Water Wars? Think Again

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Refugees collect water, courtesy of Oxfam East Africa/flickr

This article was originally published April 15 2014 by New Security Beatby, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) at the Wilson Center.

The global water wars are almost upon us!

At least that’s how it seems to many. The signs are troubling: Egypt and Ethiopia have recently increased their aggressive posture and rhetoric over the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, Egypt’s major artery since antiquity. India continues to build new dams that are seen by its rival Pakistan as a threat to its “water interests” and thus its national security. Turkey, from its dominant position upstream, has been diverting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and increasing water stress in the already-volatile states of Iraq and Syria.

It has been claimed for decades that a confluence of factors, including water scarcity, societal unrest, and strategic maneuvering, will inevitably push states and other actors to act aggressively, perhaps even violently, to secure precious water resources. So are we finally witnessing the first flashes of the coming age of water wars?

To put it simply: no.

These visions of future water wars miss one very important point: States rarely, if ever, fight over water; in fact, the opposite is true. Cooperation over transboundary water resources is much more common, even in the most sensitive geopolitical hotspots. In other words, the way many understand water conflict is fundamentally misguided and risks being a largely diversionary exercise that obscures other, non-military types of water problems occurring every day around the world.

Focusing on War a Distraction

While traditional organized warfare over water is essentially non-existent in the historical record, water insecurity is pervasive. From time to time this insecurity manifests itself in violent ways, but far more common is the day-to-day injustice endured by hundreds of millions from fundamentally inadequate water supplies and sanitation, a result of political, economic, and social failings . Water is the lifeblood of human societies. It sustains and nurtures our ability to lead full lives. When water supplies are diverted, polluted, blocked, or overdrawn, it directly impacts the possibilities of human life. That is the real story of water insecurity.

This does not mean military- or strategically-minded interpretations of water security are unimportant. It should make news when Egypt threatens “escalatory steps” if Ethiopia continues to build the Renaissance Dam. But we should still question the fascination with so-called “water wars.” It may be a tempting story to tell because it plays upon our deepest, most human insecurities, and despite its tenuous links to reality, it feels all-too-real in the
face of the harrowing climate predictions we hear today. Maybe the alliteration just sounds good.

The effects, though, can be dangerous. Our fear of, and obsession with, water wars diverts our attention and decreases our awareness of the very daunting and very immediate problems of freshwater resources. According to the latest measurements, 768 million people do not use an improved source of drinking water, and 2.5 billion lack access to improved sanitation. It is safe to say that these problems will not be solved in the war rooms of generals or on the computers of security analysts.

One telling example of the complexity of water problems comes from the theme of this year’s World Water Day, celebrated on March 22: water and energy. Thousands of individuals, organizations, and governments used the opportunity to raise awareness and advocate for better policy that takes stock of the interconnections between water and energy consumption. According to the OECD’s International Energy Association, global energy needs are set to increase by
33 percent by 2035, with China requiring 65 percent more water in order to meet the demands of its industrial and energy sectors. All told, 15 percent of the world’s total freshwater withdrawal is used for energy production. Given the increasing energy needs of developing countries, the impact this growing demand will have on already-strained water resources is likely to be significant. Rather than war, however, the main problems are much more likely to be significant ecological degradation and adverse impacts on human health and well-being.

Build Resilience Through Collaboration

Rather than finding new “hotspots” where water wars will break out, it better serves us to focus on ways to build resilience and adaptation. The water-energy nexus is but one aspect of the multi-faceted global challenges to securing sustainable water resources, yet it can tell us much more about water security than the water wars thesis ever could.

One of the principal ways to build resilience and adaption is to forge partnerships among various groups and interested actors. Not only does it promote responsible water management, it also leads to interactions that highlight the shared risks communities face from degraded water quality and diminishing water quantity.

An innovative strategy being pursued in countries as diverse as Canada, India, and South Africa is to include “ecological infrastructure” in larger national investments in a country’s built infrastructure. Ecological infrastructure is a concept that views healthy ecosystems as drivers of economic and social well-being, in ways no less important than roads, railways, and ports. Viable ecosystems provide crucial services like fresh water, soil formation, disaster risk reduction, climate regulation, as well as cultural and recreational outlets. When properly managed they can provide high levels of economic and social development.

Promoting ecological infrastructure will require a collaborative effort from a variety of stakeholders – farmers, banks, municipalities, etc. – to promote the shared value of sustainably managing water resources and the shared risk of inaction. It is this type of thinking that is needed to build resilient societies that can promote human and environmental security, not the incessant doomsday prophesizing that is characteristic of so much of the water wars literature.

While the world faces multiple water crises of varying levels of severity, the prospects for all-out war are slim. Far more prevalent is the daily structural violence and injustice related to underdevelopment, poverty, and environmental degradation, which is itself a symptom of water insecurity. We should focus less on the specter of armed conflict and instead channel our efforts towards building environmentally and socially resilient societies.

Cameron Harrington is the 2014 NRF Global Change Postdoctoral Fellow in the Global Risk Governance Program at the University of Cape Town, where he researches conflict and cooperation along vulnerable river catchments. He received his PhD in Political Science from Western University in London, Canada.

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