Water Scarcity Leads More to Peace Than War (Interview)

water issues, security, climate change, Geoffrey Dabelko, Yemen, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Woodrow Wilson CenterGeoffrey Dabelko at the 12th National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment in Washington D.C.

A couple of months ago a friend of mine studying at the Monterey Institute of International Studies engaged with a Green Prophet post about the link between water and security. As it turns out, she is studying with adjunct professor Geoffrey D. Dabelko, who is also director of the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP), a nonpartisan policy forum on environment, population, health, and security issues at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

He is currently focusing on climate change and security with an emphasis on managing transboundary fresh water resources. Since my friend introduced me to Geoffrey, he has appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, a leading radio show in the United States, to talk about a recently released US National Intelligence Council report that focused on the link between water and global security. We have continued that conversation (link to transcript) here in order to better understand whether our region’s water scarcity is more likely to lead to war or peace.

Green Prophet: So, for context, can you say a little bit about the National Intelligence report and why it was compiled?

Geoff Dabelko: The water and security assessment from the National Intelligence Council was done at the request of Secretary of State Hllary Clinton. The National Intelligence Council has a strong history of looking at long term trends in the environmental, technological, demographic realms and working to understand how trends in these areas are and could be part of larger economic, political, and social dynamics that may pose national security issues for the United States.

Green Prophet: There were seven river basins of particular concern, of which four are located in the MENA region: the Euphrates, Jordan, Nile, and the Tigris. Why do you think these are of particular importance?

Geoff Dabelko: I do not explicitly know the criteria for their selection of the seven basins.  But I think these four, like the other three, have some common characteristics. They are basins that where the rivers are shared by two or more countries/territories that are heavily dependent on the waters, that have relations among the states that include uncertain, tense, or even overtly hostile relationships, that are now and/or likely to experience big growth in demand for the water resource based on both population growth and consumption growth, that at the same time there is concern that climate change will at least increase variability, timing, and or quantity of that water (both scarcity and abundance ie floods).

And then the report focuses on the institutional river basin arrangements and differentiates among their assessed capacities for addressing these current and future stresses. That diversity aside, it is fair to say that the transboundary water institutions remain a priority yet a challenge for addressing the multiple dimensions of the water relationship. I say multiple given all the different uses water performs in most of these settings (transport, irrigation, hydropower, culture, industrial, household, etc).

Green Prophet: Something that came out of your NPR discussion that really surprised me, and may surprise our readers, is that water scarcity (where a river, say, is shared between more than one country) more often leads to cooperation than it does to conflict.

Geoff Dabelko: This insight was established first and foremost by the research done by Dr. Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University and his Basins at Risk work. Essentially he looked at all bilateral and multilateral interactions between states over water and coded them most conflictual ie started a war to most cooperative ie signed a basin agreement. He found a lot in the middle ie verbal support on cooperation side and saber rattling in rhetoric on the conflict side.

But there was also a lot of formal cooperation in basin agreements, particularly in the last couple of decades. It didn’t just happen, took a lot of work, took some inducements etc but there is a lot of precedent and evidence of tacit and formal cooperation. On the formal conflict side, there were a small number relative to the nearly 2000 cases they coded.  I think (and we’d have to check to make sure have the numbers right) but in the 2003 piece (before the 2010 update) I think it was just 37 of them were the second from most conflictual and formal war was zero.  Now Arab-Israeli were 27 of the 37 so your region of focus explained most of those, but it was still dramatic evidence against the water wars are here frame that so dominates newspaper headlines and politicians speeches.

Green Prophet: Although, it did occur to me that the conditions we are about to face, as a result of climate change and population growth, are quite unlike any that have occurred in the past.

Geoff Dabelko: Your follow up is the most interesting question – will the future look like the past? Does studying the past tell us what will happen in the future? We put a lot of faith in the past helping us understand the future and it rests at the center of much of the way we analyze things. But at the same time, we also, especially in the natural world, have established patterns of thresholds and tipping points and sudden changes. Will that happen with these natural-social coupled challenges like shared river basins.

It is also critical to say that there is a LOT of violence around water. It is just within states rather than between them. In fact some say there is an inverse relationship between the level of analysis (local to international) and the level of violence.

Some suggest it is something about the properties of water – it is heavy, it moves, it isn’t predictable when it comes, it is hard to invade, pick it up, carry it home with you. You have to stay to use it. And with “virtual water” ie food, it is much cheaper to trade in food if you have water deficits than it is to invade to get the water needed for agriculture.

Green Prophet: Many people believe that Israel’s occupation of Palestininan territory is related to having more control over water (in the Golan Heights as well) but that this motivation is disguised by its political ideology. What do you think about that?

Geoff Dabelko: Assigning weight to motivations for such wider decisions is a tough one. It is not a specific situation I would consider myself expert in.  But I would say that in part that situation shows how it is insufficient to focus JUST on what causes the start of a conflict.  So while one can say water hasn’t caused states to fight, it does not mean water isn’t incredibly important to the continuation, the ebb and flow, and the termination of a conflict and the prospect for sustaining peace. So the cause of the conflict is just one stage along a conflict continuum from before conflict, during conflict and after conflict.  So water is clearly a critical part of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations or Indian-Pakistani negotiations whenever those negotiations occur.  Water is very high politics and critical for getting to peace and keeping a peace.  So if we just focus on what causes a conflict, we miss this importance of resources in a conflict setting.

That said, the very same case presents a good example of cooperation during conflict that can have benefits around the resource as well as wider health and even trust and confidence building impacts, ones that we can hope plays a part in fostering a wider confidence in the relationship.  So I’m sure you are familiar with FoEME.

Their good water neighbors program rests on the simple notion that kids on both sides of the conflict get sick from polluted water.

Based on that interdependence, they have paired contiguous communities for school to school, then mayor to mayor, programs that address the problem of usually untreated Palestinian waste water that adversely affects both sides.  With very modest education and small scale infrastructure projects, they make a specific difference in the place. But that cooperation, over time, has been part of building community links, serving as a “lifeline for dialogue”  in times of conflict, that in some cases has supported wider advances of understanding that spill over into other dimensions of the otherwise conflictual relationship.

Green Prophet: Do you think that the MENA region needs outside help to resolve its water issues?

Geoff Dabelko: I think the experience of the Nile Basin Initiative, where the World Bank and UNDP has provided a facilitation role but with the riparians running the show, has shown that there can be a role for outside institutions to support a process in productive ways.  I am not saying NBI was perfect and it is obviously in a rough patch now given  political changes in the basin.  But process matters, building trust is slow, a technical approach can build up to a political one, and there can be a role if the outside institution is seen as neutral, responding to in region demands rather than driving the agenda, and patient.

Green Prophet: Are you hopeful, based on your knowledge of groups like FoEME, that we will be able to find solutions to our water woes?

Geoff Dabelko:Efforts like FOEME will represent pieces in the puzzle of addressing water problems in the MENA region.  Solutions to such wide-ranging challenges are hard to come by.  But improving the direct situation around water and its connected areas of health, economic growth, agriculture, on to politics and culture – these are things efforts like FOEME’s can contribute to meaningfully on local, national, regional, and international levels.

Green Prophet: Finally, can you give me a “worse case scenario” and – more importantly – a sense of the tools we can use to prevent that?

Geoff Dabelko: Worst case scenarios and predictions in general are worst case scenarios. In some ways you could say we have already achieved some with the nearly 1 billion globally without access to clean water. We’ve just become accustomed to it and amazingly given those numbers, the situation has improved for literally tens of millions. I think one can envisage crises associated with water that are acute and dramatic (Yemen’s unsustainable depletion of groundwater and fossil aquifers for example) that lead to tremendous privation and disruption.  Yet the human development conditions are already severe. So when does it become a worse case scenario?

There are possible flashpoints when for example upstream countries intentionally deny flow to downstream dependent countries in already water scarce situations. The growth of consumption and population makes these scenarios more likely but not certain or inevitable.  One step that we know could and should be taken now is to invest in the transboundary water management institutions that should help states navigate these more precarious times ahead.

Investing effort and resource in diffuse steps like transboundary water basin organizations, regular sharing of data, developing a shared vision that moves the parties from asserting their rights to water, to evaluating all the nees for the water, to taking steps to share the benefits water can provide. Those steps take time, learning, trust-building, and a willingness to think long term. In other words, they aren’t patterns of interaction that can develop quickly or in a crisis. They require foresight and politial will on the part of leadership to support such processes that can easily be unpopular or seem unimportant while they are going on.  But such efforts will be of incalculable benefit in the face of increased challenges in the water sector.

image via Environmental Change and Security Program, Flickr

More on Water Concerns in the Middle East and North Africa:

A Prince Leads Liquid Peace Initiative for Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey

Egypt Holds on Tight to Nile Water Rights

Finally – A Team of Experts to Evaluate the Impact of Massive Ethiopian Dam

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4 thoughts on “Water Scarcity Leads More to Peace Than War (Interview)”

  1. Britta says:

    Dearest Tafline,

    Thanks for this interview. I am currently working on a short presentation on the human right to water and my part specifically talks to the privatization of water. I think it’s quite remarkable that in the past, mostly transboundary, it seems, water conflict has led to more peaceful agreements. How different are transboundary to internal water disputes, do you think? It seems like the dynamic of conflict is quite distinct. I think of Bolivia and the privatization efforts, bought from an outside company, sponsored and “forced” upon the Bolivian government by the World Bank and IMF. I just read that in Atlanta, GA and Hamilton, ONT they are attempting to reverse privatization because it has not been working. Talking about privatization, and specifically in countries where democratic institutions or capitalist economic systems are not in place or don’t function yet have increasing pressure from outside power nations (which arguably the US and Canada’s systems are weak in their own right!), where do you see room for conflict management and or transformation? Where, when, how do we start to see stakeholder involvement at the level of human security and up there with these mega-corps, IGOs, and govt dialogues?

  2. Great interview Tafline. To expand on the Yemen example a bit, your audience might be interested in a few posts we at ECSP have had on our blog:

    Yemen: Revisiting Demography After the Arab Spring (http://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2012/04/yemen-revisiting-demography-after-arab.html)

    Yemen Beyond the Headlines: Losing the Battle to Balance Water Supply and Population Growth (http://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2011/06/yemen-behind-headlines-losing-battle-to.html)

    And full “Yemen Beyond the Headlines” series, based on a full-day event last spring at the Wilson Center (http://www.newsecuritybeat.org/search/label/Yemen%20Beyond%20the%20Headlines)

    1. Thanks so much. Those are very helpful links.

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