Water Insecurity: Climate Change Exacerbates Tensions Between Companies and Communities

The pacific island of Papua New Guinea has a long history of conflict and grievances among local communities and extractive industries like mining and oil and gas. Perhaps the most infamous of these conflicts was sparked by the costs that the Panguna mine placed on local communities, and the benefits that never materialized. While the resulting war in Bougainville is long over, I was recently reminded how the environmental costs of mining continue to fuel grievance and tension during my recent fieldwork in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Importantly, though, I also saw that climate change has the potential to foment those tensions, by multiplying the environmental hazards associated with mining.  As climate variability increases over the next decades, we have to dramatically rethink how we govern extractive industry, water resources, and environmental permitting, or else face increased conflict in many resource rich countries.

The El Niño event of 2015 brought with it one of the most severe droughts that many villages in Papua New Guinea’s highland provinces had experienced in several decades.  The drought was particularly severe in Enga Province, and many villages lost their crops, their livestock and their only means of income.

The graphic above demonstrates the pattern of drought in Papua New Guinea from July to September 2015, and is reproduced from the World Food Program’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Food Security, Markets and Vulnerability Analysis unit’s 4th El Niño Report for Papua New Guinea. Available online at: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2015.10.22%20PNG-brief-Oct2015.pdf

Because most of these villages lack improved water infrastructure, they depend on rainwater harvesting to meet their entire household water demands. When the rains fail to come, villagers rely on streams, springs and rivers, and when those stop running they have to find enough money to buy water. For places like Porgera in Enga Province, the situation in 2015 became acute, as local rivers have since the 1990s, been either concessioned for use in industrial processing at the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV) gold mine, or permitted for liquid tailings and waste release by the mine. When the rains stopped in Porgera, local communities were left with a bitter choice: drink water that might be contaminated by industrial tailings, or go without.

Industrial tailings from gold mining are discharged into the local river system, eventually diluting the waste to safe levels. Here, Joshua Fisher prepares to take measurements of the water column in the mixing zone at the confluence of the tailings discharge and the Pongema River. Photo credit: Sarah Knuckey.

Along with water security, the Sustainable Development Goals also prioritize the development of strong institutions that are responsive to their citizenry and the promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies.  The ongoing tensions between extractive industry operators and the communities that bear the costs of those operations in Papua New Guinea highlight the urgency of this goal. Until the institutions that govern environmental permitting and quality, water provisioning, revenue management and benefit sharing, and security are responsive to the full range of stakeholder needs and interests, peaceful and just society will remain distant targets.

A changing climate raises difficult new questions. Should environmental permits be reassessed in light of new climatological uncertainty and population growth? Should the State, extractive industry operators, or both, be responsible for securing the right to water for impacted communities? Should the infrastructure that brings water to industrial operations be shared in order to provide a reliable water source to surrounding communities? Should royalties and rents from these industries be re-invested into Water, Sanitation and Hygiene projects? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions, the question that follows is, who will bear the financial costs, and what will those costs in-turn mean for national economic development or quarterly profit and loss statements at a time when commodity prices have plummeted? Here again, the Sustainable Development Goals urge innovation and call for the development and revitalization of public-private partnerships for sustainability.

Water insecurity in the highlands of Papua New Guinea is not new. However, the El Niño event of 2015 brought to light some of the impacts that climate change will continue to have on local communities. More than this, however, it showed us that the old rules of the game may no longer apply, and that we may soon be forced to rethink how we strike the economic development/environmental impact/community relations balance in the extractive industries. With the advent of the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals, we have a call to action and innovation to spur us ahead.

Joshua Fisher is the Director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity. His work focuses on understanding the environmental drivers of social conflict and exploring opportunities to use resource management as a tool for conflict prevention.