Water, or lack thereof, is often at the frontlines of conflict. By documenting water conflict across history, Dr. Peter Gleick, chief scientist and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, explores the instances where water and violence have gone hand and hand. His water conflict chronology is a fascinating river throughout history and was just updated. In our latest podcast, Dr. Gleick tells us about some of the lessons learned and highlights from this water conflict chronology, and explores what kind of trends have emerged, and what we can expect in the future.

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00:08 JCG: This is Hotspots H20 from Circle of Blue’s award-winning team of journalists where each week we examine regions, populations, and countries that are at most risk from water-related stresses. I’m J. Carl Ganter. With stories from around the world, we’re revealing the challenges and the solutions from the frontlines of the fast-growing competition between water, food, and energy in a changing climate. And quite literally, water, or lack thereof, is often at the frontlines where conflict can take a legal form or move to more deadly battles. And documenting water conflict across history is Dr. Peter Gleick, chief scientist and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute. His water conflict chronology is a fascinating river throughout history and was just updated.


01:03 JCG: Peter, it’s great to be with you today, here at the World Water Conference in Mexico. In this disruptive world, how is water a source of conflict, even a trigger?

01:16 PG: Hey Carl, so it’s great to be with you. Yes, we’ve worked at the Pacific Institute, and I personally have worked, on the issue of water and conflict, water insecurity, broadly speaking, for many, many years. And in this context, when I talk about conflict, what I’m really focusing on is instances in which water and violence have gone together. Either at the international level or at the subnational where there has been violence over access to safe water, where water’s been used as a weapon during conflicts, where water is a tool used as a source of violence or conflict during wars that may start for other reasons but where water is a piece of the puzzle. And unfortunately, there’s a long history, of this. We just see conflicts over water going back literally thousands of years.

02:09 JCG: Can you give me an idea when you started mapping this? Take us right back to the beginning.

02:15 PG: Well, interestingly, the work that we’ve been doing has gone back for decades but conflicts over water have gone back for centuries and millennia. When we started collecting information for the database that we maintain — it’s called the water conflict chronology — we looked back at myths and legends and ancient histories from early cultures all the way up until the present time. And some of the earliest conflicts over water that are not myths or legends, but actually recorded in histories, appear about 25 BC in Ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, when two city-states, Umma and Lagash in Ancient Mesopotamia, fought over access to irrigation water and one city cut off the irrigation canal to another city. But stories like this go back even farther in myths and legends. There’s a Sumerian myth or legend about a great flood that- that many historians think actually is the model for the biblical story of the flood, about a god that punishes humanity, uses water as a weapon to punish humanity for its sins, and that myth goes back to about 4,000 BC.

03:33 JCG: And tell us about some of the other highlights of this water conflict chronology, what kind of trends have emerged?

03:41 PG: Well, unfortunately, it- in the early part of the chronology, the focus was really on nation-vs-nation or state-vs-state kinds of conflicts: one political entity is controlling water that is shared by two or more political entities, water crosses a border, and an upstream state will try to deprive a downstream state of water. And there are many, many international- we call international river basins, a river shared by two or more countries. In fact, half the land area of the planet is in what we call an international river basin and many of the early disputes — disputes in the Middle East between Israel and Lebanon, or Israel and Jordan, or Israel and the Palestinians, upstream conflicts vs downstream conflicts between India and Pakistan or India and Bangladesh — those are what we call interstate conflicts.

But more recently, really in the last decade or so, first of all, there have been more and more instances of violence related to water, but more of them have been what we call subnational conflicts: conflicts between ethnic groups, conflicts between pastoralists and farmers in Western Africa fighting over access to water. And unfortunately, most recently, especially in the Middle East, which, ironically enough is where the earliest conflicts over water appeared, we’ve seen the use of water as a weapon in Syria and Iraq, we’ve seen attacks on water systems in Syria and Iraq and Yemen. It’s increasingly worrisome to me that the instances of violence over water are growing and they’re not nation-to-nation kinds of examples where we do have tools of diplomacy to try and resolve them. Instead these subnational conflicts are much harder to deal with.

05:37 JCG: Can you give us an example of some of the subnational conflicts that are unfolding?

05:43 PG: Well, there are many different kinds. Again, we look at conflicts over access to water, we look at water used as a weapon or a tool of politics and violence. We’ve seen for many, many decades growing tensions between pastoralists and farmers in Western Africa over access to water especially where there’s a drought. Water sources dry up, pastoralists are moving from one piece of land to another during different seasons, and yet farmers tend to be fixed. And so partly this is land disputes, but increasingly it’s water disputes and that’s a long-term ongoing conflict and many people have been killed, many, many people have been killed in this kind of dispute. But we’ve also seen, and we include this in the database, a disturbing trend where some environmental activists who work on protecting water systems are fighting against inappropriate infrastructure in certain countries, have been attacked and sometimes literally assassinated. In recent years, one of the prize-winning activists in Central America, a woman who’s worked to fight against some dam construction, was assassinated last year, in 2016, and she’s not the only one. Another activist in South Africa was murdered because of his work to protect land and water resources, and that’s a very disturbing trend as well.

07:14 JCG: Tell us some of the big trends you’re seeing, of course, Syria and migration, Arab spring. How do these global events play into the water chronology?

07:26 PG: So that’s right, that’s another growing challenge, of course, we have globally the problem of climate change, we know climate’s changing, and we know humans are responsible. We know some of the worst impacts will be on water resources. That’s another thing we at the Pacific Institute have worked on for a long time, and there’s been some work done recently by us but also by others that looked at the growing influence of climate on severity of extreme events, droughts and floods. A few years ago, some climate scientists looked at the impact of the changing climate on this very severe drought that hit the Middle East, that hit eastern Mediterranean around 2006, 2007, 2008. Very severe drought.

Climate scientists are now convinced that that drought was influenced, worsened, by climate change, not caused by climate change but worsened by climate change, and we looked at the role that that drought played in affecting agriculture: it led to migration of people from rural communities into the cities in Syria, led to economic disruption and dislocations, and some of the violence that precipitated the civil war. And so the argument is we’re now beginning to see global environmental challenges influencing water and then influencing violence and conflict. And of course, climate change is going to get worse and worse and so that problem is going to get worse and worse, something I would note that many military analysts and intelligence agencies completely understand.

08:59 JCG: So looking at 2017, give us an update. What are we seeing unfold now?

09:05 PG: Well we update the chronology pretty regularly we’ve – it’s now the middle 2017 – unfortunately, there are already examples for 2017 that we have to add to the chronology. Again, largely, but not entirely, in the Middle East. We see ongoing tension over access to the strategic dams on the Tigris and Euphrates river and there’s been violent conflict during the fight against ISIS and Syria, the capture-recapture, capture-recapture damaging of some of those major dams. Some of those dams have actually been used to flood downstream communities for military purposes. But we also have seen, for example, in the Ukraine where there’s been this ongoing tension between Russia and the Ukraine, and tension’s a polite word for it, intentional attacks on water systems, attacks on the water delivery systems, on the infrastructure that periodically have left literally millions of people without access to safe water in the Ukraine. We’ve also seen, in Bangladesh, protesters fighting over the ecological impacts, especially impact on water resources of coal plants. This intersection between energy, water, social unrest, and conflict is growing and we tracked this with the chronology but we had better figure out ways of reducing those risks.

10:31 JCG: So we’re talking about some major risks, so how do we reduce them? Are we really up to the challenge?

10:39 PG: Well if there’s any good news it’s that there are mechanisms at the international level for dealing with conflicts over shared water resources. We have tools of diplomacy, we have treaties, we have international agreement. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen a decrease in nation-to-nation violence over water. People still argue over water, we don’t include that kind of thing in the database, but a decrease in the actual violence over shared water sources. But those tools are much less well developed and rarely applied in these growing subnational conflicts. There are also international treaties that in theory say during conflict you can’t attack infrastructure that’s critical for civilians, like water resources and energy and hospitals, but in the last few years we’ve seen a gross ignoring of those international principles. That’s just a violation of human rights. It’s a violation of international law, and it would be nice if we could develop mechanisms to stop that kind of conflict over water.

In the broadest sense, the thing that’s going to do the most for reducing tension over shared water resources is solving our bigger water problems: it’s providing safe water and sanitation to everyone on the planet, it’s making sure access to water and clean water is satisfied, and we have failed to do that. There are hundreds of millions of people without access to safe water and sanitation. Tensions over getting water are one of the roots of conflict and if we can meet, for example, the sustainable development goals, goal six especially, which is provide water and sanitation for everyone, I think that would help reduce the tensions were seeing over water. So diplomacy, international law, broad principles of sustainable water management, all of those things are solutions to this problem.

12:38 JCG: So I’m wondering, can these conflict points be used as, we could call them “teaching moments,” for governments and those who might be in a position to respond more immediately to security issues?

12:52 PG: Well the first piece of this is to understand that there is a problem. We maintain this database, we collect this information, it’s a source of data that could be used to analyse the nature of the problem. The sources, the cause, the trends, but data is data. Data — our data — what’s needed is to turn data into information that’s relevant for policy makers to turn that info into knowledge that’s useful for policy makers and then for policymakers to act. We need all those pieces put together. I do think that there are “teaching moments”. I do think that as we understand the role that water plays in conflict we can figure out how to mobilize the pressure to reduce those conflicts.

There is work being done in all of these areas: people are working on sustainable development of water resources and better management and improved governance and strategies for reducing conflict. None of it is happening fast enough for my liking, for people who’ve worked for a long time in water world. It’s frustrating to see the same kinds of problems we’ve known about for decades continuing because of the failure of governments to act. But the sustainable development goals are a positive development. I think we’ll see more progress toward meeting basic human needs for water and, I would note, environmental needs for water. I do think that in the long run, I’m an optimist. I think we’re moving toward a positive future but but there’s a lot of misery happening in the meantime.

14:36 JCG: When we’re talking about water conflicts, are we seeing that more in the developed world?

14:42 PG: In the developed world, we rarely see violent conflict over water. We tend to have better water systems, we tend to have better institutions, but even here in the United States, conflicts over water that devolve to violence are not unheard of. In 2016, we saw very active public protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline by Native Americans and many others who opposed the risk that that pipeline poses to water resources the Missouri River, local water resources in the area, and those protests ended in some very severe violence, often against the protesters themselves with injuries with many many hundreds of injuries and arrests. It’s another example where social unrest over some of these forms of economic development, especially in this case, around water lead to violence and it shows the United States isn’t immune to this kind of problem.

15:42 JCG: When we’re looking at water and conflict across the ages, and particularly the growth rate in the face of climate change and other stresses, what role are companies playing in either calling for action or even helping mediate some of these disputes and, you know, in some cases having more sway than some governments.

16:04 PG: Interesting, there is a growing role by the private sector in the broad area of social responsibility and stewardship around water resources. That there are forward-thinking companies who understand that their impacts on water resources, they’re beginning, the progressive companies, the thoughtful companies, are beginning to work with their local communities to reduce those impacts, to increase transparency. Any action like that to move towards more sustainable water management by individual companies, or hopefully by companies through often their very large supply chains, will reduce tensions over water resources. And as population grows, as economies grow, as pressure on resources grows, the role of large companies adding to better action by government I think can only help reduce the problem.

16:58 JCG: So say five years from now, what do you think the chronology will look like? What trends do you think we’ll see when we’re looking back?

17:07 PG: Well, so either, there could be two answers to that: one is what I would like to see and what I think we’ll see. If we look at the world today, tensions over water resources are growing not shrinking. Conflicts and violence over water resources are growing not shrinking, because we’re failing to address the root causes of these problems, which is bad government, and inequitable access to water, unwillingness to abide by international principles, and all of the litany of challenges that cause the problem.

The positive side of me thinks that by understanding the problem we’ll put more effort into reducing that problem, we’ll move toward more sustainable water use, we’ll move toward access to safe water and sanitation for everyone, we’ll guarantee basic human rights around water which is, of course, acknowledged by the United Nations. And if that happens, hopefully, the water conflict chronology will start to – to become less important, it’ll become a historical artifact, of “look how bad it used to be” and we’ve gotten over that problem. That’s my hope for the future.


18:26 JCG: Peter Gleick, thank you. This has been another installment of Hotspots H2O. You’ve been listening to Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute who we joined at the World Water Congress in Mexico. Today’s podcast is part of Circle of Blue’s extensive coverage of water, food, and energy in a changing climate. Read more at circleofblue.org and especially our Hotspots H2O coverage. I’m J. Carl Ganter.