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Water, Peace and Security

Majuli Island in the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India.

Conflicts connected to water-security are often related to climate change issues. However, the link between water-scarcity-related risks and security challenges is not as straightforward, direct and immediate as often perceived. The online workshop ‘Mobilising decision-makers on water scarcity-induced conflict risks: The Water, Peace and Security Partnership’, organised by the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO) and adelphi, looked into this complex relationship.

Water stress negatively impacts water, food and energy security, socio-economic development and ecosystems. Management of scarce water may lead directly to tensions between groups, as a conflict over natural resources, but more often it is a threat multiplier that increases pre-existing tensions and erodes social fabric, so increasing security risks. When water management efforts are not conflict sensitive, it may add to the conflict. For example, water infrastructure to divert water could solve problems for some users upstream but immediately affect others downstream if it does not take the interests of all relevant stakeholders into account. Effective and conflict sensitive water management is crucial and only possible through multi-stakeholder collaboration. Mobilising these stakeholders to cooperate better around water issues that affect them all may have a positive impact on efforts of peacebuilding and increase stability.

Human rights advocates point to water and forest agencies, claiming that these agencies commit abuse by implementing their conservation mandate without taking into consideration local communities’ needs. It is therefore key to sensitise them to a human-centred approach and encourage them to put in place community participation mechanisms.

The Water Peace and Security Partnership (WPSP) provides a platform where actors from the global defence, development, diplomacy, and disaster relief sectors (among others) and national governments of developing countries can identify conflict hotspots before violence erupts, begin to understand the local context, and prioritise opportunities for conflict-sensitive water interventions. The partnership acts on an informed basis (providing analysis, data and capacity building opportunities) and in a conflict sensitive way (through multi stakeholder collaboration and dialogue, including water expertise, peacebuilding expertise, science data and policy and practice). WPSP does not propose solutions but brings people together to discuss, and supports the implementation of their ideas.

The WPSP developed the Global Early Warning tool, a map with updated data that predicts conflict risks. By running historic data, this system identified which combination was most powerful to predict conflict, at the local level or at a larger scale. 18 datasets turned out to be most critical – those include the population density, violence against civilians, gross domestic product, agriculture, crops, access to sanitation, flood risks, season variability, standard precipitations… Interestingly, some indicators were not identified as relevant by the machine (i.e. gender inequalities). On gender, the tool could do better, analysing how women and men use the resources differently, are affected by conflict differently, play different roles in the emergence and resolution of conflict, etc.

The tool allows users to explore forecasts of ongoing and emerging conflicts, as well as the underlying inputs and contextual indicators across a variety of domains. It does not give a causal relationship between factors, but rather provides an alarm (early warning) if risk increases. Users can then use different datasets to look deeper into the situation in order to assess what is causing the system to predict an escalation in violent conflict. When testing prediction against reality, 86 per cent of the conflicts were predicted correctly. There is however a trend to overestimate the risks of emerging conflicts. This might be linked to the fact that the algorithm only focuses on the negative factors of conflict, and a suggestion could be to design the model to also react to the communities’ negotiation, peacebuilding, conflict resolution efforts (indicators of resilience).

In Mali (Inner Niger Delta), the WPSP intervention aimed at mobilising the international community and local authorities on conflict sensitivity of water management. Where there is a lack of presence and credibility of the state, and loss of legitimacy of traditional authorities, a lack of coordination across state agencies that are not well embedded locally, climate change adds to the stress on governance systems. The aim of the WPSP dialogue activities was to showcase that inter-agency work that includes community perspectives and bases its decisions on informed data can win over local communities and therefore reduce conflicts.

The result of these exchanges and analyses has been summarised in three recommendations:

  • Encourage local dialogue between users and water management agencies;
  • Sensitise law enforcement agencies to local communities’ needs and local communities to law enforcement mandates;
  • Multiply efforts to promote and implement existing natural resource legislation.

Complex risks like climate change need complex solutions, and these are only possible through partnerships that gather different skill sets. Climate change is a risk factor but also an opportunity to work together for peace, with continued dialogue and partnership between the two constituencies – environmental and peacebuilding.

This blog post, originally posted on the EPLO blog, was written in the framework of the online workshop ‘Mobilising decision-makers on water scarcity-induced conflict risks: The Water, Peace and Security Partnership’, organised by the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO), together with adelphi and the Climate Diplomacy initiative, with support from the German Federal Foreign Office.