Water Conflict and Cooperation

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This article is based on Water security and peace - A synthesis of studies prepared under the PCCP-Water for Peace process, compiled by William J. Cosgrove, as part of a UNESCO-IHP, PCCP Series Publication (2003).

Water Security and Peace

Competition for Water

There have always been shortages of water in some places on earth at some times. Whenever this happened where there were people, there was competition for water and sometimes conflict. But humans always learned to adapt or cope, sometimes by moving. At first people followed the water, settling near rivers, lakes, and springs, and moving to others if these dried up because of climate variability. As our technology evolved, people moved the water to them by building reservoirs, aqueducts, and stations. However in the past hundred years our population has mushroomed and large cities and megacities have developed. Water consumption has risen to feed us, quench our thirst, and supply the industries that feed our economic growth. Pollution loads have outstripped the capacity of our ecosystems to respond. Locally and regionally, competition for water is increasing. To this must be added the threats to regional and global ecosystems caused by anthropogenic and natural climate change.

Conflicts over water could be looked upon as consisting of three key spheres: hydrosphere, economic, and political. There is a strong potential conflict between the ecosystem’s needs for water and human needs. Even within the context of human needs, conflicts over water are often affected by problems in the economic and political spheres as much as those generated within the water sphere itself. Similarly, problems in the water sphere may lead to conflicts or disputes in the other two spheres. Inequities are increasing between the rich who can afford to cope and the poor who cannot. Earth may have neared a point of discontinuity in human civilization.

This has led some to claim that water wars are inevitable. A counter-movement claims that learning to cooperate in sharing water will build peace. The World Water Vision exercise concluded that the planet does not suffer from a shortage of water, but from mismanagement of this precious resource. UNESCO, an organization whose mandated is devoted to peace, has undertaken a program of activities to determine how serious the problem is, whether conflict can be avoided, and – assuming that it can – how to build the capacity to assure this will happen.

Sources of Conflict

Problems in the water sphere are mainly caused by various human and natural factors. These problems can normally be grouped into three major kinds in the water sphere: water quality, water quantity, and ecosystem problems. Increasing populations impose increasing demands for water supplies, often leading to unsustainable withdrawals. Human consumption and activities of humans in industry and agriculture generate wastes that are usually discharged into water bodies. Finally the environment and supporting ecosystems require water, and meeting those requirements often conflicts with meeting other demands.

The natural factors include the erratic natural distribution, extreme climatic events (such as floods, droughts, and cyclones), arid and semi-arid climates, and local natural conditions. While human intervention may minimize the impact of these natural factors, lack of consideration and ignorance of the important roles of ecosystem functions, together with lack of consultation with stakeholders, may aggravate water conflicts.

Global environmental change is also identified as a potential driver for water conflict. There is insufficient evidence to support attributing recent trends of climate change and extreme events in water-related natural disasters (such as the more severe impacts of El Niño, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme floods that affect many regions of the world) to global environmental change. However these trends towards climate change and extreme events are on a global scale and need to be properly handled so as to prevent them from escalating into water conflicts.

The economic and political factors are treated as separate driving forces. Although these factors have a strong interaction with the key factors affecting the water sphere directly, they may originate independently from the water sphere. Often, the problems in the economic and political spheres are caused by a lack of detailed information on good management of water resources or by differences in the perception of a fair and equitable share of the water resources. Possible drivers for disputes in the economic and political spheres are identified in the figure below.

In a river basin that traverses an international border, a political regional boundary, or a general boundary of different jurisdiction, the basis of a conflict is most often the implementation of developments by a stakeholder within its territory. Such implementation impacts at least one of its neighbors during water shortage conditions, and may lead to a number of water conflicts. Water conflicts may be related to a number of other issues including water quantity, water quality, management of multiple use, political divisions, geopolitical setting, level of national development, hydro-political issues at stake, and institutional control of water resources.

Causes of Freshwater Conflicts (after Le-Hu, 2001)
Causes of Freshwater Conflicts (after Le-Hu, 2001)

Obstacles to Cooperation

Very often the source of the conflict is itself an obstacle to cooperation. Greater upstream use, for example, may be difficult to reduce when it is due to a rise in population. Water-quality-related conflicts due to pollution resulting from extensive agricultural development upstream might have implications for food security in the upstream country. In a large river basin water may be managed for multiple uses such as power generation, food production, industrial development, municipal water supply, recreation, or a combination of these. Different user groups having different objectives will have difficulty in arriving at a common schedule of quantity and time of water distribution.

Political decisions driven by other factors may impact on water resources management. For example shifting political boundaries may demarcate new riparian areas in the international river basins. Political power, or the lack of it, may also make cooperation more difficult. Thus a group occupying the upstream area of a basin or having more political power has more control over the others in implementing development projects. Differences in the levels of economic development may also be hindrances. More developed nations may have better options for alternate sources of water, and may be less demanding over a conflict with a less developed neighbor. Water conflicts resulting from human-initiated developments such as dams and diversions are more likely to be severe than those resulting from natural events like floods and droughts.

Among other obstacles to cooperation there are the potential for socioeconomic political disturbances and poverty and socioeconomic underdevelopment. One cannot blame individuals preoccupied with their daily survival for lack of interest in cooperative measures that will bring benefits in the future. Other challenges are lack of information; inequalities in existing water allocation procedures, knowledge, or military force; geographic advantages; and the weakness of globally ratified laws and conventions, especially enforcement mechanisms. Countries in many international basins also suffer from weak institutions (including lack of democracy and good governance, lack of political will, and lack of financing and other support for development of institutions).

Complex Issues Require More Time and Attention

Conflict should not be looked upon as always negative. It can be healthy when effectively managed. Healthy conflict management can lead to growth and innovation, new ways of thinking, and additional management options. Understanding the conflict clearly is primary in that process. Then it could be effectively managed by reaching consensus that meets the needs of all stakeholders. This may result in mutual benefits and strengthen the relationship. The goal is for all to “win” by having at least some of their needs met. Recognition of this fact undoubtedly led to the Nile Vision with the sharing of benefits.

There is a range of dispute resolution mechanisms from negotiation to arbitration hat are available to help those who wish to avoid or resolve conflict. Some conflicts or potential conflicts may be resolved fairly easily, where they concern fewer interested parties or less serious issues, or where few of the obstacles described above exist. Others may be much more complex, involving many stakeholders and many possible ways to allocate the benefits of using the available water resources.

The PCCP has identified several tools and mechanisms suitable to develop trust and build institutions that secure cooperation. Some of these are related to developing shared values that support justice and equity. Some are related to improving processes of conflict avoidance and resolution. They include mixtures of building human skills and using the latest engineering and management technologies.

Impartial Sources of Support

It has been suggested that there is a need for additional outside sources of help with institutional reform as well to provide expertise on the techniques for creating transparency and providing for public consultation. This would help to create an enabling environment for community participation and especially to enhance the role of women. This service could be extended to the coordination of identifying and monitoring hotspots so that mediation services may be offered early in the process to prevent tensions from leading to conflict.

UNESCO’s involvement in the field of water conflict management started in 1996 when the thirty-six Member States of the International Hydrological Program Intergovernmental Council (IC-IHP) approved the inclusion of “Water Conflicts” as a majot theme in the work plan of the program. The organization’s implication in these matters grew efficiently until the same Council adopted in 1998 a resolution endorsing the creation of a center that “aims at promoting co-operation for sustainable water resources” in the city of Valencia, Spain. Because of some national political events this project remained unfinished.

In 2000 at the conclusion of the Second World Water Forum, Dr Mahmoud Abu Zeid, President of the World Water Council, proposed the creation of the World Commission on Water, Peace, and Security to provide an opportunity for third-party mediation of shared water disputes. The role of the commission would have been to assist nations in current and potential transboundary water issues, providing an independent opinion to help bridge the gap between concerned parties, to develop and promote common interest for “win–win” solutions. However the Council recognized that the lead in some of these areas rests with the United Nations family. Dr Abu Zeid approached the Director-General of UNESCO with the suggestion of creating a Water Cooperation Facility. The creation of this facility was announced at the Third World Water Forum, in keeping with a recommendation of the Statement to the Ministerial Conference adopted in the Water and Peace Theme of the Third World Water Forum.

The Water Cooperation Facility is an UNESCO / World Water Council (WWC) initiative linking these two bodies with two other pivotal organizations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and the Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters (UPTW). Once created, it would:

  • foster peace and cooperation among stakeholders using common shared water resources by – on demand only – harnessing and/or developing the necessary financial and human resources, the favorable environment, political backing, and where needed and agreed, judicial resources
  • draw upon the resources of these renowned institutions (each bringing a unique perspective and set of skills to promote the resolution of water disputes) as well as those of other key organizations with a stake in the success of such a facility
  • serve as a nexus for education, research, technical expertise and the development of dispute resolution techniques for integrated water resources management, incorporating a multi-disciplinary approach.

Global Goals Guiding Water Management

What Will the Future Hold?

It is not difficult to see that future changes will have significant impacts on the management of water. But what will these be? What will be the size and location of population growth? What are the likely patterns of spatial distribution and settlement patterns of populations? To what extent will the availability of water determine settlement patterns? How will land use evolve? Will global trade include trade in fresh water? How will we resolve the definition of water as an economic good – as is necessary to manage demand and encourage investment in infrastructure – while recognizing the social nature of water and the presumed right of communities and individuals to have access to it? What will be the roles of community action, of the poor, of women in managing water resources? What forms of organization will work? How much regulation is required? How can we raise the awareness of the world population, especially that large block of children and young people, to the importance of water? Finally, what mechanisms can be used in setting investment priorities and making investment decisions that will adequately reflect the importance of water to life and the environment? Are there some guiding principles that may be used in building institutions to cope with the future?

Some Guiding Principles

Recognizing the current shortcomings and building on nascent trends, major institutional change over the next twenty-five years should indeed be based on a few sound and generally agreed guiding principles. The following paragraphs describe some of the characteristics of a desirable and achievable society.

An ideology of sustainability would be promoted to displace the consumption oriented values present in, and spreading from, the Western industrialized world. New attitudes and behaviors are needed among individuals and society everywhere. Resource management principles increasingly recognize that human activity is determining or co-creating future ecosystems. The design of institutions should reflect a shift from developing new water resources to demand management and sharing water, as well as from issues of quantity only to one of quality–quantity.

Water management during the next twenty-five years should occur through planning at the level of river basins, with the designing, implementation, operation, decommissioning, and financing conducted at the appropriate subsidiary level or even by the private sector. The design of institutions would reflect this. This will lead to greater diversity in the types of institutions, based on a higher degree of agreement on the principles of sharing water. Multi-use arbitration and multi-use participation, including public–private partnerships, should be incorporated into the overall management strategy. Drinking water, health, agriculture, environment, industry, and recreation interests would be represented and have established arbitration in the river basin management system. The human and environmental values of rural areas will be given more weight in the allocation and regulation of resources to counter the rapid trend to urbanization.

Management systems should incorporate the maximum possible transparency to explain the issues to the widest possible public. Maximum possible user cost recovery would become another management goal. There would be recognition that water is a social good and that some benefits do not lend themselves to charges. Subsidies for such uses will continue to be necessary, but would become more transparent, with the recipients of subsidy having greater accountability. Delivery of water for both drinking and irrigation has monopolistic characteristics that do not allow for the kind of competitive supply that is possible with other utilities. Regulatory systems to control them will be responsive to citizen input. At the same time, there will be recognition that competition drives good service and low prices, and efforts will be made to encourage this, not by entrenching monopolies with blanket licenses but with fixedterm contracts with clearly defined requirements as to outputs.

To promote capital flows, management would be given objectives and practices of stability, predictability, openness, respect of contracts, accountability, and conflict resolution. These global management objectives would become the ones with which systems on all levels comply. Therefore, the management framework would be centralized, but administered at all levels.

Governance structures must be based on universal ethics and human values that recognize the rights of citizens in a universal democracy, promote equity, and replace confrontation with partnership mechanisms. Empowerment at the local level would promote social and environmental accountability, and enable all stakeholders to participate in decision making. Development and application of locally appropriate technology will improve lifestyles without causing harm to the environment. Institutional design should reflect this wide range of present circumstances and these guiding goals.

While the processes described above reflect agreements reached at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, they will not be achieved without a greater demonstration of political will and provision of more resources than are being made available to the water sector today.


See also

International Decade for Action, 'Water for Life' (2005-2015)

Fifth World Water Forum - "Bridging Divides for Water", Istanbul, Turkey, 16 to 22 March, 2009.

World Water Day 2009 - "Shared Water - Shared Opportunities", 22 March, 2009

2009: The International Year of Reconciliation

External Resources

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