Water Conflict and Cooperation/Emerging Trends

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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). There are contributions to this chapter from the PCCP Series Volume; Historical Explanation and Water Issues ; Martin Reuss, Office of History, US Army Corps of Engineers.

While humans may learn from history, there is always the possibility that the future will be different from the past. It is worth asking in what ways the future might be different. Already there are some trends that point us in a possible new direction. What new approaches or changing technologies might change the way we approach the management of transboundary waters?

Focus on Good Governance

In the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development that ended the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the heads of state declared, “We undertake to strengthen and improve governance at all levels, for the effective implementation of Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.” And well they might, because the weakness of governance systems has long been identified as the most important challenge facing development in general and good water resource management in particular. Some had thought that change could be introduced into and via the water sector without change in the overall system of governance in a country. However, this optimistic view has been proven to be wrong. The water sector does not exist in isolation from the other sectors. In fact, development in all sectors and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals depend on the management and development of water resources in the context of supporting development in the other sectors. For this reason reform of the water sector can only take place in the context of overall reform of governance in a country.

The declaration by the heads of state recognizes that the transaction costs of governance – of providing services to the population through government-controlled and managed structures – do not only determine the level of services that an economy can support.[1] They also determine which private sector operations will survive, and which countries and regions will be economically stronger. The reactions to this realization may be grouped around two themes: decentralization and spatial redistribution of the population.

The trend toward decentralization is already evident. It has resulted in an increasing presence of the private sector in the provision of public services, with decentralization even within the traditional private sector. It has produced a beginning of experiments with public–private partnerships, and a rapidly increasing number of non-governmental organizations and cooperatives. Within the next thirty years it will have an impact on the structures of world trade and world government.

The perceived economic strength of countries and of regions within countries has always been a prime motivator for migration. During the coming decades this motivator will be influenced by the changing nature of work and structure of organizations in a knowledge-based economy, by climate change, by armed conflicts all around the world, and by the development of infrastructure that facilitates travel and communications. The combined result of these factors will almost certainly be a shift in the spatial distribution of the population within and among countries.

Most importantly, in the end, the management of transaction costs will require common recognition of a set of shared human values. This should be coupled with recognition of the differences among socioeconomic and cultural groups in the application of these values. The acceptance of the importance of women as contributors to our economy and society and the reform of our education systems to adapt them to a knowledge-based economy will present opportunities to develop recognition of this common set of values. Since more than half of the world population are under eighteen, it will be important to involve them in the process.

A number of issues will arise as the above developments play out. It is already known that efforts to restructure through outsourcing, downsizing, and decentralization bring a new set of problems to be managed. Not the least of these is unemployment, particularly of those with inadequate education. Regulatory systems to ensure service to the disadvantaged and protect the environment are still being tested. The line between individual and community rights has been different for centuries in Eastern and Western cultures, and will be redefined. Progress will require overcoming resistance to change, particularly by conservative and fundamentalist movements. Questions of equity, among others between rich and poor countries, men and women, present and future generations, will have to be addressed. And throughout the period there will be the threat of instability of society at all levels.

Today’s society lives in a postmodern world of ambiguity and of irreconcilable realities, where adherence to historical processes of political and economic power is loosening. Outside of the military bureaucracies, command and control no longer depend on a strict hierarchy but on an ongoing balancing of individual and community preferences. In some places formal and informal ties among regional and local public and private organizations risk making them as powerful as non-democratic traditional state authorities. This is why the reformed institutions and their management systems must provide predictability, openness, and accountability. Processes for conflict management will be critical. Systems of reformed institutions will undoubtedly provide for decentralization, recognizing the principal of subsidiarity, and through local communities ensure participation by all. This last subject is so important that it is dealt with in the following section, Public Particiaption, as a key trend. Other issues concerning the development of institutions are discussed more fully in the section on Basin Management.

Changing Social Values

Once predominantly the preserve of lawyers, engineers, and economists, water disputes now engage sociologists, biologists, chemists, and geologists, to name only a few of the involved professions. The response to water problems becomes less the control of nature and more the management of people. More attention is paid to reducing or eliminating negative affects on fish and wildlife.

Emerging social values force us to re-examine traditional planning objectives. Rather than maximizing economic efficiency or optimizing the opportunity to meet public objectives, planners – especially in industrialized countries – now often set limits to growth. This new planning world compels us to ask many questions and share some very real concerns. Can benefits and costs be weighted according to ethical criteria? Are moral obligations to be assigned values that are somehow measurable? Who is to determine these values (government, a public–private sector committee, an “ethics court,” etc.)? Can decision arenas identified primarily in terms of water control or market preferences be used in a meaningful way to adjudicate competing claims between nature and civilization? These are all questions that require further thought and debate among all stakeholders.

New Technologies for Negotiation and Management

More than ever the world of the future will be complex and uncertain. In many ways the basic approach to water management has not changed for centuries. Yet some aspects are profoundly different. As described earlier, understanding and change are making institutions better and more resilient. The issues discussed in this volume are more and more a concern of water managers. But most importantly, the twenty-first century has access to new technology that could not have been dreamed of even half a century ago. This adds substantially to the ability both to negotiate and to manage transboundary waters more effectively. Some of the tools (described more fully in Means and Tools) include:

  • modular modeling systems for comprehensive modeling of hydrologic and human systems
  • geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing that allow several layers of biophysical, socioeconomic, and geopolitical parameters to be viewed and analyzed graphically
  • real-time monitoring tools providing more options for real-time management of water resources
  • graphical user interfaces to allow components to be brought together in an intuitive, user-friendly setting.

While new technologies cannot replace the political goodwill necessary for creative solutions, and are not yet widely available outside the developed world, they can if appropriately used allow for more robust negotiations and greater flexibility in joint management.

Global warming further complicates the picture. New precipitation models are complex and often contradictory, yet their reliability is critical to water planning. Models dealing with changes in ecosystems also are subject to conflicting interpretations, although it appears clear that global warming will result in changes in various growing periods and vegetation zones. Most water resources plans have been based on the assumption that climate is more or less stationary from region to region. Climate change challenges this historical approach and raises questions about the data we have used for water planning.

The work of the scientific community, water managers, and disaster relief organizations is dependent on having historical and real-time data on which to plan and make model-based forecasts and predictions. New satellite technology is improving information gathering techniques for the future. However the monitoring systems it is dependent on for ground-proofing (calibration) are being weakened everywhere in the world, and particularly in developing countries, as governments faced with budget constraints reduce funding for an activity that seems to have no immediate benefits. The need is recognized in the WSSD Implementation Plan, and attention is particularly drawn to this in the section dealing with Africa, where not only are the data collection systems being weakened, but there is a danger in some cases of losing the historical data on which to base trends. The plan calls for strengthening and coordination among global observing systems, sharing of data from ground-based observations, and support to countries, developing ones in particular, in their efforts to collect data that are accurate, long term, consistent and reliable. It is to be hoped that recognition of this problem by the WSSD will lead to a re-examination of priorities by governments, and support for international data gathering programs.

The Geopolitics of Desalination [2]

Twice in the last fifty years – during the 1960s nuclear energy fervor, and in the late 1980s, with “discoveries” in cold fusion – much of the world briefly thought it was on the verge of having access to almost free energy supplies. “Too cheap to meter” was the phrase during the Atoms for Peace Conference. While neither the economics nor the technology finally supported these claims, it is not far-fetched to picture changes that could profoundly change the economics of desalination.

The marginal cost of desalinated water (between US$0.80 and US$1.00 per cubic meter) remains relatively high. This makes it currently only cost-effective in the developed world where, first, the water will be used for drinking, second, the population to whom the water will be delivered lives along a coast and at low elevations, and third, there are no alternatives. The only places not so restricted are those where energy costs are especially low, notably the Arabian Peninsula. A fundamental shift in either energy prices or membrane technology could bring costs down substantially. If either happened to the extent that the marginal cost allowed for agricultural irrigation with seawater (around US$.08/m3 on average), a large proportion of the world’s water supplies would shift from rivers and shallow aquifers to the sea (an unlikely, but plausible, scenario).

Besides the fundamental economic changes that would result, geopolitical thinking about water systems would also need to shift. Currently, there is inherent political power in being an upstream riparian, and thus controlling the headwaters. In the scenario for cheap desalination above, that spatial position of power would shift from mountains to the valleys and from the headwaters to the sea. Many nations, such as Israel, Egypt, and Iraq currently dependent on upstream neighbors for their water supply would, by virtue of their proximity to sources of seawater, become sources themselves.

Globalization: Private Capital, WTO, and Circumvented Ethics

Very little of the recent attention on globalization and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has centered on water resources, but there is a definite water component to these trends. One of the most profound is the perceived shift of development funds from global and regional development banks, such as the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank, to private multinationals, such as Bechtel, Vivendi, and Ondeo (formerly Lyonnaise des Eaux). Development banks have, over the years, been susceptible to public pressures and ethics and, as such, have developed procedures for evaluating social and environmental impacts of projects, and incorporating them in decision making. On international waters, each development bank has guidelines that generally prohibit development unless all riparians agree to the project, which in and of itself has promoted successful negotiations in the past. Private enterprises have no such restrictions, and nations eager to develop controversial projects have been increasingly turning to private capital to circumvent public ethics. The most controversial projects of the day – Turkey’s GAP project, India’s Narmada River project, and China’s Three Gorges Dam – are all proceeding through the studied avoidance of development banks and their mores.

There is a more subtle effect of globalization, though, which has to do with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its emphasis on privatization and full cost recovery of investments. Local and national governments, which have traditionally implemented and subsidized water development systems to keep water prices down, are under increasing pressure from the forces of globalization to develop these systems through private companies. These large multinational water companies in turn manage for profit and, if they use development capital, both push and are pushed to recover the full cost of their investment. Unless controlled, this can translate not only into immediate and substantial rises in the cost of water, disproportionately affecting the poor, but also to greater eradication of local and indigenous management systems and cultures. If there is to be water-related violence in the future, it is much more liable to be in the form of the “water riots” against a Bechtel development in Bolivia in 1999, in which eight people were killed, than of “water wars” across national boundaries.

As WTO rules are elaborated and negotiated, real questions remain as to how much of this process will be required of nations in the future, simply to retain membership in the organization. The “commodification” of water as a result of these forces is a case in point. Over the last twenty years, no global water policy meeting has neglected to pass a resolution, which, among other issues, defined water as an “economic good.” This set the stage at the 2000 World Water Forum for an unresolved showdown against those who would define water as a human or ecosystem right. The debate looms large over the future of water resources: if water is a commodity, and if WTO rules disallow obstacles to the trade of commodities, will nations be forced to sell their water? While this may seem far-fetched now (even though a California company is challenging British Columbia over precisely such an issue under NAFTA rules), the globalization debate between market forces and social forces continues to play out in microcosm in the world of water resources.

Turning Political Commitments into Action

One of the biggest challenges the water sector faces is that of satisfying expectations. The setting of goals is important to making progress. If they are not achieved, new targets can be set and efforts intensified. However, when the goals set are recognized by the majority as impossible to achieve, they may discourage action rather than prompting it. An example of such an apparently unachievable goal is that of the WSSD Implementation Plan to develop integrated water resources management and water efficiency plans by 2005 (Article 25). While the measures proposed to achieve this target are all laudable, the unrealistic target date for completion of the exercise reduces its credibility. This is especially true in those countries that share waters with other countries and where the preparation of such plans will require bilateral or multilateral agreements.

Taken as a whole, the targets or incentives of the WSSD Implementation Plan related to water are excellent. However the possibility of achieving them does not only depend on water managers, although they must help by translating the generalized statements into concrete action plans. Achieving these ambitious targets is more dependent on the will of the decision makers in both the developing world and the developed world to support the development of such plans and, through partnerships, to ensure their realization. A demonstration that such will exists can be made if even a few such partnerships announce concrete plans at the Ministerial Conference during the third World Water Forum in Kyoto in March 2003. Hopefully some of these will deal with the management of transboundary watercourses.

The Changing Sources of Water and the Changing Nature of Conflict

Both the worlds of water and of conflict are undergoing slow but steady changes that may obviate much of the thinking in this report. As surface water supplies and easy groundwater sources are increasingly exploited throughout the world, two major changes result: quality is steadily becoming a more serious issue to many than quantity, and water use is shifting to less traditional sources. Many of these sources – such as deep fossil aquifers, wastewater reclamation, and inter-basin transfers – are not restricted by the confines of watershed boundaries, our fundamental unit of analysis in this study. Moreover, population-driven food demand will grow exponentially in coming years, putting unprecedented pressures on water demand.

Conflict, too, is becoming less traditional, increasingly being driven by internal or local pressures, or more subtle issues of poverty and stability. The combination of changes, in water resources and in conflict, suggests that tomorrow’s water disputes may look very different from those of today.


  1. Transaction costs are the sum of all the financial costs, human effort and emotions required to undertake an action or do business.
  2. This section is drawn from the PCCP Series volume International Water Conflict and Cooperation: A Survey of the Past; Reflections of the Future, Aaron T. Wolf.

See also

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