival, adequate living standards, and peoples’ right to manage their own resources. Although the strengthening of the rights-based approach to water needs is a welcome trend, it must be complemented by stronger participatory mechanisms that give stakeholders a clearer and more audible voice in water governance decisions. Most of the attention here has gone to national-level reforms in water law. Although such changes are important, they need to be reinforced at other scales, including local community-based natural resource management and international river basin negotiations.

Toward that end, the UN Watercourses Convention should not simply be ratified but improved. The convention provides a useful framework for guiding negotiations between governments to minimize conflict over shared basins, based on principles of information sharing, prior notification, dispute resolution mechanisms, and participation by all basin states. However, the convention lacks any commitments to the human security of local communities affected by international water dealmaking or provisions for voice and redress on the part of those communities (some of which were removed from the original draft articles when the convention came to the UN General Assembly). The convention is also inadequate in its environmental provisions, which stress pollution control but not ecological flows and ecosystem management. Without these innovations, the convention may facilitate better dividing of water supplies among nations but offers little guidance on genuinely cooperative watershed management for sustainability and human security. Without such reforms, the rush to promote international cooperation may simply accelerate poorly conceived exploitation of water resources.

There is also substantial room to improve water-related foreign aid. In terms of overall aid flows, water has been a second-tier priority as compared with other sectors, garnering only about 5% of total aid flows. Moreover, water aid tends to privilege drinking water over sanitation, new sources over existing systems, supply over demand, and resource development over ecosystem services and water quality.

Approaches to this problem must be flexible, especially given the highly uncertain climate ahead, financially as well as climatologically. Capital-intensive, large-scale water projects have had highly variable performance, often failing to return the benefits projected for them, and this has been the case even under more predictable financial and hydrologic conditions than those that lie ahead. Nor does it make sense to rely on silver-bullet solutions, be it desalinization, genetically engineered crops, or virtual water. These innovations may matter on the margins, but they probably will not be transformative during the next few decades, if ever. A diverse portfolio of responses, stressing demand management and locally adapted solutions, promises a more flexible, resilient approach. Moreover, this rule of thumb applies to policies and institutions as much as technologies. Much of the attention during the past decade has been devoted to institutional reform for better-integrated water resources management, in the sense of stronger coordination among different user sectors and different levels of governance. Although such reforms have been much needed, care must be taken that they do not create such inflexible, hard-wired structures of water decisionmaking as to be unable to adjust to a rapidly changing terrain.

Finally, it is critically important to tap water’s cooperative, peace-building potential, on scales ranging from local communities to international rivers. Strengthening dispute resolution mechanisms in shared international basins is of course a key element. But the lack of effective dispute-resolution tools is one of the weaker links in the chain of good water governance at all scales, national and subnational as well as international. There is also a need to link these levels more effectively, because transnational forces such as land acquisition or price fluctuations in global food and energy markets often drive local disputes. Current mechanisms, such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the World Bank’s inspection panel, or the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution process, are ill-suited to address transnational disputes that involve a wider cast of characters than just national governments.

Looking ahead, there are twin dangers. The first and more obvious is an inadequate response that fails to address water poverty, the onslaught facing freshwater ecosystems, and the weakly institutionalized cooperation concerning so many of the world’s rivers. The second peril—perhaps more subtle, but no less important—is the danger of doing the wrong things: sacrificing water sustainability to food and energy needs, using international cooperation in a way that forces the adjustment costs of poorly conceived development onto local communities, or rushing to replace Big Fossil with Big Hydro for a greenhouse future. If water governance is to be truly conflict-sensitive, it must navigate effectively between these two dangers.

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Cite this Article

Conca, Ken. “Decoupling Water and Violent Conflict.” Issues in Science and Technology 29, no. 1 (Fall 2012).

Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Fall 2012