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Why water conflict is rising, especially on the local level

Water shortage in Internal Displaced Persons camp in South Sudan, UNMISS compound, in 2014.

As neither full-on warfare nor issues that necessarily resonate beyond specific, sometimes isolated areas, these ‘grey zone’ clashes don’t seem to be fully registering in the broader discussion of water conflicts. In failing to adequately account for the volume of localized violence, the world is probably chronically underestimating the extent to which water insecurity is already contributing to conflict.

Since the late 1990s, both intrastate and interstate clashes in which water has featured as a victim, weapon, or cause of conflict have soared, according to the World Water Conflict Chronology. But the number of intrastate ‘events’ has generally been about four or five times greater than the number of country-to-country ones, with an average of 30 to 40 intrastate incidents a year over the past decade. In 2018, for example, one man was killed and many more injured when Iranian police cracked down on illicit water pumps.

None of this necessarily undermines the logic of water practitioners downplaying the risk of ‘water wars’– even if some of them have been overly dismissive of water’s destabilizing potential. It’s just that most sub-national clashes sway to a slightly different beat than their transboundary counterparts. With higher stakes among agriculture-dependent districts, for example, there can be more incentive to violence among individual communities than there is for nation states, few of whom could hope to pilfer more water from their neighbors, no matter how desperate they might be. Their options for winning over more water are severely limited. That’s not so at a more local level, where resources can be more easily secured and where the balance of power can be much more fluid than it is among nation states.

Since many of these localized clashes are likely to arise in rural or marginalized areas, where the inequities that underlie water disputes can be extra pronounced, state governments and multilateral organizations may have fewer means – or less of a desire – to rein them in. Who, after all, is going to devote the same attention to stifling a village dispute as you would a cross-border conflagration? Many of the states that are suffering through water woes are, not uncoincidentally, among the very same states that lack the capacity and often the wherewithal to address the root causes of much of this shortfall.

Given that citizens are generally much more exposed to the poor or heavy-handed governance of their own authorities – with all the unsatisfactory water outcomes often accompanying that – it’s only natural that domestic decision-making can provide particularly dry kindling for public fury against the state or against one another in ways that interstate disputes seldom do. All told, the rational inducements and emotional pull to violence over water can be greater at a local level, just as the barriers to remonstrating with accessible local targets can be much lower. Roll on turmoil.

Relatedly, people might have even more reason to chafe against domestic water management than they realize. With national honor seen to be on the line, the quality of transboundary water management personnel usually surpasses local administration, much of which is seemingly entrusted to underfunded, under scrutinized, insufficiently empowered, and perhaps less able officials. As one Bangladeshi think tanker put it to me: “When we deal with India and China, we are prepared. We put our best people on the job. But it’s not like that, of course, when you deal with squabbles between one village and another. You get whatever poor sod is closest to sort it out.”

One of the most notable things about localized water violence is where much of it is occuring. While interstate water-related violence has yet to materialize, it’s no coincidence that many of these smaller-scale clashes are playing out in precisely the places where observers have warned of future large-scale trouble. The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has not yet spilled over into state on state violence, but that hasn’t stopped the Nile basin from turning into a hotbed of sometimes fatal water-related intrastate clashes covering at least 17 incidents and within no fewer than six riparian states since 2018 by my analysis. After torching a police car during a demonstration in 2015, a villager who’d been displaced by the construction of Sudan’s Merowe dam told me why his people’s protests had turned violent. “We tried to use every peaceful channel possible to get the government to act, to follow through on their promises of new villages. But they didn’t,” he said. “And sometimes there’s violence when all peaceful options seem exhausted.”

A similar dynamic is at play in Iraq. Policymakers in Baghdad appear unlikely to express their fury with dam construction by Ankara or Tehran through anything other than strongly worded communiques. Yet at the local level within Iraq and, to a certain but lesser extent, Iran and Turkey, water-related disputes among tribes and provinces are cropping up throughout the Euphrates and Tigris basins. The reality is that the forces that anger national governments along these rivers and others, such as the Indus, Ganges, and Mekong, are also contributing to lower-level disputes. It’s just that in many of those instances there’s been no ability, no desire, and/or no understanding by national governments or NGOs as to how to stop them.

So what’s next? As the international focus on transboundary water disputes intensifies, one might hope for a similar determination to address their regional, district, and communal equivalents. This appears challenging, however, given the dual pressures posed by increased dam construction and climate change. Dams, so often a public grievance because many are erected with insufficient regard for or consultation with the marginalized communities who tend to be the most affected, are having another moment in the sun. Ironically, much of this new wave is seemingly fueled by a push for cheap, clean, reliable electricity as fossil fuel attractiveness wavers. In 2018, there were 3,500 new dams under construction or under consideration, while East Asia added 10,000 MW of hydropower in 2017 alone.

Climate-induced variations in rainfall also bode ill for inter-communal relations – though not necessarily for the reasons one might expect. Water disputes are rarely wholly or even mostly grounded in scarcity, but erratic access can become an additional source of tension among communities with histories of conflict or mutual distrust, as has happened in parts of the Sahel and Central Asia.

Most importantly, because most of these water-related clashes are intimately wrapped up with poor governance, and because climate change stresses and population pressures only compound governance failures, even greater patches of the planet will become vulnerable to shortfalls in water quality and access. As water insecurity increases, it will be state and local governments and their neighbors to whom people will direct their fury. It can be hard to avoid the conclusion that water conflict is upon us. So far, at least, it just looks a bit less dramatic, a bit more local, and perhaps a lot more prolific than we might have imagined.


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