Resources & Climate

Conflict Basins: Dampening The Water Wars

in Program

Global threats transcend national borders and force actors to seek concrete solutions to common challenges. On the major transnational dangers of our day – conflict, climate change, weapons and beyond – Stimson seeks solutions that will work now and in the years to come. This Spotlight is the first in a series focusing on Stimson’s work around the world to address the major transnational security challenges of our time. – Editor’s Note

In an era of ongoing frictions over shared natural resources, from fisheries, to forests, to fossil fuels, it may be the world’s most renewable resource that in fact presents the toughest security challenges. Water is essential for human well-being, yet is under constant threat. Unlike oil and gas, water has no feasible replacement. At the beginning of the 21st century, compounding impacts from burgeoning population growth, climate change, and wasteful or ineffective water governance are exerting unsustainable strains on many of the world’s most critical waterways and has stoked tensions along their paths. 

Dwindling supplies, shifting ecologies, and growing consumption are particularly stressful for emerging conflict basins — geopolitically important regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia where heightened competition for shared water resources poses prospective conflict risks. Now and in the years to come, the Stimson Center Environmental Security Program is focusing efforts towards studying these threatened regions and exploring ways in which communities, stakeholders, and governments can build cooperative approaches towards better management and more stable futures.

Conflict basins all face three of the same principal challenges — rapid demographic change, mounting environmental degradation, and deepening water insecurity. Setting them apart from other water-stressed regions, conflict basins are characterized by persistent, potentially destabilizing levels of political tension between two or more basin states. In the Indus Basin, for example, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan all depend on the river and its tributaries for agriculture, drinking water supplies, industry, and hydropower. But the often fraught political relationships among these three countries considerably hampers the effective management of the increasingly over-utilized resource.    

At the same time, conflict basins demonstrate the complex pathways by which environmental challenges can contribute to political conflicts. In the Niger River Basin of West Africa, for example, shifting rainfall patterns over the past decades have pushed migratory herders ever further south in search grazing grounds. There they have clashed with sedentary farmers over access to watering points and arable land. In the opening months of 2014, more than 1,000 people were killed in such encounters in central Nigeria alone.

Paradoxically, conflict basins also show how the roots of tension and instability can often lie in disputes over managing environmental resources. Thus, in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, upstream Turkey has long pursued a program of dam construction for irrigation and hydropower.  But Turkey’s projects to ensure water, food, and energy security for its population are perceived by downstream Iraq and Syria as enduring sources of insecurity, giving Ankara potential control of its neighbors’ vital water supplies. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Syria wielded support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its insurgent activities as a counterweight against Turkey’s latent ability to manipulate water flows in the Euphrates. Today, crucial water supplies in the Tigris-Euphrates have become prime tools and objectives of the civil conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The Mosul Dam in Iraq, for instance, has been used by ISIS to threaten both floods and supply shortages for the downstream community of over half a million people. Water in such cases serves as a divisive strategic asset, a “threat multiplier,” and even a political bargaining chip. 

Global climate change risks further aggravating the water resource challenges facing policy makers. The UN-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that continuing global warming will disrupt temperature and precipitation patterns around the planet, generating more severe floods and droughts, and scrambling the timing, location, and amounts of rainfall and snowfall. According to recent assessments by a team at MIT, by 2050, the combined effects of socio-economic pressures and unchecked climate change could plunge an additional 1-1.3 billion people into conditions where water requirements will consistently exceed available surface water supplies.

Yet just as tensions can rise over shared waters, they can also be mitigated by collective actions. Recognizing their mutual dependence on the Indus, India, and Pakistan have maintained the Indus Waters Treaty, which divides control of the river’s main branches between the two countries for over 50 years, including through three wars and numerous periods of otherwise broken diplomatic ties. Similar river basin agreements have helped communities from Africa to Asia negotiate through difficult periods of transition and build mutually beneficial water-sharing frameworks.

The Stimson Center’s Environmental Security Program has worked to support such cooperative governance structures through collaborative stakeholder engagement and informal diplomatic initiatives. On the Indus, Stimson partnered with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in India and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Pakistan to gather a diverse team of policy analysts and practitioners, scientists and environmental experts to detail the roots of regional water problems. By working together in a multidisciplinary, unofficial setting, the group was able to forge consensus recommendations outlining future research, policies, and basin-planning efforts. Concerted efforts to cultivate this type of collaborative hydro-diplomacy can benefit all basin countries and foster cooperation where otherwise distrust may brew.   

Conflict basins are not new nor do they involve easy solutions. Yet as demands grow and resources shift under climate pressures, the challenge to provide safe and secure water supplies will only become stronger. By championing interventions that balance national interests and increase multi-party participation, the Stimson Environmental Security Program looks to promote shared waters as a bond for peace rather than a bone of contention. Water supersedes political boundaries — so should the strategies used to keep it flowing.

Follow Stimson’s Environmental Security Program and the Stimson Center on Twitter.

Photo credit: Guillame Colin and Pauline Penot via flickr

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