Water: Early Warning for Conflict or Catalyst for Peace?

On the Tibetan Plateau, where a whim of nature created the highest points on Earth, many of the world’s major rivers are born. Each day their flows bring life to more than a billion people downstream in Asia, the planet’s most populous region.

As we watch the headlines in an age of shifting water supplies, we may see a future filled with conflict and war over water resources, flows and quality.


Photo by J. Carl Ganter
Prayer flags and khatags, Tibetan ceremonial silk scarves, fly over the wide Yarlung Tsangpo River in central Tibet’s U-Tsang region. It is the highest major river in the world. Photo: Alison Domzalski.

For example, we report today at Circle of Blue’s WaterNews the water-strategic importance of the Tibetan Plateau. It doesn’t take much to imagine the stress and potential for conflict downstream, particularly with China’s propensity for hydrological engineering.

However, flip the perspective 180 degrees and we may have seeds for some of the greatest collaborations and cooperative opportunities in history. This according to an essay by Karin Bencala and Dr. Geoffrey Dabelko published Tuesday in the Journal of International Affairs.

In the Middle East, for example, “Water and sanitation investments are pitched as providing peace dividends,” according to the essay, Water Wars: Obscuring Opportunities. Dabelko directs the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Environmental Change and Security Program; Bencala is program assistant.

True, the planet’s water challenges are great, the situation grim. As Circle of Blue reported last year, drought and poor water management are spurring immigration to the United States from Mexican agrarian communities. Similarly, Inner Mongolian herders face desertification and relocation, and as glaciers retreat, Peruvian pastoralists are forced to move to the city with few urban survival skills. The health statistics are even more numbing: nearly 2 million children die each year from water-related diseases.

Write Bencala and Dabelko:

“Scholars from a variety of disciplines would likely argue the world is entering a level of water stress it has never previously experienced, driven by population growth, increased consumption of goods and resources and climate change. But it is less the absolute scarcity of water and more the rate of change in water availability that should raise concerns about future transboundary water conflict. Water stress alone is unlikely to lead to an international conflict, as all conflicts have multiple origins. Instead, most disputes occur when a unilateral action is taken, such as building a dam or diverting water, and when there is not sufficient institutional support or flexibility for conflict resolution or mitigation. Abrupt climate change or the sudden creation of new countries without developed patterns of water relations could also similarly occur at a rapid rate to which institutions cannot adapt.”

“While increased scarcity could lead to conflict, this scarcity also provides opportunities to shape a cooperative future. If addressed early on, issues of water scarcity and water use can bring parties together to jointly manage resources for purposes as diverse as water quality and hydroelectricity.”

In parallel, Bencala and Dabelko point out, water supplies and meteorological patterns can be indicators for potential conflict, and offer opportunities to generate proactive peacemaking.

According to analysis conducted in 2005 by Marc Levy, Charles Vorosmarty and Nils Petter Gleditsch: “…at the global scale, there is a highly significant relationship between rainfall deviations and the likelihood of outbreak of a high-intensity internal war. When rainfall is significantly below normal, the likelihood of conflict outbreak is significantly elevated.”

Dr. Vorosmarty and I co-presented the session on water at the Aspen Environment Forum in March. During our session, he noted with irony that as we face these great challenges, we are in many cases allowing our global water monitoring capabilities to decline. This becomes particularly notable as comprehensive monitoring and research could offer indicators — a kind of early warning system — for proactive response to potential hot spots, and turn them into peacemaking opportunities.

It’s precisely water’s unpredictablity — combined with the speed of political and environmental change, and the prevalence of bombastic commentary — that encourage quick judgments and poor investments, explain Bencala and Dabelko.

“Growing water scarcity and climate change-derived unpredictability may motivate countries to fight over water. Yet the world community would be wise to resist the dramatic headlines of water wars. Conditions are dire, but this disproportionate focus on states fighting over water gets in the way of understanding the complexities of conflict over water. It also obscures the positive opportunities presented by cooperation over water. Academic inquiries, policies and program designs that ignore these differentiations misdiagnose causes of conflicts, skew risk assessments and prescribe inappropriate means to address the problems.”

Is there hope? Bencala and Dabelko propose that we take proactive, collaborative approaches that avoid the pitfalls of bad policy and the 24-7 news cycle, which so often ignore long-term, slow-to-develop solutions.

“To move in a positive direction, politicians, advocates and the media need to stop predicting water wars and instead begin to call for water cooperation. International policy will follow, affecting how money is spent on the ground. As (U.N. Secretary General) Ban Ki-moon counseled at (the World Economic Forum in) Davos, “We need to adapt to this reality just as we do to climate change. There is still enough water for all of us, but only so long as we keep it clean, use it wisely, and share it fairly.”

That’s the rub. Politicians, advocates and the media — and most of us — are driven by crises, not slow fuses. China and Tibet may be in the hot seat, and most don’t predict an easy resolution to tension and strife anytime soon. Yet water management decisions on the Tibetan Plateau will affect billions of people for generations. China and Tibet are are not alone: any number of regions, from Israel to Mexico to the United States to Peru to Sub-Saharan Africa, are struggling with water scarcity. In each case, perhaps those dark clouds can bring a gentle rain and nurture the seeds of peace.

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