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Equitable water management policies and their potential for conflict resolution

December, 16th

By Andrada Filip – Research Assistant

The issue of equitable water management is likely to become an important area of study in the field of conflict resolution strategies given the acceleration of climate change and the ongoing depletion of the environment. As demonstrated in the Bond Film Quantum of Solace, water has been converted into a commodity in the past few decades, particularly in Western countries. However in the global South, especially in Africa, ensuring access to water has long been a crucial matter for the sustainability of community livelihoods. Water is an important resource used in the manufacture of daily life commodities, such as furniture, garments, and an essential energy source, which highlight the fact that it represents a quintessential element for the world economy. More recently, the decision has been reached by a notable group of experts to introduce ‘universal water security’ as one of the Sustainable Development Goals, part of the post-2015 UN Development Agenda.[1] With this in mind it is very important to explore the intricacies of water management and conflict resolution strategies, and put forward a set of speculative recommendations to ensure that equitable water management policies are conducive towards conflict resolution. There are a number of relevant case studies available in order to analyze the water management component with regard to the ongoing conflict and volatile political situation and its potential for resolution.

To begin with, it is important to differentiate between advanced and subsistence communities. Insufficient water resources, a period of drought or other environmental complications affecting access to water represent challenges which are much more easily addressed in whole or in part by an advanced society which has the necessary infrastructure, administrative and political bodies needed to tackle such a crisis. In a developing country, in which rural communities often need to practice subsistence agriculture and rely on grazing land for their herds, access to water is a crucial component for the sustainability of their societies. Under such conditions, a period of drought, or any other natural or man-made phenomenon which imperils access to water is likely to lead to a collapse of rural economies and a period of long-term starvation. This is also aggravated by the fact that developing countries very often lack the infrastructure and efficient political mechanisms needed to address an impending water crisis. Therefore, such a crisis is likely to have far reaching ramifications, threatening to destabilize a region or an entire society. Other elements, such as tribalism or ethnic cleavages are likely to act as intervening factors, fuelling the conflict.

To be more precise, the conflict from the Darfur region in Sudan has just such water management problems at its origins. The conflict in Darfur, which erupted more than ten years ago, contains at its core a root cause which is easily comprehensible: the fact that disputes broke out between black African farmers and Arab pastoralist communities over scarce water and grazing land.[2] The fact that a community from a particular region has been forced to meet its basic necessities by putting up with limited water resources had fuelled rivalry, suspicion and competition between communities, which culminated in an ethno-religious conflict. Any military or humanitarian intervention is not likely to solve the conflict over the longer term, unless its root causes are addressed, which in this case represents the need to find an efficient and equitable water management policy, which has the capacity to sufficiently satisfy the needs of communities living in all adjacent regions.

The African Union-UN Mission in Darfur, UNAMID, has been working for several years now in the region, engaging key local stakeholders, relevant institutions and NGOs to improve water management and increase access to water by all communities.[3]

The situation in Afghanistan and the political relations it builds with its neighboring countries are crucial for long-term regional political stability. Water represents a resource which has the potential to influence those neighborly relations, for better or for worse. At present, both Iran and Pakistan are facing the fear that policies being implemented in Afghanistan could deprive their populations of important water resources, which are crucial for economic development and ensuring their populations can enjoy a sufficient level of well-being.[4] Afghanistan’s complex river system also affects its relations with Iran. When a dam is erected on a river flowing through Afghanistan, it is likely to negatively influence the water flow, and thus substantially reduce the amount of water which reaches rural communities from neighboring Iran. The annual amount of rainfall and snowmelt in Afghanistan determines water availability for irrigation in an economy which relies a lot on agriculture and is highly volatile to inflation. The country is also extremely vulnerable to changes in water supply, even more so since more than 80% of its population lives in rural areas.[5]

Iran and Afghanistan signed a water treaty prior to the Iranian Islamic Revolution from 1979, however, presently there is no active agreement regarding the management of shared water resources in the Helmand and Harirod-Murghab river basins.[6] In the case of Afghanistan, water availability is inextricably linked to food security.[7] Under the current situation, an increase in water consumption in upstream Afghanistan is likely to negatively impact the water supply in Iran, therefore leading to strained political relations between the two countries.[8] Given Afghanistan’s unique geography and location, it possesses vast water resources under the form of glaciers stored up in the Hindu Kush Mountains.  The border with Pakistan lies right on the other side of this mountain chain. Because it is the product of colonial legacies, the Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been, and continues to be, contested by communities living in both countries.[9] Given this frail historical and political context, the issue of equitable water management represents a sensitive issue which is the subject of heated political debate between both states.

In order to implement an equitable water policy, which takes into consideration the basic human right of ensuring access to water for all individuals regardless of nationality, it is important to bring all relevant stakeholders to the negotiations table. The next step would be to design a water management plan which empowers local communities to be able to perform the vital agricultural activities, which are necessary for their day-to-day living. Hence, the voices of the grassroots need to be heard when such a water management plan or water sharing agreement is being created. Multilateral engagement and transparency of the negotiation process will help ward of any potential criticism and suspicion, that one particular community, region or country will be favoured over another.

On the other hand, Western countries and consumer societies should show more consideration towards water consumption in daily activities. For example, in recent months the viral ALS ‘ice-bucket challenge’ internet craze, wasted many gallons of water. Given the environmental challenges being faced by countless states, rich or poor, to ensure water security for their citizens, it is imperative that every person becomes conscientious about the value of water. Some take it as a given that they can always go to the sink and turn on the taps, however, others need to walk over long distances for a single bucket of water, which they then need to share with other family members. Hence, what many of us take for granted represents a precious and scant commodity for others. It is precisely such stark contrasts and paradoxes which can be encountered in the modern world, that are likely to pose tremendous challenges in the near future.

Water security and the implementation of equitable water management policies deserve to be an integral part of states’ security agendas. In the cases of Darfur and Afghanistan, it becomes clear that political stability and economic development can only be achieved by introducing a sound water sharing agreement with all the relevant actors whose livelihoods depend on ensuring water security through the river system that crisscrosses their respective geographical region. Projects such as designing complex irrigation systems and building canals and dams to store water should be carried out in consultation not just with the national governments and officials from the immediate vicinity of the intervention site. All those whose livelihoods depend on accessing water from the same river or water basin ought to be included in the negotiation process, and their basic needs should be taken into consideration, in order to establish a sustainable, equitable and efficient water management policy. Such an endeavor ought to be carried out according to the principle of mutual cooperation and shared responsibility.

[1] Report of the Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals, 2014, available at: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/1579SDGs%20Proposal.pdf

[2] Schlein, Lisa, ‘Water scarcity root of Darfur conflict’, June 10th, 2011, Voice of America, http://www.voanews.com/content/water-scarcity-root-of-darfur-conflict-123688459/158292.html

[3] Lukunka, Sharon, ‘World Water Day: Darfur still faces shortages’, October 28th, 2014, UNAMID Feature Storyhttp://unamid.unmissions.org/Default.aspx?ctl=Details&tabid=11028&mid=14215&ItemID=23345

[4] Aman, Fatemah, ‘Afghan water infrastructure threatens Iran, regional stability’, January 7th, 2013, Al-Monitor, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/01/afghanwatershortageiranpakistan.html

[5] Hanasz, Paula, ‘Afghanistan’s food and water security challenges’, August 19th, 2011, Future Directions International, http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publications/food-and-water-crises/194-afghanistans-food-and-water-security-challenges.html

[6] Hanasz, Paula, ‘The politics of water security between Afghanistan and Iran’, March 1st, 2012, Future Directions International, http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publications/food-and-water-crises/416-the-politics-of-water-security-between-afghanistan-and-iran.html

[7] Hanasz, Paula, ‘Afghanistan’s food and water security challenges’, August 19th, 2011, Future Directions International, http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publications/food-and-water-crises/194-afghanistans-food-and-water-security-challenges.html

[8] Hanasz, Paula, ‘The politics of water security between Afghanistan and Iran’, March 1st, 2012, Future Directions International, http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publications/food-and-water-crises/416-the-politics-of-water-security-between-afghanistan-and-iran.html

[9] Rahi, Arwin, ‘Why the Durand Line matters’, February 21st, 2014, the Diplomat, http://thediplomat.com/2014/02/why-the-durand-line-matters/

 

About Andrada Filip

Andrada is a Research Assistant in the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution research division. She has benefited from a considerable amount of diversified work experience related to the United Nations system.