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5 Things to Know about Water Conflict

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The Nile River.

Water is a basic human need—the lifeblood of ecosystems and communities and a key resource for farmers, municipalities, industries, and nations. Rivers can join nations or divide them. Leading up to World Water Day on March 22, we asked SIS professor Ken Conca—author of the award-winning book Governing Water and editor of the Oxford Handbook on Water Politics and Policy—to list the top five things people should know about water conflict.

  1. The good news: there is no historical record of “water wars.” There are almost 300 international river basins that form or cross borders between nations. Many are in regions marked by tension and conflict, including the Nile, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, Congo, Mekong, and Jordan. Yet, research shows only a handful of militarized disputes about water in the world’s shared basins, even in times of substantial water scarcity. Cooperation is the norm, even among fractious neighbors.
  2. The bad news: there is a great deal of water-related violence around the world. On a local scale, the picture is very different. Drought and absolute water scarcity can trigger tensions, but most of the violence we see relates to water’s political economy. Building large dams has displaced or undercut the livelihoods of millions of people. Land grabs change the terms of access to water, especially where water rights are tied to land ownership. And privatization schemes too often impose adjustment costs on—or fail to extend service to—poor areas. These water pressures often track social inequalities related to race, ethnic identity, gender, and class.
  3. The other bad news: international cooperation on the world’s rivers badly needs a makeover. Conflict risk is greatest when governments in a basin have not made arrangements to coordinate their actions and resolve disputes. Many of the world’s key river basins remain governed by archaic treaties that lack effective dispute-resolution mechanisms, joint management strategies, or climate adaptation plans—if they have a treaty at all.
  4. Climate change is a wild card. Water is the delivery mechanism for climate change. Most people experience the effects of a changed climate through drought, storms, flooding, impacts on soil moisture, and the increased unpredictability of water supplies. In the future, we’ll be storing more water, recycling more water, and preparing for flood and drought risk much more carefully. How do we do this in a conflict-sensitive way? How do we make sure these practices reduce, rather than worsen, inequalities? We’ve only begun to think through these challenges.
  5. The human right to water is a key tool for peacebuilding. A decade ago, the UN General Assembly recognized water as a basic human right. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a strong framework for protecting water supplies and ensuring universal access for basic needs. These are the principled tools for addressing the problems of violence around water. But the path to implementation has been slow—both in the US and around the world—and many governments have refused to infuse the SDGs with the rights-based approach needed if people are to have a voice in their water futures.