“Water Wars” Unlikely, But Failure of Cities Could Cause Conflict: Interview with Ben Crow

USS Bonhomme Sailors connect potable water to berthing and messing barge

USS Bonhomme Sailors connect potable water to berthing and messing barge. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page/flickr.

Because of a broadening of actors involved in water security, and decreases in irrigation demand in some areas, so-called ‘water wars’ will likely be avoided, though the failure of governments to provide basic municipal services in cities could be a source of conflict, said Ben Crow, professor and department chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“It’s quite possible that the failure of governments to provide access to water and sanitation, and, more broadly, to the rights of city living, could be a cause of instability and lack of government legitimacy,” he said.

Water use and access is shifting, Mr. Crow said; for instance, some countries now need more water for hydroelectric power, and less for irrigation. And climate change is proving to be a wild card in predicting problems. “Climate change is certainly melting glaciers in the Himalayas,” he said. “They are major source of water, so the seasonal distribution of water is changing, and possibly the amount of water that’s available. It’s not really clear how that’s going to change, but there’s a chance that it will cause a reduction in the dry season flows, which are what are crucial for irrigation. So, climate change will have a number of consequences, and it’s not clear that the adaptation responses have emerged very well.”

“I think we need to have adaptation to recognize the big challenges of climate change coming in the future,” he said. “But, more generally, I think there are issues of water justice where injustices are built in to existing allocations of water and the way that various infrastructure works—pipe networks or dams or roads and irrigation facilities. There are substantial injustices between the rich and the poor, and movements to open questions about water justice, I think stand a chance to improve people’s lives very substantially.”

Mr. Crow favors a multitrack and multilateral diplomacy framework for international river negotiations and management, and though countries like India tend to negotiate bilaterally, he said, “I think in an age of new media, and in an age of growing democratic representation, it’s possible that the aims of multilateralism can be achieved even when governments want to negotiate only two at a time.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

 

Transcript:

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I’m here today with Ben Crow, professor and department chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He specializes in development and global inequalities. Ben has written extensively on water security, including international river management in South Asia and water access in Kenya’s urban settlements. Ben, thank you for speaking with me today on the Global Observatory.

According to some experts, disputes over water are set to become the defining crisis of the 21st century, from the islands of the Asia-Pacific to the urban centers of Africa. In your view, will access to water be a dominant source of conflict in the decades to come?

Ben Crow: Well, I think there are two different questions here. Frequently, people have talked about water wars over international rivers. I think that’s unlikely for essentially three reasons. That virtual water, the trade in cereals which consume a lot of water, can take away the need for very large quantities of water—so food trade, food imports can prevent a lot of the battles over waters.

Secondly, increasingly, there are growing pressures towards what we’ve called multitrack diplomacy, meaning that different elements of civil society and business interact around issues over rivers. I think that broadening of the actors and the issues makes war unlikely. So, those are the two reasons why I think it’s unlikely on international rivers.

The question of access to domestic water, particularly in big cities—it’s not clear if that will lead to conflict. It’s quite possible that the failure of governments to provide access to water and sanitation and more broadly, to the rights of city living, could be a cause of instability and lack of government legitimacy. I think it’s hard to predict how far that will lead to conflict, but it’s certainly a question of justice—that there are large injustices which are most easily seen through this absence of basic necessities like water and sanitation.

AOS: To go back to the international rivers issue—you’ve researched negotiations over the Himalayan rivers in South Asia, and countries in the region have been discussing cooperation for five decades, but today they face new pressures and uncertainty. Why are tensions over these rivers increasing?

BC: Well, it’s not clear yet that tensions are increasing. There are new players, particularly China, because China is beginning to develop the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which becomes the Brahmaputra as it moves from Tibet into India. Certainly, China is building some hydroelectric dams on this Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. That could improve the situation for flats and hydropower in parts of India and Bangladesh, but there is a longer-term uncertainty that significant groups within the Chinese governments have been interested in the diversion of water. That could be a cause of conflict, particularly with India and Bangladesh—and there are a lot of uncertainties over the border there where China claims part of the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh.

But, there are a couple of other things that are happening that I think are particularly interesting. Climate change is certainly melting glaciers in the Himalayas. They are major source of water, so the seasonal distribution of water is changing, and possibly the amount of water that’s available. It’s not really clear how that’s going to change, but there’s a chance that it will cause a reduction in the dry season flows, which are what are crucial for irrigation. So, climate change will have a number of consequences, and it’s not clear that the adaptation responses have emerged very well.

The third sort of change is that there is change in the socioeconomic development, particularly of India and China, so that whereas disputes of the 20th-century in South Asia were around water for irrigation, now what’s happening is that the need for hydroelectric power for industry has become the dominant concern. And it may be that, for example, India and Nepal, and India and Bhutan, are sources of greater cooperation rather than conflict because Nepal can supply a lot of electricity to India, for example.

AOS: I’d like to return to your argument on multitrack and multilateral diplomacy as the preferable framework for international river negotiations and management. Can you explain this further, and why bilateral agreements will not suffice?

BC: Multitrack diplomacy is the idea that there are exchanges, interactions, and conversations between groups in different countries that are not just confined to governmental interactions through politicians and diplomats.

There are at least three sorts of diplomacy: we can think of existing traditional diplomacy as track one; track two as being diplomacy involving, say, business, where there are, for example, corporations building dams in one country, or buying power from another country; and a track three of sets of civil society groups, who are engaged perhaps in consideration of environmental issues.

I think the breadth of these conversations is quite desirable because governments and diplomats have sets of national agendas and practices, ways of operating, that are fairly routinized and may not be easily adapted to the breadth of concerns that are emerging around water services markets or around environmental concerns. This broader set of conversations is quite desirable, not only because it supersedes national divisions, but also because governments can be slow moving and constrained by a wide range of pressures, whereas corporations, for example, may be able to have a singular focus on profit, or accumulation and investment, and that may be desirable in certain circumstances.

The question of multilateral versus bilateral comes up particularly in South Asia where, in the case of India, India has been willing mostly to negotiate only with individual states and not to establish multilateral forums for discussion of management of rivers and various services that they could give rise to. I think there’s a differentiated situation in which, by default, there is multilateral discussions through the press and other forms of communication, even though the Indian government is mostly concerned to maintain bilateral discussion.

So, I think in an age of new media, and in an age of growing democratic representation, it’s possible that the aims of multilateralism can be achieved even when governments want to negotiate only two at a time.

AOS: As all these negotiations continue, I want to ask you about the impact for the millions of people who are dependent for their livelihoods on rivers and access to river waters. How does the absence of effective management impact their lives, and how would new agreements and more progressive agreements bring positive change?

BC: I’m an optimist and I think there are possibilities in better management of rivers, and even in processes of social and economic development. I think the frequent floods that we see all across the world, but most notably in Pakistan, that it’s possible to mitigate these floods and to be forecasting them better and communicating—and dealing with the consequences of floods better. I think in general, as countries become more industrialized, the capacity to cope with uncertainties across a wide range of dimensions, including water, becomes much greater.

I think management can deal with some uncertainties, and I think we need to have adaptation to recognize the big challenges of climate change coming in the future. But, more generally, I think there are issues of water justice where injustices are built in to existing allocations of water and the way that various infrastructure works—pipe networks or dams or roads and irrigation facilities. There are substantial injustices between the rich and the poor, and movements to open questions about water justice, I think stand a chance to improve people’s lives very substantially.

AOS: Ben, thank you for sharing your insights with us today.

This is a cross-post from the IPI Global Observatory.


Andrea OSúilleabháin is a visiting fellow at the IPI.


For additional reading on this topic please see:

Pakistan’s Water Woes

Himalayan Water Security: The Challenges for South and Southeast Asia

Improving Participartory Water Governance in Accra, Ghana


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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