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  • Writer's pictureNeeraj Singh Manhas

Water Tensions to Water Peace: Understanding the Dual Nature of Water Security

Multiple international organizations have identified that water shortages across the globe are not just possible, but inevitable. In 2017, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon alarmed that by 2030 the “world may face 40 per cent shortfall in water.” The World Bank also claimed that by 2050, about 1.8 billion people will face acute water shortage. While there are differing interpretations of how dire circumstances will be and by when, most organizations have adopted the notion that a nation is considered to be experiencing water stress if it possesses less than 1700 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per year per person. If that number drops below 1000 cubic meters per person, then it is subject to water scarcity. As scholars and practitioners well understand, there is a direct correlation between scarcity of critical resources and the risk of conflict.

 

Thus, water security has had a considerable impact on interstate relations, and it frequently serves as a catalyst for conflict, or, conversely, peacemaking. Situations across the globe offer examples of how water issues fuels tensions if left unaddressed, while a deliberate approach to resolving those issues contributes to safer and more stable engagement among neighboring countries. It is impossible to overestimate the strategic significance of water, which is a resource that is both limited and essential, particularly in areas where it is in short supply.

 

Understanding Water Security and its importance

Water security does not receive as much consideration as other areas of security, particularly for those countries that do not currently deal with water stress or scarcity. Thus, it is useful to revisit the definition as recognized via UN organizations. According to the UN, water security is composed of three core elements:


  1. ensuring that people have access to sufficient quantities of water of a quality that is acceptable for the purpose of maintaining their livelihoods, ensuring their well-being, and fostering socioeconomic progress;

  2. ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and calamities related to water supplies; and 

  3. preserving ecosystems, upon which clean water availability and other ecosystem services depend.

 

When those three elements are challenged by another party, it can result in disagreements between states that share water sources, some of which have contributed to mounting tensions and, in some cases, hostilities.

 

The most common example of disagreements have been over water access and rights. The basin of the Tigris and Euphrates, for example, has been a source of friction between Türkiye, Syria, and Iraq. Downstream states, such as Iraq and Syria, have expressed worry about the impact that water shortage will have on their agricultural and water supply as a result of Türkiye’s construction of dams as part of its Southeastern Anatolia Project. Another example is China, which is an upper riparian that has built 87,000 small dams over the Brahmaputra River and contributed to the water tensions that exist between India and the lower Mekong region in Southeast Asia.


China’s Zangmu Dam on the Brahmaputra River (photo via X, @indiawater)


While failure to manage water security can lead to conflict, water shortage has also offered grounds for cooperation and peacemaking. A strong case of this exists between India and Pakistan, who signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) and established a useful example of efficient water-sharing governance. Despite the fact that their relationship has had periods of notable tension, the treaty has played a significant role in facilitating collaboration over the shared use of river resources since 1960. Their collective effort demonstrates how concerns around water security may lead to long-lasting accords and procedures for conflict resolution. It is also considered to be among the most successful diplomatic agreements in history.


Additionally, the Okavango River Basin agreement between Angola, Botswana, and Namibia is a prime example of how shared water resources may act as a catalyst for cooperation and peace in southern Africa. In addition to fostering economic growth and maintaining regional peace, the agreement has been vital in the management and preservation of the Okavango Delta, which is an essential environment and a supply of water for the people living in the region.


Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arrives in Pakistan to sign the Indus Waters Treaty, September 1960 (photo via X, @IndiaHistorypic)


Strategies for Transforming Water Tensions into Water Cooperation

While collective understanding of the importance of water security is increasing, the potential for water-related disputes is growing as the global demand for water rises as a result of population growth, economic expansion, and the effects of climate change. The current circumstances necessitate increased collaboration, creative management approaches, and robust governance structures in order to meet the issues that are associated with water security. When water is a shared and essential resource, it is critical to have effective management and equitable distribution of water resources in order to minimise disputes between states, as well as to create peace and stability in regions where water is such an asset.


To accomplish this, a multifaceted approach is necessary to reconcile water tensions; it must not only address the management and distribution of water resources, but also the political, economic, and social concerns. Among the most important strategies include the following four elements.

 

Water Diplomacy and Peacebuilding Strategies: The implementation of peacebuilding strategies and the pursuit of water diplomacy are critical in mitigating the potential for conflicts arising from water scarcity and management. Sharing water resources motivate states to collaborate as opposed to engage in conflict. By prioritising the advancement of collaborative decision-making, participatory policy-making, and conflict resolution, it is possible to enhance social and environmental protection, thereby fostering the sustainable management of water resources.

 

Data Sharing and Management: The data sharing and management among riparian states is crucial for the effective management of transboundary water resources. It is necessary for fostering confidence, informing policy, and promoting sustainable water management. It fosters collaboration even in the absence of a commitment by establishing a foundation for comprehension and decision-making. For water resource management to be effective, cross-border data integration and standardisation of data recording, storage, and quality are indispensable. Nevertheless, divergent economic development strategies, political and cultural conflicts, national security considerations, and other non-structural obstacles may impede the exchange of information.

 

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM): This is an approach that promotes the synchronised administration and growth of water, land, and additional resources with the aim of optimising societal and economic welfare while safeguarding critical ecosystem stability. It facilitates collaboration among states that share water resources and is especially beneficial for transboundary water management. It also prioritises the protection of natural ecosystems and environments, the maintenance of equitable water access, and the balancing of diverse human requirements.

 

Technology and Innovation: The utilisation of technology and innovation has the potential to facilitate the conversion of water tensions into cooperative endeavours. The sophisticated technologies designed for water monitoring, efficiency, and conservation can furnish invaluable data and perspectives that aid in the optimisation of resource allocation and decision-making. Those technological advancements include effluent treatment and water management, with the possibility of mitigating the risks associated with water scarcity and/or quality.

 

Conclusion 

The journey from water tensions to water peace underscores the dual nature of water security, highlighting both the potential for conflict and cooperation. The connection between water and conflict is not straight or direct, but there are circumstances that contribute to acute tensions. For example, conflicts are more likely to arise when actors use water resources in ways that affect others, such as the construction of large dams or water irrigation projects that affect downstream users such as the construction of the Fomi Dam and irrigation developments in various river basins, or the case of the China’s large scaling of damming of the Brahmaputra River leading to flood or drought in India or other parts of Mekong region.

 

However, in the case of  the Orange River Basin, factors affecting the connectivity of conflicting waters can also support cooperative management rather than conflict. Despite facing a serious crisis in mid-2010, Botswana, which is located downstream from South Africa and Lesotho, became involved in discussions for a portion of the river’s water, demonstrating the possibility of finding solutions through cooperative efforts.

 

Ultimately, understanding the dual nature of water security requires a holistic approach that acknowledges the multifaceted interdependencies between water, society, and the environment. By embracing cooperation, innovation, and adaptive governance, it can transform water tensions into opportunities for peace, prosperity, and sustainability.

 

 

Neeraj Singh Manhas is the Special Advisor for South Asia at the Parley Policy Initiative, Republic of Korea. He has previously worked as the Director of Research in the Indo-Pacific Consortium at Raisina House, New Delhi. He has authored and edited six books and has various research interests covering Sino-Indian border issues; Transboundary Rivers; Water security; Defence, and Indo-Pacific studies. He has published his writings for renowned institutions such as the Institute for Security & Development Policy, (ISDP) in Sweden, Pacific Forum in Hawaii, Lowy Institute in Australia, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Centre for the Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), and other online platforms. He tweets @The_China _Chap.


Cable No 42_Water Tensions to Water Peace
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