Why are water wars back on the agenda? And why we think it’s a bad idea!

On the occasion of world water day, this opinion piece critically reflects on the recent resurgence of the “water wars” narrative in policy and media circles and questions its timing, purpose and the evidence on which it is based. 

There is a recent and worrying trend towards a renewed “water wars” narrative in some policy and media circles. As readers may remember, the water wars discourse emerged out of the early post-Cold War period of the 1990s. More than twenty-five years later, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is back. This short opinion article critically reflects on this trend and questions its timing, purpose and the evidence on which it is based.

To speak of ‘war’ is to invoke images of militaries, violent conflict and destruction on a grand scale. Although we do not deny that water can be a factor – one among many – in some conflicts and mainly at intra-state level, we question why this drift towards water ‘securitisation’ at this time?

To align ‘water’ with war is without doubt worrying, for water is an essential and non-substitutable resource needed by all. But to suggest that inter-state water wars are forthcoming is to ignore or undervalue decades of cooperative action.

What is being argued here is in support of a more nuanced approach, that is both more evidence-based and constructive, highlighting the many varied and overwhelmingly positive efforts at an international level in support of cooperation within complex shared river basins. Ultimately, we believe that transboundary water cooperation is primarily a development issue and one that should remain in that space.

Four critical observations

‘Water wars’ are trendy again

Articles on “water wars” are reappearing. Alarmism and sensationalism are long-standing characteristics of the media. Overstated headlines generate ‘clicks’ and higher advertising revenues. In a world of huge information volume there is, arguably, a ‘race to the bottom’ to capture the attention of information consumers. So Cape Town’s “Day Zero” has captured international media attention, whereas the everyday struggles of millions of rural and peri-urban people without water goes largely unnoticed.

This kind of reporting returns us to the early 1990s and the original “water wars” narrative that water stress and scarcity would drive 21st century inter-state wars and conflicts. We now see a similar trend where security and military actors are using water, climate and environmental issues in their analysis of inter-state instability and conflict. International think-tanks and NGOs have been picking up on the theme.

This re-emergence of ‘water wars’ as an acceptable narrative without substantive evidence is vividly exemplified in the Nile Basin where the BBC recently broadcast a series entitled “The ‘water war’ brewing over the new River Nile dam”. Without balance, this story failed to reference actual cooperation processes underway (see other examples from the Nile 1,2). Likewise in the Mekong (1,2) and river basins in South and Central Asia, and in regions of the world where there is recent violent conflict – e.g. Darfur, Syria, Yemen or Lake Chad – there is a rush to find ‘water causality’, whilst disregarding other local drivers and important geopolitical context.

Reinforcing a simple dyad of resource scarcity-conflict renders simplistic what is frequently complex and multi-causal. Thirty years down the line, we observe this new water securitisation trend is also being linked with other global concerns – such as terrorism and intercontinental migration – that put pressure on the existing international order. Some global powers have been responding to these interlinked concerns by bringing water into their foreign policy agendas, in particular when linked to regions and countries they consider of geostrategic importance. The new US Global Water Strategy, launched last November, is a case in point.

Dubious correlations/causality

We argue that selective use of evidence and/or the disproportionate and ill-informed attention to specific complex and contested rivers is partially responsible for the re-emergence of ‘water wars’ headlines that can obscure what is really going on and mislead the wider public. Recent studies on the negative effects of biased selection of case-studies and on the links/variables describing climate-conflict relationships illustrate how easy it is, as a result, to skew public perceptions. These biases are essentially reductionist and limit wider public understanding of the complexities at stake.

In the Nile, for instance, many processes of cooperation are in parallel with the wider discourse of dispute and conflict but are often ignored in the mainstream media. If they were given more air time, the ‘slide to war’ thesis would look somewhat threadbare and misleading. Some studies do convincingly link climate change and water scarcity to particular local level, low-intensity violence, but these cannot then be extrapolated up and out to larger geographic (e.g. river basin) or political/administrative (e.g. inter-state) contexts. Indeed, exhaustive studies show inter-state water conflict to be extremely rare in most international contexts and cooperation and even peacebuilding are closer to the norm.

Heap fiction upon fiction, and we miss the big picture

One of the most negative facets of the ‘water wars’ narrative is that it blocks out other, more pressing, narratives. Here are three examples.

First, actual cases of resource-based conflicts and associated inequities at the national and sub-national levels. These affect the human and livelihood insecurity of the most vulnerable segments of society across the Global South, including appalling limits to water access facing hundreds of millions of people, as well as insecurities and inequalities driven by land and water grabbing in Sub-Saharan Africa, or rampant hydropower development in Asia.

Second, the big picture on transboundary cooperation work, including high watermark processes such as the entering into force of the UN Water Convention, and having all UN member states commit to operationalising arrangements for transboundary water cooperation by 2030 under the SDGs. At a regional level this includes Southern Africa advancing legal and institutional cooperation at a transboundary level, and in the Nile Basin the recent heads-of-state meeting between the Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to discuss filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Third, the spectre of ‘war’ distracts us from the role that shared waters play in bringing ‘parties’ together to generate significant economic benefits for societies – including sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people for centuries in the Indus, Nile, Euphrates and hundreds of other shared river basins; or the hydroelectric power development that has helped Norway and Canada grow into large world economies; or, in particular, the trade in billions of cubic meters of “virtual water” through global food systems that helps ameliorate water deficits. All these (and other) important elements are so often overlooked under mainstream coverage as they sit outside the ‘water wars’ narrative.

Over-securitisation of transboundary water resources

Why now this re-emerging trend towards ‘securitisation’ of water resources? One reason seems to be the military and security communities once again focusing on transboundary waters as a corollary to discussions surrounding climate change and national security. Evidence includes a very recent report produced by US military actors (and endorsed by some international water scientists) that places water stress as a factor in global conflict hotspots. This helps the security community ‘self-justify’ while providing space for some to argue that, in the face of potential climate-induced mass migrations, ‘the only force that can beat climate change is the U.S. Army’, as stated in a recent Foreign Policy article.

There are well-rehearsed risks associated with processes of securitisation. Framing water competition as a ‘national security’ issue closes off public debate and may exacerbate tensions. This framing can also juxtapose water challenges on other issues of migration, ethnic complexity and the upholding of human rights. Securitisation can also conflate basin-level challenges with wider geopolitical processes and interests (including those that extend beyond riparian countries alone).

The net effect of all these processes is to present transboundary waters as a highly conflict-laden challenge, rather than as a developmental challenge that constructive cooperation can help to unpick. Instead, shared waters become dangerous and states sharing resources become ‘enemies’, rather than ‘good neighbours’. Therefore, ‘over-securitisation’ runs the risk of contributing further to diverting attention from fundamentally important technical, social, environmental and economic factors that should drive future management, development and allocation decision-making processes.

Some ways forward

So, what can be done? On this World Water Day, and in the broad spirit of cooperation, we offer up three suggestions.

First, researchers have to bring their accumulated evidence into a more public domain, and place greater emphasis on bringing to the public evidence that cooperation is the norm, not conflict. We need to show that deterministic analysis of water and conflict is misleading and that, above all, a critical – and more public – debate is required that challenges speculative and unsubstantiated analysis of transboundary water processes.

Second, we call on foreign-policy communities (development partners and international organisations, including think-thanks) to continue to support riparian countries and regional organisations in their existing ‘collective action’ processes, namely transboundary water cooperation rooted in local and regional contexts, where substantial success has been achieved over a sustained period. Make these the focus for engagement and debate and let the current and future priorities – and framings – be defined by riparians themselves, rather than by international media or other external actors and agendas. In this we call for greater leadership of the narrative by riparian countries themselves in order to communicate more effectively how regionally-driven and participatory transboundary cooperation process(es) achieve success and can help to refute more unconstructive securitisation narratives.

Third, and last, we call on international and regional media outlets, particularly editors and senior journalists, to avoid sensationalist conjecture and present a more balanced view that goes beyond simplified ‘water wars’ narratives. They should be more responsible in their coverage and framing and use their own editorial guidelines more faithfully to report all sides of a story. More pro-active engagement of media, researchers and policy-makers will help in supporting a more constructive, inclusive, and above all peaceful dialogue on solving the many transboundary water management challenges facing the international community in coming years.

Authored by Ana Elisa Cascão; Alvar Closas; Emanuele Fantini; Goitom Gebreleul; Tobias Ide; Guy Jobbins; Rémy Kinna; Flávia Rocha Loures; Bjørn-Oliver Magsig; Nate Matthews; Owen McIntyre; Filippo Menga; Naho Mirumachi; Ruby Moynihan; Alan Nicol; Terje Oestigaard; Alistair Rieu-Clarke; Jan Selby; Suvi Sojamo; Larry Swatuk; Rawia Tawfik; Harry Verhoeven; Jeroen Warner; Mark Zeitoun

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