Friday, October 15, 2010

Water Wars - or Water Riots?

Today is 'Blog Action Day 2010', and this year, bloggers around the world are writing about water.  To join in, I've put together a post on how water insecurity had led to conflict around the world.  I've also added their 'widget' to the bottom of the page for this weekend only - why not sign the petition?

Oropoi, Kenya - Photo courtesy IRIN
In the security sector, water security is sexy as an issue because of the perceived threats of interstate conflict over shared water supplies, like rivers or lakes. Journalists love writing stories about 'water wars'.  We've written about this on this blog before, like when we discussed the Strategic Importance of Water between India and China or whether India and Pakistan can share the Indus.  Unfortunately for the hype of the journalists, projects like Aaron Wolf's Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database at the University of Oregon or Peter Gleick's Pacific Institute have shown that shared water supplies have been much more likely to help promote interstate cooperation than to provoke conflict.  In fact, in our work on climate change and security at the IISS we have found widespread agreement among experts that the more pressing threat when we discuss water and conflict is its potential to create or exacerbate local civil and ethnic conflicts.  

When looking at the causes of any conflict analytically, it is difficult to separate the effects of water shortages from other factors, like food shortages, migration, ethnicity, climate change or other issues that could drive violence. However, the impact of water over energy, development, agriculture, and livelihood makes it one of the most important factors. When water insecurity is mixed with urbanization, migration, pollution, radicalization, and a proliferation of small arms, it is not difficult to see a scenario resulting in conflict.

Water shortages or imbalances of water distribution can be driver of civil conflict in a marginalized society. In terms of terminology, ʹwater riotʹ is more appropriate that ʹwater warʹ. Examples of smalllevel riots - some leading to deaths - can be shown in Nigeria, South Africa, YemenEgypt, India, and Ecuador. These water riots can be expected to show similar characteristics to the foodrelated riots that erupted around the world in 2008. Areas of particular risk are those with strong ethnic or tribal divisions, and the effects of water riots may be to drive disaffected and marginalized parts of society away from areas of water stress.

While no one factor (like water, ethnicity, or unemployment) was able to correctly predict when these regions fell into conflict, changes in water security often can be enough to tip a region over the edge.

1 comment:

  1. Nathaniel MarkowitzOctober 18, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    There are a couple of interesting articles about this. The first one runs parallel with your post, noting that water is more often a source of internal conflict than inter-state war. In fact, it also observes that inter-state tension over water has more often facilitated cooperation than conflict.

    The other is a report from a Danish research organization. It reaffirms much of the above, but focuses more in depth on the particulars of addressing intra-state water conflicts.

    They may be a little out-dated (2001 and 2004), but interesting nonetheless.