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World Water Day 2024: Water as a conflict trigger and a tool for peace

Water plays a critical dual role in promoting peace and triggering conflicts on a global scale. The increasing water scarcity, driven by factors such as population growth, economic expansion, climate change, and ineffective water resource management, is heightening tensions and conflicts related to water worldwide. Aaron T. Wolf, a professor of Geography at Oregon State University and water diplomacy professor at the IHE-Delft Institute for Water Education, asserts that "the processes required to address these threats are even more challenging when water is shared across political, sectoral, or ethnic boundaries, or when users compete within a basin." However, there is also growing recognition of water's potential as a tool for peace and cooperation: "There is increasing awareness of the history of cooperation, of the factors that lead to disputes, and of the importance of institutions for political resilience," he said in an interview with iAgua in December 2022, on the occasion of his recognition in the Sustainable Water Management Awards by the Water Observatory of the Botín Foundation.

This is precisely what World Water Day 2024 focuses on, seeking this year to promote cooperation to balance everyone's needs, with a commitment to ensuring that no one is left behind and making water a catalyst for a more peaceful world under the theme " water for peace."

Water resources play a critical dual role in promoting peace and triggering conflict across the globe

Conflicts over water can have different forms and follow different paths, involving any of the components of water security, defined by the United Nations as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.” Water-related weaknesses can manifest from local conflicts between communities over access to wetlands to international conflicts between entire countries over dam construction.

While political instability and conflicts are rarely caused by a single factor, water has sometimes been the key trigger of disputes between communities, between the population and the state, or between countries; not to mention its use as a potential "weapon" of war and water itself being a victim of attacks.

Conflicts over transboundary waters across the globe

According to the report “Water Conflict Pathways and Peacebuilding Strategies” by David Michel for the United States Institute of Peace, although there have been more than forty hostile and militarized international actions related to water since World War II, there is no evidence of modern wars declared over water.

World Water Day 2024 encourages cooperation to balance the needs of all, with a commitment to ensure that no one is left behind

However, it is important to note that, according to the “Blueprint for Acceleration: Sustainable Development Goal 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation 2023” by the United Nations, transboundary waters represent 60% of the world's freshwater flows, and 153 countries have territory within at least one of the 310 transboundary river and lake basins. This "shared" water has been and still can be a trigger for conflicts, as indicated in a study by Lucia De Stefano and Aaron T. Wolf, along with other researchers from around the world. This study suggests that the most significant indicator of transboundary tensions occurs when one party, typically upstream, wants to build infrastructure without negotiating the impacts with downstream neighbours.

According to the UN, over 3 billion people worldwide depend on water that crosses national borders, however, only twenty-four countries have cooperation agreements for all shared water resources. When water is scarce or polluted, or when people have unequal or no access, tensions can rise between communities and countries.

The most common situation of transboundary water conflicts occurs when water is a trigger due to a clash of interests between different users, or when the actions of one party cause the quantity and quality of water of the other to decrease. The most well-known case in Africa is the dispute over the waters of the Nile River. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have had prolonged conflicts over the years regarding the use of Nile water that still persist today. The construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam is currently a point of friction, as downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, are concerned about the impact on their water supply. In fact, despite negotiations for a technical and legal solution that could benefit all three parties being concluded in December 2023, Ethiopia is proceeding with the project, and the mega infrastructure entered its final filling phase in January 2024.

A similar case occurs in the Middle East with the shared waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Development projects in Turkey, especially the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), initiated in the 1970s, which involves the construction of twenty-two dams and reservoirs and nineteen power plants on the Tigris and Euphrates waters. Both the construction of infrastructure and Turkey's water use affect the flow of water resources to the other two countries.

Also worth noting in this region is the War over Water concerning the Jordan River, also known as the “Battle over Water”, between 1964 and 1967. It involved a series of conflicts between Israel and the states of the Arab League, focused on control over water resources in the Jordan River basin. After the completion of the National Water Carrier of Israel, which diverted water from the Sea of Galilee as part of the Johnston Plan, Arab states attempted to implement a Diversion Plan that would deprive Israel of a significant portion of its water resources. However, it proved to be technically and economically unfeasible.

In Asia, the Mekong River flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The shared management of its resources and the exploitation of its waters through the construction of hydroelectric dams have caused tensions and disagreements. Although the Mekong River Commission was established in 1995, comprising only Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, to regulate diplomatic tensions, the discussions did not yield results. China, on the other hand, established the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2016. This division reflects that the Mekong has all the ingredients to be a regional focus of tension on which the future of Southeast Asia depends.

In Central Asia, the conflict over water arises from the complex interaction between geopolitical heritage, environmental challenges, and divergent needs of the countries in the region, primarily Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The tension between these countries is due to the management of water resources in the basins of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which, after the disintegration in 1991 of the resource-sharing system imposed by the Soviet Union in the region, has been impossible to reach any solid agreement that benefits the five countries involved.

According to the United Nations, more than 3 billion people worldwide depend on water resources that cross national borders

In Latin America, Costa Rica and Nicaragua share the largest hydrographic basin in Central America, which is the San Juan River. For over two centuries, both countries have clashed diplomatically over the delimitation of the border, navigation rights, and environmental protection. In 2010, Nicaragua landed soldiers and construction equipment on opposite banks of the San Juan River in a military incursion to dredge the channel, sparking a new dispute with Costa Rica that lasted until 2015. That year, the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued a judgment calling for joint and continuous cooperation in the execution of their obligations regarding the waters of the San Juan.

Also in this region, Bolivia and Chile had a dispute between 1996 and 2022, with an agreement in 2009 that was never ratified, over the waters of the Silala River. Bolivia argued that the waters were artificially diverted to Chile, while Chile argued that, as an international river, it naturally flowed across the border. Although in 2022, The Hague ruled in favour of Chile, it authorized Bolivia to remove artificial channels made on its territory to reduce the flow.

Water has been a key trigger of conflict between communities or between people and the state and used as a "weapon" of war

Water, diplomacy, and cooperation for peace

Water diplomacy can contribute constructively to collaborative water management, improving the resources and governance capacities of conflicting parties, promoting cooperative decision-making processes and inclusive policy institutions, and facilitating the peaceful resolution of disputes. In this sense, there is a growing recognition of the importance of water diplomacy, especially in the case of transboundary waters, and peacebuilding strategies to mitigate the risks of water-related conflicts.

A good example of shared use is the Indus Waters Treaty, signed by India and Pakistan in 1960 after numerous disputes between the two countries and the final intervention of the World Bank to reach an agreement. The Indus River basin is vital for the economy and agriculture of both countries, sustaining millions of people and generating considerable economic activity. Thus, the Treaty regulates the distribution of water from the Indus River and its tributaries, assigning the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) to Pakistan and the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas, Sutlej) to India, and granting India the right to certain non-consumptive uses of water in the western rivers. However, while the Treaty has been crucial for managing water distribution, it needs to be reconsidered due to the consequences of climate change, which have particularly affected both countries.

Another milestone in shared water resources management was the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty signed between India and Bangladesh in 1996, expiring in 2026. This treaty paved the way for other cooperation agreements for water sharing and memorandums of understanding on more transboundary rivers, such as the Kushiyara or the Feni.

In the Americas, the Colorado and Grande/Bravo rivers, which cross the border between the United States and Mexico, play a crucial role in water management between the two countries, representing two-thirds of the border and being the subject of bilateral agreements since the 19th century, although they were on the brink of breaking in October 2020. However, in Minute 323, signed in September 2017, the adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan for the Colorado River basin was included, stating that both countries must share water scarcity. This plan, currently in effect and which has helped avoid a dispute due to the severe drought of 2022 and 2023, could be in danger after the general elections scheduled in both countries in 2024.

Since 1967, the La Plata Basin Commission has served as a key mechanism to reinforce the regional integration process, seeking harmonious and balanced growth that benefits all involved nations, namely Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Finally, in Europe, the Albufera Convention, signed in 1998 by Spain and Portugal, establishes a framework for the joint management of the river basins shared by both countries, including those of the Miño, Limia, Duero, Tagus, and Guadiana. This agreement, which entered into force in January 2000, responds to the need to coordinate water management in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way, including specific commitments to minimum annual flows.

Also noteworthy is the existence, since 2018, of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), the main legal instrument for cooperation and management of transboundary waters in the Danube River basin, comprising nineteen countries.

Water diplomacy can contribute constructively to the collaborative management of available water resources

Other water-related conflicts

Transboundary water conflicts are not the only case in which water resources have been a cause of dispute. A local example is the Cochabamba Water War. In the early months of 2000, the Bolivian government privatized the municipal water company. Fearing the expropriation of communal water systems, residents and farmers launched a wave of strikes and blockades that led the government to declare a "state of siege," before finally returning the company to public management.

On the other hand, the availability and quality of water in the Gaza Strip have been a point of tension between Israel and Palestine within their larger conflict. Restrictions imposed by Israel and damaged infrastructure have led to a severe water crisis in Gaza, illustrating how water can be used as a weapon to gain or maintain control over territory and population or as a means to pressure opposing groups. It should not be forgotten that attacks on critical and civilian infrastructure, including water supply systems, pose serious health risks and violate international humanitarian law.

A Common Future

It should not be forgotten that water is not just a resource that can be used and competed for; it is also a human right, intrinsic to all aspects of life. Therefore, the UN promotes collaborative work, now more than ever, to position water as a stabilizing force and catalyst for sustainable development. The impacts of climate change are becoming stronger, and the population continues to grow, leaving a rather delicate outlook regarding the future availability of water resources. This further highlights the need for countries to come together to protect and conserve water.

The goal is to leave no one behind regarding access to water and sanitation. What must be left behind is the need to assert dominance as hegemonic powers in regulating river flows, whether transboundary or not, and also to divert attention from the real problems in each region.