Water has long been shrouded in the public imaginary as being in crisis. From mythological sea monsters of the deep, to floods, tsunamis and bone-dry droughts, water has oftentimes been conceived as fearsome in its unpredictability. The Finnish folk myths recounted in the Kalevala at once exemplify the formidable power, albeit necessity, of water: “Cease, O cataract, thy roaring, Cease O waterfall thy foaming”… “Take the water from the cloudlets, and my roaming herds besprinkle.” Great empires like the Egyptians and Sumerians both profited, and were adversely affected by, the swell of great rivers and the changing availability of potable water. Failure to understand the nature of water risks the very life it sustains.
Given the existential value of water for all, it is perhaps unsurprising that water is embedded in discourses of security and crisis. The field of water security is broadly conceived by academics and practitioners to encompass matters of human health and livelihood, food production, ecosystem protection (ecohydrology), economic growth and development, and political stability, among others.[i] Despite its breadth, however, water security can be distilled into two main types of crisis for humanity. The first is a crisis of development. Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) places special focus on the global water crisis, and emphasizes the urgent need to enhance water access and quality for all. This crisis is grounded in several factors. First, direct intake of clean water for drinking is fundamental to survival. There is a basic human need for a minimum of 20 litres of water per person per day to enable human functioning. A widespread shortage of potable water and/or degradation of its quality risks serious health consequences. At present, the World Health Organization estimates that 663 million people lack adequate access to safe water, a harrowing statistic.[ii] Second, water is essential for crop cultivation, thus closely linking it to food security. A significant reduction in supply of freshwater would reduce agricultural output, risking malnutrition and famine. Third, water is the basis for sanitation systems and good hygiene necessary for human health. Inadequate provision of water can facilitate the spread of disease and degrade standard of living. Addressing this first crisis of development warrants continued attention in policy circles so as to preclude even greater human suffering, or what Jan Lundqvist terms a “looming hydrocide.”[iii]
The second type of water crisis is violent conflict over the quantity, quality or control of water. The logic here is that in an era of heightened resource competition and rising demand for water, shared water sources could be causal to militarised conflict among water users. The roots of this crisis extend back to antiquity. Indeed, the modern term “rival” (from the Latin rivalis) originally denoted people who claimed use of the same river or water source. In the late 18th century, demographer Thomas Malthus proposed that rising population growth in a finite system would soon deplete resources and spell struggles over dwindling supplies. By this logic, neo-Malthusian scholars have hypothesised that water-scarce nations, especially those with already tense relations, will dispute over shared water to the point where “water wars” may be fought to enhance or defend vital supply. The link between water and conflict gained further traction in the “water wars” thesis advanced by Joyce Starr in the early 1990s. According to Starr, water would “soon rank with military security in the war rooms of defence ministries.”[iv] This discourse has been widely perpetuated in the media today.
It is important to recognize the conflict potential of water so as to develop initiatives to protect water and those dependent on it. The disruption of water supply through conflict risks contravening the basic human right to life, of which water is a fundamental requirement that cannot be denied. Conflict also risks undercutting Goal 6 of the SDGs, in so far as it would compromise continued access to water. For all its potential risks, however, the nature of this second crisis is often misconceived in two ways: 1. Water is seen as highly conflict-prone; and 2. Water conflicts are seen as highly threatening and invariably ‘bad’. These two views warrant reconsideration.
First, at the international level there is a sparse empirical record for water as a source of conflict. The ‘Basins at Risk’ project at Oregon State University has revealed that in the past half-century, cooperative relations around water far outweigh conflictive relations. Just 37, out of a total of 1,831 water interactions, involved some form of violence, 30 of which occurred between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Indeed, to find a major armed conflict over water, possibly war, one needs to travel some 4500 years back to ancient Mesopotamia in 2450 BC, when the two city-states Umma and Lagash fought over water division of the Euphrates. One possible modern exception to this trend could be the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, that some scholars have loosely labelled a “water war”. However, Israeli efforts to prevent Syrian water diversion upstream occurred in the early-mid 1960s but not 1967, hence water would seem a contributing but somewhat secondary cause of war.Overall, empirical evidence for the ‘water wars’ thesis is questionable. That is not to say that water has not triggered political instability, or even smaller-scale violence at the intrastate and communal levels, but rather that it has almost invariably not led to escalated violence and armed conflict, particularly between nation-states.
Second, and perhaps counterintuitively, water conflicts are not invariably ‘bad’, but rather may be of some ‘good.’ In the rare cases that conflict over water should occur, these can create impetus for change. Conflict prompts actors to allocate resources for improving water governance, and to establish some dialogue with the other party, directly or through a mediator, to resolve the dispute. In this way, crises can become opportunities for negotiations between states, out of which new cooperative arrangements may arise. Further, conflict prompts aid agencies to boost involvement in previously overlooked water issues, which they otherwise may not have given priority to. The potential ‘good’ of water conflict is all the more pronounced at the level of nonviolent conflict, where rhetorical disputes may arise but not violence. Identifying and airing differences is vital to reaching mutually agreeable solutions around water.
The contemporary UN system places great importance on water. In 2014 the UN Watercourses Convention officially entered into force. This global framework epitomises a growing body of international law and basin-level treaties around shared water that prescribe rules for governing shared water, and work to guide dispute resolution around water. At the core of legal efforts has been a normative drive to ensure ‘equitable use’ by water users, prevent ‘significant harm’, and bring states together to collaborate over shared water governance. To add to this, the explicit inclusion of water in the 2016 SDGs added credence to the importance of water and its connection to human development. As water is the very foundation of life, it is imperative to understand the nature of its crises clearly. The crisis of development remains very real, although progress has been made to provide an additional 2.6 billion people access to improved drinking water since 1990. The crisis of violent conflict around water, on the other-hand, remains largely overplayed. “Water wars” rhetoric is empirically thin and does not recognize the many cooperative water management regimes, such as the International Joint Commission in Northern America, and settlements like the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty and the 1994 and 2015Israel–Jordan water treaties. There is a risk that discourse of water wars may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby if states perceive water to be conflict-ridden, they may well come to act in a conflictive manner. Perhaps in recognition of this, former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appealed to the international community to focus on the “shift from conflict to synergy” around water.[v] On Earth Day, April 22, as indeed on every other day, it is imperative to reflect on that synergy and break the mirage of impending conflict and gloom around water. Only then can we charter long-term peace and security around water for generations to come.
[i]Spring, U. and Brauch, H. 2009, ‘Securitizing Water’, in Brauch, H. et al (Eds.) 2009,Facing Global Environmental Change: Environmental, Human, Energy, Food, Health, and Water Security Concepts, Vol. 4, Ch. 11, Springer, Berlin, pp. 175–202.
[ii]World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) 2015, ‘Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, 2015 Update and MDG Assessment’, Geneva, Switzerland.
[iii]Lundquist, J. 1998,‘Avert Looming Hydrocide’,Ambio, Vol. 27, No. 6, pp. 428 - 433
[iv]Starr, J. 1991, ‘Water Wars’,Foreign Policy,No. 82, p. 19.
[v]Ki-moon, B. 2013,‘Secretary-General’s Message on the International Day for Biological Diversity’,United Nations Secretary-General, available from:https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2013-05-21/secretary-generals-message-international-day-biological-diversity
Charlotte Grech-Madin is PhD Candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden, and the UNESCO Category II International Centre for Water Cooperation, Stockholm.
Cover image: A young resident of Maslakh Camp takes a drink of water. Herat, Afghanistan. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe [via Flickr]