Why water is so important for world peace

Blog Sep 21, 2021

Will future wars be fought over water? Or should we rather think of water as a new peace-building tool? To celebrate World Peace Day on 21 September we have compiled a little crash course on the complex relationship between water and conflicts.

Here are five insights about the links between water and security – and resources if you want to delve deeper into the topic.

  • Countries don’t go to war over water 

In the 1990s newspaper headlines warned that future wars would be fought over water, but those predictions have not come true. Research does not support the notion that countries tend to battle over water. In an analysis of 263 of the world’s 310 international water basins,  Aaron Wolf, Shira Yoffe and colleagues at Oregon State University found that states are much more likely to cooperate over shared water than go to war. During the 20th century, no war could be linked to water as the main source of conflict (though   minor skirmishes did occur). In contrast, 149 water-related treaties were signed. Generally, it makes more strategic, economic, and hydrological sense for countries to cooperate over shared water resources.

Learn more: The Oregon State University has analyzed conflicts in the 20th century from a water perspective. To learn more about how to strengthen cooperation you can watch the can 2021 SIWI High-Level Panel on Water Diplomacy: Navigating to a Resilient Future.

  • Climate change is a risk multiplier

Global warming is however changing the picture in significant ways. It exacerbates water scarcity and competition over water at a time when demand is already rising due to economic growth and swelling populations. Climate change could trigger a further 20-40 per cent decline in food and water availability, according to research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Such dramatic shifts are likely to increase social tensions and conflicts, at at the community level and between countries, especially if there is a  lack of well-functioning institutions. Unfortunately, water scarcity is especially severe in many regions that already suffer from many other difficulties. Of the world’s 17 most water-scarce countries are 12 located in the Middle East and North Africa. Research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre  has identified five “hotspot” water basins marked by high water stress and where demographic and climatic conditions are likely to exacerbate these “hydro-political risks”: the Nile, the Ganges/Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Tigris/Euphrates, and the Colorado River basin.

Learn more: To get an introduction to the topic, watch SIWI Corner: Water and Peace from World Water Week 2021. SIWI runs the flagship programme Shared Waters Partnership and hosts UNESCO’s International Centre for Water Cooperation.

  • Water diplomacy and cooperation can contribute to peace

SIWI works in many of the world’s most unstable regions to support transboundary cooperation over shared waters. Countries can strengthen their climate resilience by jointly managing a shared river, lake, or groundwater aquifer. Through the collaboration, they also improve relationships with other countries which can reduce the risks of tensions and armed conflicts.

But how could this positive cycle be set in motion in a region marked by traditional mistrust between neighbouring countries? That question is receiving more and more scholarly attention. SIWI contributes to research on water diplomacy, which can be defined is a process leading towards establishing and/or enhancing technical and political cooperation over shared waters among a wide range of actors. We also actively support countries willing to engage in collaboration, for example by facilitating dialogues, organizing trainings, and providing guidance on policies, data sharing and the design of joint institutions.  

Learn more: You can read more in the policy brief Water Diplomacy Facilitating Dialogues. For a more in-depth understanding, try the Journal of Hydrology’s Special Issue on Water Diplomacy with SIWI’s Dr Martina Klimes as editor. In Stories from the Eastern Nile River Basin, journalists who have participated in a SIWI workshop write about transboundary water cooperation around the Nile. To learn more about youth perspectives in water diplomacy you can check out this report or watch this seminar.

  • Interest is growing in climate-smart security policies

The traditional siloed approach to security is no longer sufficient. Experts on security, climate, environment, and development need to share knowledge to understand new threats that arise from climate change, environmental degradation, and population growth as well as social, economic, and political factors. SIWI seeks to raise awareness of these complex interlinkages and bring together actors from different fields to create more of a common understanding of emerging risks. Every year we host an influential High-Level Panel on Water Diplomacy with a broad range of experts.  

Learn more: Watch the high-level panels to hear leading experts discuss topics such as Is water diplomacy a tool for the future?; How can water diplomacy become more inclusive?; What is climate-smart security? and How can we strengthen collaboration?

  • Growing uncertainty makes water governance is increasingly important to peace

There is growing interest in how sustainable management of natural resources can reduce the risk of armed conflict. SIWI works to raise awareness of how good water management can contribute to food security and livelihoods for people in low-income countries. New research also points to how criminal gangs, terror groups and local militias are trying to take control over local water resources to gain ground. To prevent this exploitation of people’s vulnerability, it is especially important to improve water governance in fragile contexts. SIWI is involved in research as well as capacity-building to increase this understanding.

Learn more: In the paper, Tracing Intersections of COVID-19: Gender, Water and Armed Conflict, SIWI experts explored the security impacts of the global pandemic in fragile and conflict-affected states. You can meet one of the authors, Panchali Saikia, in SIWI Corner: Water and Peace.

With these resources, you get a solid understanding of the increasingly important links between water, security, and development. SIWI is continuously working to create new knowledge and share our experiences in the field, so stay tuned for more updates.