Water problems can contribute to local instability

2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation. This 5 part series from the UNESCO journal A World of Science examines different aspects of conflict and cooperation over water, using examples from history – and more recent case studies – to show the human face of water politics.

CC Laurence McGrath for Wikipedia
Following construction of Thailand’s Pak Mun Dam, more than 25 000 people were affected by drastic reductions in upstream fisheries and other livelihood problems. Affected communities have struggled for reparations since the dam was completed in 1994.

The history of water-related violence includes incidents between tribes, water use sectors, rural and urban populations and states or provinces. Some research even suggests that, as the geographic scale drops, the likelihood and intensity of violence increases. Throughout the world, local water issues revolve around core values that often date back generations. Irrigators, indigenous populations and environmentalists, for example, all may view water as tied to their way of life, which is increasingly threatened by new uses for cities and hydropower.

Internal water conflicts have led to fighting between downstream and upstream users along the Cauvery River in India and between Native Americans and European settlers. In 1934, the landlocked State of Arizona commissioned a navy (consisting of one ferryboat) and sent its state militia to stop a dam and diversion project on the Colorado River.

Water-related disputes can also engender civil disobedience, acts of sabotage and violent protest. In the Indian state of Orissa, 30 000 farmers clashed with police in December 2007 because the government had decided to allow a large number of industries to source water from the Hirakud Dam, while the farmers depended on this water for irrigation. Fifty protesters were injured in the confrontation with police. From 1907 to 1913 in California’s Owens Valley (USA), farmers repeatedly bombed an aqueduct diverting water to the burgeoning city of Los Angeles.

National instability can also be provoked by poor or inequitable water services management. Disputes arise over system connections for suburban or rural areas, service liability and especially prices. In most countries, the state is responsible for providing drinking water. Even if concessions are transferred to private companies, the state usually remains responsible for the service. Disputes over water supply management therefore usually arise between communities and state authorities. Protests are particularly likely when the public suspects that water services are managed in a corrupt manner or that public resources are being diverted for private gain.

The example of the Cochabamba conflict in Bolivia

Cordinadora del Agua.
A woman appeals to the police on her way to wash clothes during the Cochabamba conflict

Issues of water supply management can lead to violent conflict, as demonstrated by the confrontations that erupted in 2000 in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city, following the privatization of the city’s water utility. Cochabamba had long suffered from water scarcity and insufficient, irregular provision of water services. Hoping for improved services and higher connection rates, the Bolivian government signed a 40-year concession contract in September 1999 with the international private water consortium Aguas del Tunari (AdT).

By January 2000, drinking water tariffs had increased sharply and some households were having to devote a significant share of their monthly income to paying for water services. Consumers felt they were simply paying more for the same poor services and responded with strikes, roadblocks and other forms of civil protest that shut the city down for four days in February 2000.

While higher water bills triggered the protests, some people also opposed a law threatening public control of rural water systems. Long-standing water scarcity had encouraged the development of well-established alternative sources of supply. In rural municipalities surrounding Cochabamba, farmer cooperatives drilled their own wells and used an informal market for water based on an ancient system of property rights. Under the concession contract, AdT was granted the exclusive use of water resources in Cochabamba, as well as any future sources needed to supply city consumers. It was also granted the exclusive right to provide water services and to require potential consumers to connect to its system. The rural population feared it would lose its traditional water rights and that AdT would charge people for water from their own wells.

Farmers from surrounding municipalities joined the protest in Cochabamba, which spread to other parts of Bolivia. Months of civil unrest came to a head in April 2000, when the government declared a state of siege for the whole country and sent soldiers into Cochabamba. Several days of violence left more than 100 people injured and one person dead. The protests eased only after the government agreed to revoke AdT’s concession and return the utility’s management to the municipality.

Performance continued to be unsatisfactory, however, with many neighbourhoods having only occasional services and the valley’s groundwater table continuing to sink. Although many view the concession’s cancellation as a victory for the people, it did not solve their water problems.

Meanwhile, AdT filed a complaint against the Bolivian government in the World Bank’s trade court, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, in 2001. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the consortium was demanding US$25 million in compensation for the cancelled contract. However, after several years of an arbitration process that was accompanied by continuous international protest, the AdT consortium decided to withdraw the claim on a no-pay basis. In return, Bolivia has absolved the foreign investors of any potential liability.

Declining water supplies can destabilize a nation

Those regions of the world that rely heavily on declining water supplies for irrigation overlap significantly with those that currently concern the security community: the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. When access to irrigation water is cut off, groups of unemployed, disgruntled men may be forced away from the countryside into the city, contributing to political instability. When migration is cross-boundary, it can contribute to interstate tensions.

Water problems can thus contribute to local instability, which in turn can destabilize a nation or an entire region. In this indirect way, water contributes to international and national disputes, even though the parties are not fighting explicitly over water. During the 30 years that Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, for example, water quality deteriorated steadily, saltwater intruded into local wells and water-related diseases took a toll on the residents. In 1987, the second intifada began in the Gaza Strip and the uprising quickly spread throughout the West Bank. While it would be simplistic to claim that deteriorating water quality caused the violence, it undoubtedly exacerbated an already tenuous situation by damaging health and livelihoods.

An examination of relations between India and Bangladesh demonstrates that, in turn, local instabilities can spring from international water disputes and exacerbate international tensions. In the 1960s, India built a dam at Farakka, diverting a portion of the Ganges from Bangladesh to flush silt from Calcutta’s seaport some 160 km to the south. In Bangladesh, the reduced flow depleted surface water and groundwater, impeded navigation, increased salinity, degraded fisheries and endangered water supplies and public health, leading some Bangladeshis to migrate – many of them, ironically, to India.

So, while no ‘water wars’ have occurred, the lack of clean fresh water or the competition over access to water resources has occasionally led to intense political instability that resulted in acute violence on a small scale.

At the national and local levels, it is not the lack of water that leads to conflict but the way it is governed and managed. Many countries need stronger policies to regulate water use and enable equitable and sustainable management. Especially in developing countries, water management institutions often lack the human, technical and financial resources to develop comprehensive management plans and ensure their implementation.

Excerpt from an article by Annika Kramer, Aaron T. Wolf, Alexander Carius and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, published in A World of Science, volume 11, number 1, January 2013.

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