Regional conflict over water

Gerard Pichel | 06 February 2013

Improved water management can avoid future water related conflicts, through a de-centralized, de-politicized and transparent approach based on stakeholder involvement and water engineering technology.

Water is not just a human health issue, not just an environmental issue - it is a geopolitical security issue. When combined with poverty, food security, social tensions, environmental degradation, weak political leadership and moribund institutions, water problems may lead to regional conflicts between countries.

Agriculture uses most water, but demand for urban drinking water is growing fast due to the onslaught of urbanization, industrialization and unstoppable population growth. In the past, governments took the lead in harnessing and distributing water resources. Nowadays I observe less government involvement and more action by civil society in decision-making for sustainable water management.

For decades we have built dams, reservoirs, waterways, sluices, dikes, polders, river training works, irrigation schemes, water supply pipelines, and so on, for better water management and to satisfy needs in a just, democratic and equitable manner. Nevertheless, poor people still have inadequate access to clean water. Upstream countries decide to use water without consent of downstream riparian countries. Regional competition for water has become fierce. It is a competition with no referee. What is the best approach to mediate and find optimum and sustainable solutions?

Flooding is a blessing for some countries (Mekong delta) but a curse or threat for others (Jakarta delta, Bangladesh delta, the Netherlands delta). The recent floods in mega-city Jakarta again showed how difficult it is to find an optimum solution without spending a great deal of  money and addressing the needs of local riverine residents. With oil prices edging up, electricity from hydro-power is becoming more and more attractive, economically and commercially. Upstream countries take advantage of their hydro-power opportunities and diminish the riparian rights of downstream states.

Universally accepted, known modern/innovative water management techniques can be applied to assess the various present and future real needs of water uses across the river basin. The socio-economic stakes for each and every country can then be established and discussed in a broad forum to find the acceptable equitable formula to distribute the benefits for the populations. Sharing the socio-economic benefits among member-countries can be fostered through peaceful consensual agreement (give and take, checks and balances). The water manager (in the role of an independent referee/advisor) must come up with logical/common sense proposals able to convince the member countries/politicians, based on honest, verifiable, reliable and transparent data and information (de-politicized data). A broad consensual agreement implies that each member country should feel a sense of belonging/adherence to a commonly adopted approach to manage the river basin water resources (politics follows water management).

Are water wars inevitable? Not necessarily. Solving water conflicts through democratic consensus-based processes requires less human energy and fewer resources than military water wars.
We are all in the same boat (or the same river basin). We face the same threat from global warming, the same sea level rise impacts, the same water shortage/scarcity during the dry season. In his recent inaugural speech, President Barack Obama rightly mentioned climate change threats. Rising water demands and scarcities due to climate change and poor management will increase the risk of conflict. In 20 years from now, total demand for water will exceed supply. Now is the time to act in order to avoid the worst.

Water scarcity or drought will increase, especially in Asia where industrialization is progressing rapidly. The environmental quality of water bodies threatens to deteriorate. Large scale pollution is a real risk. To avoid conflicts, governments must lead. They must rally stakeholders to optimize water use. They must ensure democratic and equitable water distribution in a de-centralized manner, abiding by principles of good governance and transparency. (We need more water lawyers!)

The trend in monsoon Asia towards more economic liberalization and decentralization is conducive to peaceful consensus-based decisions involving stakeholders (peaceful water conflict resolution). But we still need more transparency of information and de-politicization of data; data must be scientifically correct and honestly shared. Despite cooperation efforts by Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam through the Mekong River Commission, national interests obstruct joint river basin management.

I am convinced that lasting solutions for future water problems must be founded on improved water management— more efficient water use. Sustainable water governance (stewardship) requires solutions based on de-politicized information and honestly-shared analytical frameworks that allow people to address disputes themselves. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. There is a diversity of issues, requiring many solutions. Water engineering technology is the magic toolbox. A vital issue is the situation of the poorest people. Their rights to water must be respected.

Photo credit main picture: Huskyte

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About the author

Gerard Pichel

Gerard Pichel is a hydraulic engineer and employed at the Dutch consulting firm Royal HaskoningDH...

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