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The Wrong Prophecy... for now

The wars in the 21st century would be fought over water: the prediction by Ismail Serageldin has not come true, but we’ll need inclusive institutions to ensure that it never does.

by Scott Moore
11 June 2020
11 min read
by Scott Moore
11 June 2020
11 min read

This article is taken from World Energy (WE) number 46 – Water stories

Though we don’t often think of it this way, climate change is really about water. Indeed, for humans, the most marked impacts of climate change have to do with shifts in the distribution and availability of water. For some areas, like coastal and many mid- and high-latitude regions, climate change will bring too much water in the form of rising seas and more intense flood events. For other parts of the world, droughts will become longer and more severe. And across much of the globe, water availability will become more erratic, making it more difficult to ensure that cities and farms have enough water to make it through periods of shortage.  

These changes have many implications, but one of the most concerning is the prospect of increased conflict over water. Former World Bank official Ismail Serageldin’s 1995 prediction that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water” is one of the most well-known warnings of this prospect.  But two decades into the twenty-first century, it’s clear that the relationship between climate change, water and conflict is far from simple. For one thing, water has not, so far, been a significant cause of violent conflict—in fact, cooperation is far more common. And while most people assume that it’s water scarcity that drives conflict, in fact issues like pollution are equally important causes. Yet as the world continues to warm and its water resources become stretched ever further, it’s important to understand the relationship between water and conflict—and how to prevent it.   

The peculiar features of water

The first thing to understand about this relationship is that water is special. More specifically, it has at least four distinctive characteristics as a resource, as described by American political scientist Frederick Frey. First, it’s essential to all forms of life. Second, it’s often scarce across both space and time. Third, it’s very unevenly distributed—areas like North America’s Great Lakes possess vast reservoirs of easily accessible freshwater, while huge expanses of the Middle East and North Africa have essentially no perennial water sources. Fourth, finally, and most significantly, most water bodies are shared between multiple countries. Very few rivers, lakes, or groundwater aquifers are contained entirely within one nation’s borders, meaning that decisions like who gets how much water, or where to build a dam, are inherently international issues. These four characteristics, Frey believed, make water a natural focal point for international conflict.  Subsequent research, though, makes it clear that there’s nothing automatic about conflict over water, even when water itself is very scarce.

In fact, several authoritative studies suggest that violent conflict, especially outright warfare between states, over water is very unusual, at least in recent history. The most comprehensive measure of international water conflict, known as the International Water Event Database, records fewer than 30 instances of inter-state violence over water from 1948 to 2008, and no cases of actual interstate warfare. Other studies struggle to identify any clear-cut examples of water-related conflict between states in the modern era. Historians have largely debunked claims that, for example, the 1967 Six Day War was precipitated by diversion of the Jordan River. As in most alleged cases of water conflict, the Six Day War had much deeper roots, not least the two previous Arab-Israeli armed confrontations.   

From an academic point of view, it makes good sense that cooperation over water is more common than conflict. While it’s tempting to see the use of water as a zero-sum game in which its use by one party, such as a country upstream, means less for someone else, such as a downstream country, in the real world such cases are rare. Even big dams like Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, which downstream Egypt fears will disrupt flow on the Nile, present just as many opportunities for cooperation as for conflict. The purpose of such high dams is typically to generate hydropower, which can be easily transmitted between countries. 

Of course, water does frequently cause tensions between countries, and the Nile is a good example. Construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam has been fiercely opposed in Cairo, and the Egyptian government has made numerous threatening statements in response to the Ethiopian government’s decision to complete the dam. Yet, tellingly, despite this history of threats and Egypt’s formidable military capabilities, it has yet to resort to arms.  At the same time, while both Indian and Pakistani leaders have engaged in frequent verbal sparring over the shared Indus River, the Indus Water Treaty they both signed in the 1960s has proven to be a model of cooperation—virtually the only shared institution that has survived three full-scale wars between the South Asian powers.  The most common form of water conflict, meanwhile, are sub-national disputes over things like water-sharing from shared rivers. And while these conflicts can be costly—2016 protests in southern India in response to a court decision over water allocation caused some USD 3.75 million in damages—they only rarely involve violence or loss of life. 

Beyond water shortage, the causes of wars

So why do water wars occur? Existing research suggests that for conflict over water to occur, several specific circumstances have to apply.  Notably, it’s not enough for there simply to be too little water to go around. In addition, some groups or users of a shared water resource have to be systematically excluded from using it or their usage controlled or impeded by other groups. It’s this sense of inequity and deprivation that stokes conflict.  This type of situation is most common when social and political institutions aren’t working— for example, in failed states where there’s no functioning government. It’s no coincidence that many of the clearest examples of water conflict come from places like Yemen that are plagued by a combination of poverty and instability. 

When circumstances like these apply, several forms of water-related conflict can take place—and again, not all of them have to do with water scarcity. I divide forms of water conflict into three types, which I call infrastructural, allocative and qualitative. Basically, the first type has to do with dams and other forms of water infrastructure. Construction of these structures typically displaces, inconveniences and otherwise harms people living nearby—if they’re not properly compensated, it can lead to conflict. Another form of infrastructural conflict happens when dams disrupt the flow of a shared waterway downstream, which might increase flood risk, harm fisheries, or degrade scenic areas. Allocative conflict, on the other hand, arises when people disagree over who gets how much water. These decisions are always contentious, and unless they’re made in a transparent, inclusive, and equitable way, conflict is a common response. Qualitative conflict, finally, occurs because of water pollution or water quality degradation. A frequent example of qualitative conflict is when a factory or city upstream on a shared waterway fails to control pollution, contaminating the water source for people living downstream.   

Technology and political reforms to ward off conflicts

How then can we prevent water conflict in the future? Part of the answer is technology, coupled with policy reforms. Advanced water treatment and desalination technology can play an important role in addressing the root causes of qualitative water conflict, while also alleviating water stress for coastal cities. Costs are falling quickly: recent estimates from the International Water Association predict significant decreases in capital costs coupled with considerable improvements in treatment and desalination efficiency.  When combined with policies like water pricing to encourage conservation and water use efficiency, technologies like desalination can also help prevent some forms of allocative water conflict, which frequently pits urban and rural water users against each other.  Alternative sources of supply for urban areas might reduce pressure on agricultural water users. 

Technology is only part of the answer, however. When conflict over water does occur, the academic literature is clear that effective institutions are essential for resolving it. These institutions must exist at several levels, from local bodies that help manage small streams and rivers, to international commissions that help govern large rivers like the Nile. These institutions can take a number of forms, from informal groups of community members who meet regularly to take decisions about how a common water source should be used, to formal commissions or councils that reserve a certain number of seats for different constituencies. Whatever form water management institutions take, the important thing is that they a) bring together different water user groups, whether they be pastoralists or city-dwellers, and b) have the resources and credibility to make decisions that can be accepted by all water users. This last point is crucial to resolving water conflicts and means that institutions must be trusted by the parties to a potential water conflict.  

This second consideration also implies that water management institutions must have substantial capacity. This capacity falls into several categories. First, it must have the technical capacity to understand the specific water resource issues at play, which often means having access to reliable sources of data on water use and availability. Second, an effective water management institution must have administrative capacity, including formal rules and processes for resolving conflicts and making decisions, that allow it to function effectively. Third, these institutions should ideally have financial capacity to implement decisions, especially those that lie at the heart of preventing or resolving water conflicts. France’s Water Agencies are a good example of an institutional model that successfully incorporates technical, administrative and financial capacity. Of course, for many countries, especially fragile regions like Yemen, institutions like the French water agencies will be difficult to replicate. That is why, to prevent water conflict into the future, national governments and multi-lateral bodies like the World Bank need to invest in building inclusive and capable water management institutions at the regional, national and sub-national level. So far, Ismail Serageldin’s prediction that the wars of this century will be fought over water hasn’t come true, even as climate change accelerates. But it will be up to us to ensure it never does. 

 

The author: Scott Moore

He is a political scientist whose work focuses on water politics and policy, especially in China and South Asia. Moore is currently a Senior Fellow at the Penn Water Center as well as Director of China Programs in the Office of the Provost at the University of Pennsylvania. Until 2018, he was a Young Professional and Water Resources Management Specialist with the World Bank Water Global Practice.