Move Beyond “Water Wars” to Fulfill Water’s Peacebuilding Potential, Says NCSE PanelJanuary 26, 2012 By Schuyler Null
One of the best talks of last week’s NCSE Environment and Security Conference was thewater security plenary on Friday. Moderator Aaron Salzberg, who is the special coordinator for water resources at the Department of State, led with a provocative question: how many in attendance think there will be war over water in the future?
Most of the audience raised their hands. The panelists – as one might expect with a set-up like that – proceeded to explain why they were mistaken.
What Makes a Water War
Carl Bruch, who co-directs international programs at the Environmental Law Institute, started by saying history shows that inter-state “water wars” are “highly unlikely.” He pointed to Aaron Wolf’s and Peter Gleick’s work cataloguing the role of water in conflict throughout human history that shows it is difficult to find even a single conflict that was fought solely over the fundamental resource.History shows inter-state “water wars” are “highly unlikely”
For example, climate change may bring changes in rainfall, and some studies have found a correlation between lack of rainfall and conflict, but there is no causation, said Bruch. “It’s a question of governance,” he said. If lack of rainfall caused conflict, there would have been war across the Sahel in 2003; instead, it only happened in Darfur, which lacked a government able to deal with the challenge (similar observations have been made about the relationship between drought and famine in the Horn of Africa).
Kent Butts, professor and director of the National Security Issues Group at the U.S. Army War College, said that some things have changed that might make conflict over water more likely in the near future. In light of water’s relatively fixed supply, he cited growing human population – the UN median projection is now more than nine billion people by 2050 – and consumption as a key challenge, as well as the uncertain condition of key treaties. The Nile Basin Initiative is on rocky ground – with Ethiopia agitating for a greater share of flow and both Egypt and South Sudan dealing with new governments – and the Himalayan watershed is under stress as demand increases across the region. Butts also pointed to the tremendous number of new dams – many of which no longer need to abide by World Bank conditions as they can get Chinese loans and other bilateral funding – as an emerging challenge that may upend the positive historical trend.
Climate change, too, will likely bring water to the forefront in many areas of the world. “The changing climate changes the dynamics of security in a country,” Butts said. How able a country is to adapt to those changes will quickly expose weak, fragile, or corrupt regimes, threatening stability in some places.
Butts also warned that, though vehemence over water sharing has mainly been confined to rhetoric between countries up until now, that’s no reason to give it short shrift – it’s possible some countries may become trapped by their own public posturing, narrowing their responses to more bellicose options.
Jaehyang So, manager of the Water and Sanitation Program at the World Bank, pointed out the sheer number of people affected by water issues – nearly one-third of all people on Earth lack access to safe drinking water, she said – as evidence that water should be given more credence as a security issue, if perhaps as human or community security, rather than national or international security.
Similarly, Sandra Ruckstuhl, senior specialist for sustainable development at Group W Inc., said that though it’s true that international conflict over water has been rare, “conflict over water at the local level is something that’s been going on for a long time and has been a real divisive force.”
Coordination Can Create Pathways to Peace
If water can be a contributing factor to conflict in some places, it’s also a pathway to peace, the panelists agreed.
“This is a great opportunity,” said Bruch. “We see water as incredibly cross-cutting in the peacebuilding process.” He pointed to water programs’ effects on health, food, energy, gender issues, and economic development as reasons to make them a priority in post-conflict settings.
“The peacebuilding value of water is tremendous,” agreed Butts. “Water quality, as opposed to quantity, can be a major peacebuilding issue,” he said, as it’s a shared benefit.Nearly one-third of all people on Earth lack access to safe drinking water
More than material aid, Salzberg said that people in post-conflict settings most frequently ask the State Department for expertise. Because water issues cut across so many sectors, that’s difficult to provide, said Bruch, but the environment and security community needs to find ways to better coordinate. “In post-conflict countries, one of the highest priorities, if not the highest priority, is access to clean water,” he said.
Paul Faeth, senior fellow at CNA, pointed to the start of funding for the Senator Paul Simon Water for Poor Act, which provides at least $125 million in aid to sub-Saharan Africa alone, as a good policy step towards acknowledging water’s role in human security.
Another barrier to sustainable water management, said Jaehyang So, are subsidies: “There is no water system in the world that doesn’t have some subsidy attached to it,” she said. This creates incentives for misuse, which – though the human right to water should always be preserved – appropriate pricing schemes for industrial and agricultural use might go a long way towards curbing. (Of course, resolving that tension is easier said than done.) An infamous example is groundwater pumping in Yemen – primarily for the non-food crop, qat – which has gone on unsustainably for years, agitating internal divisions and prompting experts to predict that the country will become the first in the modern world to literally run out of water.
In concluding remarks, Butts called for moving beyond simple labels for conflict to better understand the complexity of water systems, create prosperity and stability, and better advance U.S. interests around the world.
The excerpts above are only a small slice of the conference; see the full agenda for panelists and topics covered, and follow the conversation on Twitter (#NCSEconf). We also posted thoughts on some of the previous panels and a gallery of pictures from around the conference to flickr.
Photo Credit: Jaehyang So and Carl Bruch, courtesy of Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.