The High Politics of a Humble Resource: WaterMay 19, 2009 By Geoff Dabelko
Troubled Waters: Climate Change, Hydropolitics, and Transboundary Resources, a recent report by the Stimson Center’s “Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges” project, exemplifies the kind of integrated analysis that needs to be done on global security, governance, and environmental issues. I want to highlight four areas where the report points us in the right direction for this kind of work:
1. It takes a regional approach. Regions have historically been neglected as units of analysis, and there has not been enough focus on regional institutions. We organize our foreign assistance on an overwhelmingly bilateral basis; we have country strategies and spend much of our money bilaterally. Yet river basins or other ecosystems are almost always transboundary and therefore regional. The chapters in this report show time and again that bilateral approaches are not sufficient to meet the challenges posed by climate change’s impacts on the hydrological cycle.
2. It examines what climate change means in specific contexts. In year of Copenhagen, we need to be talking about global targets and timetables, grand bargains, and massive mitigation. But we must keep a parallel focus on what climate change will mean in specific sectors (e.g., water, food, desertification), in specific locations, and for specific groups (e.g., the poor).
The report has many examples of where glacial and snowmelt patterns have big impacts many hundreds and thousands of miles away. My own program just hosted a conference in Bangkok where we had the India-based expert on glacial melt in the Tibetan plateau talking with USAID environment officers in Southeast Asia. We need more of these kinds of conversations.
3. It takes a holistic, integrated approach toward analyzing problems and recommending responses. This report makes explicit the importance of the analytical and policy connections among climate change, water, governance, conflict, and cooperation. However, governments, NGOs, donors, and international bodies remain wedded to stovepiped, single-sector approaches to diagnosing and responding to problems. This must change.
In 2009 in Washington, there is a greater appetite and a better political environment for taking on a broader approach. This has been framed as rebalancing the “3Ds” of defense, diplomacy, and development; as “sustainable security”; and as “smart power.” Whatever the name, environmental issues such as climate change and water should be front and center in these discussions.
4. It has a nuanced view of conflict and cooperation over natural resources. The report—and David Michel’s chapter in particular—successfully highlights the geopolitical implications of changes in climate and water without inaccurately hyping “water wars.” As we know, there is extensive subnational conflict around water, and we are likely to see more of this type of conflict under the conditions described in Troubled Waters. But states frequently work hard to cooperate and deflect violent conflict over transboundary water.
However, we need greater political and financial investment in transboundary institutions, as international cooperation around water doesn’t happen without a lot of effort. It needs to happen, though, because the future may be more dangerous than the past when it comes to water conflict and cooperation.
As we move forward on the water conflict and cooperation agenda, let’s not just focus on onset of conflict. Let’s be sure to look all along the conflict continuum, from prevention, to conflict, to post-conflict, and evaluate the high-politics importance of water at each of these stages.
I’ll end with an example of where we could broaden our approach to water in a current Washington policy context. Senator Dick Durbin recently introduced the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2009, which builds on the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005. The new bill is heavily focused on access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene, which are indeed pressing priorities. It says some of the right things about transboundary water, but historically, this has received little funding.
Further complicating efforts to secure more robust funding for transboundary water management and security is the fact that other water activities are usually funded through the Department of State, but transboundary efforts are often put through a multilateral institution like the World Bank—and the Department of the Treasury, not State, typically manages that relationship. This complicated tangle of agencies and institutions emphasizes my earlier point that foreign assistance is too stovepiped, and that we must get better at working across sectors.
Photo: The Nile River Basin is shared by 10 countries. Courtesy of Flickr user Michael Gwyther-Jones.