When Aaron Wolf
, professor in the Department of Geoscience at Oregon State University, and his colleagues first looked at the dynamics behind water conflict in their Basins at Risk
study, they found that a lot of the issues they’d assumed would lead to conflict, like scarcity or economic growth, didn’t necessarily. Instead they found that “there is a relationship between change in a [water] basin and the institutional capacity to absorb that change,” said Wolf in this interview with ECSP. “The change can be hydrologic: you’ve got floods, droughts, agricultural production growing…or institutions also change: countries kind of disintegrate, or there are new nations along basins.”
However, these changes happen independently. “Whether there is going to be conflict or not depends in a large part to what kind of institutions there are to help mitigate for the impacts of that change,” explained Wolf.
“If you have a drought or economic boom within a basin and you have two friendly countries with a long history of treaties and working together, the likelihood of that spiraling into conflict is fairly low. On the other hand, the same droughts or same economic growth between two countries that don’t have treaties, or there is hostility or concern about the motives of the other, that then could lead to settings that are more conflictive.”
Wolf stressed the importance of understanding hydrologic variability in relation to existing treaties around the world. After carefully examining hundreds of treaties, he and his colleagues created a way of measuring their variability to try to find potential hotspots.
“We know how variable basins are around the world; we know how well treaties can deal with variability. You put them together and you have some areas of concern: You may want to look a little closely to see what is happening as people try to mitigate these impacts,” said Wolf.
“We know that one of the overwhelming impacts of climate change is that the world is going to get more variable: Highs are going to be higher, and lows are going to be lower,” Wolf said.
Wolf used the Himalayan basins to illustrate the importance of overseeing the potential effects of climate change and institutional capacity. “There are a billion and half people who rely on the waters that originate in the Himalayas,” he pointed out. Because of climate change, the Himalayas may experience tremendous flooding, and conversely, extreme drought.
Unfortunately, Wolf said, “the Himalayan basins…do not have any treaty coverage to deal with that variability.” Without treaties, it is difficult for countries to cooperate and setup a framework for mitigating the variability that might arise.