Prevention, minimization and resolution of conflict in local water management projects


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In community-based water resources management, there often arises conflict over water use both within communities as well as with external stakeholders in the area.

Institutional arrangements designed at community level offer an effective mechanism to address conflicts occurring among water managers and users, and at times intervention by external agencies is sought for facilitation and arbitration.

However, conflicts with a range of external actors are posing a serious concern for the NGOs and communities involved in community-based water management. The three most common areas of such conflicts are: (a) conflicts between rural and urban areas where water from rural areas is taken to meet the increasing demand in the urban towns and cities thereby leaving the rural areas with even less water for drinking water and livelihoods. (b) competing inter-sectoral water claims such as instances where an industry draws heavily on groundwater resulting in falling levels for the neighbouring communities (c) conflicts triggered by policy e.g., absence of clear ownership rights in water, subsidy in electricity resulting in over use of ground water thereby undermining community efforts in conservation and sustainable use of water.

This article discusses:

  • Ways to prevent or minimize such conflicts that can be incorporated into the design of a project.
  • Methodologies for resolving conflicts when communities are faced with such situations.


Approaches to prevent or minimize conflicts

Hard and Soft policy approaches
Approaches recommended for conflict resolution include hard and soft policies, ranging from a reliance on institutionalized and law-based conflict solution mechanisms (i.e. legal settlements through Courts; reliance on codified human right standards etc.) to participatory, confidence and trust-building multi-stakeholder dialogues and consensus-oriented negotiations to the employment of specific water-policy instruments (i.e. water budgeting, water trade regimes) most often applying a combination of hard and soft policies (depending on the scale of conflict and interests involved). As for community-level conflicts, participatory approaches including user group formations and facilitated stakeholder meetings and dialogues emerged as most commonly used approach to find solutions to existing or potential conflicts.

Multi Stakeholder Dialogues:

This is a participatory approach aiming at gathering all relevant stakeholders in a facilitated setting to identify and build common concerns and interests. The most important objective of Multi Stakeholder Dialogues is to find ways to turn situations of conflict and distrust into opportunities for mutual aid and cooperation. As shown by numerous shared case studies, Multi Stakeholders' Dialogues (or similar forms of consensus-oriented processes) have emerged as a crucial approach at community-level for policy interventions and for arriving at a negotiated settlement.

An important factor of success of such soft policy approaches is the focus on informal processes and flexible structures. However, it needs to be noted that Multi Stakeholders' Dialogues require skilled and sensitive facilitation, since it consciously addresses power dynamics of gender, caste, class etc., in a systematic process of social learning and cooperation. It is also important to avoid excessive reliance on specific individuals.

Case Studies

  • In India/ Chennai, Tamil Nadu, (urban-rural conflict type) large amounts of groundwater transported from peri-urban villages to the city affected these villages both economically and environmentally: it reduced agricultural activities and affected rural livelihoods, and is the source of conflict between Chennai city and its peri-urban villages. To convert it into a win-win situation, a Multi-Stakeholder Committee of water users of Chennai and peri-urban villages has been constituted, presently documenting and digitizing local water bodies in peri-urban areas in GIS.
  • A case study from Costa Rica highlights the necessity for well-timed and early stakeholder participation and involvement to ensure adequate information flow and avoid unnecessary tensions between communities and private developers.
  • A GEF Small Grants Programme project in Lithuania strives to mitigate a water pollution dispute. Industrial activities have made the village of Petrasiunai one of the most polluted areas (especially its rivers) in the region. The SGP project is being undertaken to reduce the pollution of the river by joint efforts from different organizations. It also aims to establish a political dialogue with the municipality through the involvement of the polluting industries and the encouragement of community projects for solving common problems. Check Community P.O.W.E.R. (People, Opinions, Wealth, Environment, Responsibilities) for more
  • A case from Tamil Nadu Palar Basin/India reveals how a soft policy approach, with its flexibilty and deescalating nature, often can move forward seemingly gridlocked situations. Palar is one of the most heavily stressed river basins in India where leather tanneries have contributed to the environmental degradation, particularly water pollution. Policy initiatives and other efforts had been undertaken but could not really resolve the issue. Judicial activism through the Supreme Court's intervention in response to a public interest litigation filed against the tanners was also helpful mainly in creating awareness only. Multi-stakeholder dialogues were thus initiated, and in the absence of any alternative solution, it helped, at least, to bring together all stakeholders for a negotiated settlement. The multi-stakeholders committee of water users of the Palar basin have met over 10 times so far to work on pollution prevention. Although more work is required, the biggest achievement has been the access gained by the committee into the tanneries.
  • In Salboni Gram Panchayat, Midnapore District, West Bengal/India, a water budgeting system was set up. All households submitted their water budgets for various uses, following which a participatory discussion was conducted to match water availability and demands. This enabled experimentation with alternative water sources, and helped resolve conflicts amicably.

Rights-based approaches

The ultimate mechanism for conflict resolution will be law-based and agreed upon legal procedures for settling conflicts. Intra-state water conflicts (more than transboundary conflicts), usually benefit from the existence of some formal institutions and/or legislation for problem-solving.

Existing law-based mechanism for conflict resolution can range from broad legislative provisions defining and assigning specific institutions and/or agents responsible for dispute settlements to specific determination of water rights to the existence of Courts designed to deal with water conflicts or explicit human-rights based decision-making structures.

Case Studies

Legislation/legislative context with provisions for conflict-resolution mechanisms
  • Viet Nam's Law on Water Resources and related legislation provide an innovative recent example: it introduced and defined the functions of a national apex council/National Water Resources Council, which, inter alia, is responsible for settling water disputes among national-level government agencies and among provinces and cities. Specific issues that the law addresses also explicitly include water rights; responsibilities of users to protect the water resource and to prevent and overcome any harmful effects of water; and the development of water resources in areas with difficult socio-economic conditions. From the GWP Toolbox
  • Another innovative example is a pilot programme currently under implementation in Yemen, which targets local communities that are competing over water resources at catchment level and aims at establishling a tradable urban-rural water rights regime. This pilot program defines ground water rights, registers them and allows for voluntary inter-sector transactions in water rights as a way to resolve water user conflicts. Such a water rights regime needs legislative provisions which have been incorporated into a new water law. Contact Aslam Chaudhry, UN DESA Division for Sustainable Development
Human rights-based approach
While effectively applicable so far only in certain contexts and with certain pre-conditions (such as existing and working legal structures, functioning court system, strongly organized civil society), a human rights based approach may play a useful and in particular sustainable role. Integrating human rights principles into decision-making processes over the use of water resources (and the design of projects) will ensure that decisions are made in a participatory, transparent and non-discriminatory way. Where trade-offs between rights have to be made, human rights standards specify the essential minimum level of water access that must be protected.
  • UNDP's Urban Governance Initiative supported a stakeholder dialogue in Karachi/Pakistan, which eventually brought attention to the need for a rights-based approach in resolving existing problems. In the absence of dialogue between service providers and users, the Karachi water system had been poorly managed and was under tremendous pressure. In an effort to resolve the issue, the UNDP Urban Governance Initiative resorted to bringing the various stakeholders together. This exercise helped clarify different interests - with authorities learning that they needed to be more inclusive and transparent in their decision making process.

Analytical tools to be incorporated into project design

Conflict mapping
Use and management of water resources tend to be multidimensional by nature and usually involves different categories of water users and various economic and others interests. Conflict research regarding natural resources conflicts has shown that the gap of perception between different societal groups/stakeholders is often a more important factor spurring conflict than the absolute levels of access to a resource and services. The perception of a resource as limited is most often connected to inequalities in the distribution. Understanding the nature of a conflict and prevailing perceptions of the conflict implies a thorough mapping of the existing or potential conflict, including an assessment of the stakeholders involved, the issues under discussion, the interests at stake, the perception of the conflict situation and the dynamics of the conflict. Depending on the complexity and nature of the specific water conflict at stake, several analytical tools are available for such a conflict mapping, ranging from conventional conflict analysis to social impact assessments and even elaborated environmental impact assessments.

Conflict Analysis:

A thorough integration of conflict analysis in project planning and provisions for conflict-sensitive monitoring during implementation is one method. Conflict analysis examines incompatibilities, attitudes and power dynamics; sets the context of the project; and maps the risks of the project being affected by or in the worst case, creating conflict. Conflict Analysis is a tool that can be applied at different stages of the development process: from the strategic planning phase, during implementation as well as in the evaluation phase. Conflict sensitive project management and monitoring: During the implementation of a project, the issues of conflict should be closely monitored and followed. A conflict monitoring system throughout the project is useful if impacts are to be discovered and addressed during the implementation phase. Many development agencies, for example, have produced their own manuals, toolboxes and frameworks dealing with conflict analysis and conflict sensitive development through the project cycle aid. These manuals are varied but are to a certain extent similar in their structure. There is little material concentrating specifically on water interventions.

Potential & limitations of conflict analysis at project level

  • Acknowledging conflict: Evaluations show that at the project level, the mentioning of existing and/or potential conflicts rarely occurs and project documentation seldom contains references to conflicts or conflicts are downplayed and scantily documented. There are often strong cultural barriers against such recognition, often denying conflicts at all. Introducing an explicit conflict analysis perspective requires acknowledging the existence of or the potential for a conflict.
  • Risk of focusing on conflict: An overtly conflict oriented approach may entail its own problems as well: the analysis of stakeholders and their respective interests may sometimes exaggerate differences. Conflict analysis is a tool that has been developed working with open conflicts a realistic assessment of the conflict potential is important to avoid an overly protracted depiction of a conflict.
  • Addressing causes or symptoms of conflicts? Conflict analysis tends to focus on the root causes of a conflict and solutions often aim at major societal changes, however, at the project level, it is often difficult to address more complex root causes and larger political problems. A more reduced approach of conflict sensitivity mapping can be an alternative of setting a realistic project context.

Social Impact Assessment:

Social Impact Assessment is another recommended, but less conflict-focused analytical tool when analyzing stakeholders, incompatibilities, dynamics and power relations in relation to conflicts. Recent literature on Social Impact Assessment argues that SIA should be integrated into the planning and decision-making process in any larger project. SIA is often compared to an Environmental Impact Assessment, though the procedures and results are quite different. Although often seen as part of EIA, it is recommended to carry it out separately from environmental studies, since specialist social sciences skills may be needed, and the timescales and study areas of the physical and social analyses may be different.

Environmental Impact Assessment:

More comprehensive local water related programmes and projects will/may require an Environmental Impact Assessment . More comprehensive EIA also include an analysis of stakeholder impacts but its suitability as (additional or complementary) conflict-resolving tool will depend on the causes and intensity of the conflict at stake.

Traditional methods for water conflict management:

Conflict research has a long tradition of investigating local methods of conflict resolution and determining whether such methods are applicable. The spirit of traditional conflict management tends to be conservative, often striving to maintain the status quo. Research observes, however, that not taking such existing methods in consideration when dealing with conflict resolutions might in itself add risk to a project.

Main Lessons Learned

Research on local water conflicts

The Swedish Water House's Conflict & Water Group undertook a recent literature review on water and local conflicts and published an informative annotated bibliography (2004). Its main findings show that:

  • While the debate over looming transboundary water resources conflicts has dominated most of the academic research (and the provision of development aid) during the last decade, more recent research has shown clearly that the risk of water conflicts within countries, thus intrastate conflicts over water resources in fact are more prevalent.
  • Moreover, the risk of water-related conflict is inversely related to scale: the smaller the setting, the greater the likelihood of conflict.
  • This research gap between transboundary and localized water resources conflicts is reflected in the available literature: there is a vast array of sources on international and transboundary issues, but not as many sources that explicitly document and examine local conflicts over water resources.
  • A very recent and in-depth Swedish Water House study on Local conflicts and water: addressing conflicts in water projects (August 2005) discusses various conflict types; inherent risks in water projects and methods to address conflicts in water projects (design) and is one the few new attempts to examine this topic systematically.

No one solution fits all
Diversity in water interventions, from large basin wide initiatives and big dams to small community driven water and sanitation projects makes it difficult to define procedures or suggest solutions that fit every situation. Different cultures and societies have various attitudes to consensus and conflict and how these should be, or not, dealt with. The experiences and examples shared by network members emphasized the importance in project, programme or policy formulation for all parties to clearly understand the local context within which potential conflicts could arise, including the inherent socio-economic complexities; the success of any approach applied must be responsive to the needs of the communities involved and flexible enough to incorporate any changes that may arise. A clear need for a conflict intervention should be established, geographical conduciveness for water sharing should be examined, and the approach delineated should take cognizance of the full range of local resources, institutions and the prevailing community power-structures/dynamics.

Lessons learnt:

Approaches to successful conflict resolution recommended by network members highlighted a number of common lessons learnt:

  • Importance of embedding conflict resolution mechanisms into larger water governance frameworks and the availability of institutionalized platforms/channels for conflict resolution. If effective, long lasting solutions to water problems are to be embedded in comprehensive water governance arrangements.
  • Transparent information policies & institutionalized information-sharing mechanisms;
  • Scientific inputs for informed decision-making;
  • Long-term building of trust & dialogue among key stakeholders as imperative - when designing a project, it would thus be essential to include various activities that promote trust, dialogue etc. among relevant stakeholders. Some important recommendations in this regard include capacity building and formation of user groups.



Case studies:

  • ODI, 2004: SecureWater - Whither Poverty? Livelihoods in the DRA: A case study of the Water Supply Programme in India; The report outlines the research findings of the 'SecureWater' project that examined the application of the demand responsive approach in water supply policy in Andhra Pradesh.


Water Governance & legislation:

  • Legal Pluralism & Integrated Water Resources Management: A collaborative research project that aims to improve the consideration of plural legal systems in water management in the southern African region (focusing on Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe) through action research, capacity building and advocacy

Conflict resolution concepts & tools:

Social Impact Assessment:

Water Resources Organizations/research institutes & universities

  • Swedish Water House: an initiative jointly funded by the Swedish Foreign Department and the Ministry for Environment - Swedish Water House�s Conflict & Water Group: The Conflict & Water Group is made up of researchers and practitioners working in the sectors of development and conflict management. It works with a network of academics, individuals, practitioners and policy-makers investigating the issues of local and intra-state conflict in connection with water.


See also

Other WaterWiki pages on Water Conflicts

External Resources

This article is based on the Consolidated Reply to the query (by UNDP India) on prevention, minimization and resolution of conflict in local water management projects which was sent over the UNDP listserve in January 2006.


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