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Risk-informed water governance, a critical tool to avert hunger and conflict

World leaders are currently coming together in New York from 22 – 24 March for the first water UN Water Conference in more than 40 years: their aim, to avert a global water crisis. But for farmers in Eastern Africa facing catastrophic food insecurity due to the sixth failed rainy season, or pastoralists who have lost over eleven million animals since drought started in 2020, the crisis is already here. So, what can we hope for from this gathering? Much debate will be on how to address dwindling global water resources. But equitable governance of changing access to water, informed by the hazards climate change poses, will be key. A more nuanced understanding of these challenges will ensure that water policies can support peaceful and food secure communities to weather the risks ahead. 

Water is critical for its contribution to sustainable development, the eradication of poverty and hunger, and importantly, peace and stability. Food security depends on water security. And the links between food insecurity and water and peace are inexorable. Climate change, alongside social, environmental and economic fluctuations, such as poor land use policies, adds further fuel to the fire. But whilst preventing the near-term impacts of climate change may soon be out of our control, better water governance to support those most affected by these impacts is a critical lever available to national and local governments to reduce global hunger and promote peace.

What are the links between climate change, water, food and conflict? There is no place on earth where the impacts of climate change on water occur without evidence of associated consequences to food security. Most food production systems are at the mercy of climate, weather and the environment. Agriculture and pastoralism for example, sectors reliant on rainfall, and the livelihood basis for millions in Eastern Africa, are increasingly being disrupted by climate and environmental changes. The changes in rainfall patterns are exposing already vulnerable communities to additional perils, pushing food security and sustainable development out of reach, and in some contexts, increasing the risk of conflict.

In Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, the impacts of historic drought conditions, erratic rainfall, flood events, and rising sea levels are exacerbating pre-existing socio-economic and political challenges. This perfect storm is disproportionally affecting fragile and conflict affected contexts, where governments and institutions are already inundated with challenges. Water insecurity is fuelling displacement, instability and adding to humanitarian crises. In Somalia for example, increasing migratory pressures as a result of drought puts many vulnerable communities at risk of violence and escalated protection concerns, including to exploitation by armed groups such as Al Shabab. In Kenya, labour in-migration from communities facing water stress is leading to unsustainable population growth in rural and urban areas perceived to have more resources.

Not just in Eastern Africa but around the world, the cascading effects of changes in water availability on food systems, livelihoods and conflict can hamper or even reverse the achievements of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, for example efforts to eradicate hunger and sustain peace.

In the last 50 years, natural resource competition, including access to pasture and water, has been linked to 40 percent of civil wars. Economic conditions play a moderating role in determining if food security challenges can become a source of conflict. Spikes in food prices and resource competition are often driven by short-term weather variations, including changing rainfall patterns.

Stresses on water governance have the highest probability of increasing security risks in densely populated regions, where increasing demand will outstrip supply. In 2022, this increased demand on water resources erupted in conflict in Kenya’s Lamu, Mandera and Baringo Counties, among others, igniting long-standing rivalries between agro-pastoralist communities.

While evidence shows water scarcity is more likely to spark violence at the local level, evidence also shows that a lack of food security can contribute to broader, even transboundary political instability. The implications of water security on international peace and stability thus reach far and wide.

The adelphi and World Food Programme (WFP) Climate Adaptation Learning Facility has looked at water governance for increased food security and peace in Eastern Africa. We’ve seen that effective water governance requires more than just cooperation around shared water resources, access to clean water or hygiene facilities. Rather, water governance needs to rise to the watermark of being future ready. This means understanding the impact of climate change and extreme events are having on water availability as well as how this will change access to water, and thus create new winners and losers, potentially enriching the haves and further marginalising have-nots. This means water governance can no longer be about sharing out the water resources of now, but rather that it requires an understanding of the way that climate change induced water availability is fundamentally altering social, environment and political landscapes around the world.  

To build resilience to water insecurity among vulnerable communities in Eastern Africa and beyond, research from the adelphi-WFP Climate Adaptation Learning Facility has identified the importance of linking water security to climate adaptation of food systems and livelihoods. These efforts must then also be linked to efforts to build peace between conflicting communities. An important lesson from our work is to actively seek to prevent and resolve conflict by linking water security with efforts that help bridge communities and strengthen social relations. Efforts to govern water which focus on opportunities to work towards shared interests and mutual benefits between and within communities, especially between displaced persons and host communities, can thus promote peace as well as fairer access to water.

Many opportunities to enhance water security lie in promoting climate-smart agriculture and practices. Here, tech-fixes like irrigation schemes, water supply technologies, and water capture and harvesting systems play an important role, but can only be effective if the people they aim to support are put at the centre of these approaches. Technical approaches simply won’t be adopted if they overlook important contextual dynamics. Actions must therefore support context-specific, risk-informed actions which reflect the complex and changing priorities of fragile communities and water.

According to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, “the UN 2023 Water Conference must result in a bold Water Action Agenda that gives our world's lifeblood the commitment it deserves”. This means going beyond its existing ambition of improving water sanitation and hygiene. It calls for water policies to unite with global food systems policies in a way that enables food security and efforts to build peace in the face of a changing climate. Failing to plan for changing water availability within food policies will not only exacerbate inequalities and increase global hunger, it can water the seeds of instability, enabling conflict to take root. To avoid the countless local and global water crises escalating into a global water crisis (and thus an inexorably linked food crisis), effective water governance needs to promote equitable, climate risk-informed food as well as water policies.