More Peace than War Over Water

Printer-friendly version’s another moment when I almost felt I had paid money for a Master’s degree for a reason. The topic of my final paper in the methodology course I completed a month ago turns up in a blog post. “Conflict and Cooperation over International Rivers: A Global Governance Proposal

Water scarcity is an increasingly important issue in global governance today. As the world’s population grows exponentially, and underground water aquifers are rapidly depleted, international rivers as sources of freshwater are being stressed. Individuals’ and states’ reliance of these rivers as a main source of water will cause more and more conflicts between states in the near-future. This is because most states, particularly in the driest areas of the world, view water as a security issue. This encourages states to not only fight with other states in a river basin, but also to demand and use as much water as possible, so that the security of their citizens is guaranteed. However, the security-centered discourse promotes a vicious cycle: as states use more and more water, water scarcity becomes a more dire issue, and states are more likely to fall into conflict with one another over water resources and become entrenched in the security-centered discourse. Thus, a shift in the norms that currently dictate the governance of international rivers must take place. States must come to view water as an issue of human development, with preservation and sharing as a top priority rather than maximum consumption.

In order for this to happen, states must acknowledge the role of individuals in water consumption, as well as of scientists, NGOs and other experts in monitoring this consumption and in the research and development of new technologies that can help people use more water and mitigate the impact of individual water consumption. A global governance institution that embodies the principles of these norms would involve the input of all of these diverse individuals, as per Harlan Cleveland’s Novody-in-Charge decision-making theory, and would ensure that all of the riparian states in an international basin are involved in an agreement. Further, this body would incorporate positive incentives, including ‘water aid’ in the form of technologies that would help states to consume less water in the first place, in order to encourage states to reach an agreement. It would also incorporate negative incentives, including monitoring, public disclosure and sanctions, in order to overcome the free rider problem associated with these agreements.

In discussions of the critical global challenges of the future, problems like terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, the current financial crises or unconventional wars in the developing world are often mentioned. Yet in many ways, water scarcity and the potential conflict situations that exist in many international river basins are just as challenging and pertinent, if not more so. Although the world currently runs on fossil fuels, there are many more ecologically friendly and sustainable substitutes that humans can adopt to advert the worst consequences of climate change, yet there is no synthetic substitute for water. Stated bluntly, the survival of the human race is at stake if we are unable to negotiate a means of sharing and preserving water resources.

Water and war? It’s really not that dry a topic – pardon the pun. What I’d do without a bottle of water I can’t begin to fathom. But, for all Stark’s emphasis on individuals like, well, ME, I had to be more of a realist in my own paper. I opted to test a theory called “water rationality”: “the issues of water scarcity, competitive use and a wider conflict do not necessarily lead to war, since war cannot guarantee a country’s water supply in the long term.” (Undala Z. Alam, “Questioning the Water Wars Rationale: A Case Study of the Indus Waters Treaty” in The Geographical Journal, Vol. 168, No. 4, Water Wars? Geographical Perspectives (Dec., 2002).) I concluded, after looking at both a large database of wars and a global sample of case studies, that conflict over water is nore canard than fact.

Using two datasets, the Claim-Level Summary Data and Attempted Settlement Data File, the preponderance of cases (190) resulted in a permanent peaceful settlement to the dispute. Of 35 cases involving river claims, only seven disputes became militarized. Of those seven, only one involved casualties exceeding 1000, lending credence to Hauge’s and Ellingsen’s argument about the impact of environmental degradation. Furthermore, another category of 29 dyadic claims neither became militarized nor resulted in a peaceful settlement.

I also looked at the quality of the settlements reached. Of 208 cases involving river claims, 36 settlements completed ended most or all of the parties’ claims, and in 32 cases the settlement ended the contention between the rivals. But the longevity of the settlements is impressive. 125 settlements have lasted for 15 years, the longest period the database offers. 138 settlements have endured for 19 years. 163 settlements have lasted for 5 years. These findings seem to support Gleick’s argument that water events lead to negotiations, not protracted war. And, finally, most curiously, 23 cases are unresolved for 15 years, but the parties have resorted to a militarized dispute. What I find significant is, that only one case became so destructive immediately, and that 23 others only turned violent after a settlement was initially reached. As opposed to Selby’s contention that river claims count for less than the state of the political economy, it seems these states had to get to the negotiating table to find out how they disagreed.

But, generally, as Alam argues, states choose to negotiate their river claims. The South African and Jordan River cases illustrate this point further. Although Israel has an interest in protecting what dear water resources it can, it has continued to negotiate for more sustainable water regimes in the region. After despoiling black populations with its water-use policies, a post-apartheid South Africa has sought to undo its apartheid predecessor’s mess. Still, those 23 unresolved cases are a warning about ignoring both the sufficient conditions, like hegemons and geographical details, and the finer details of the human art of diplomacy.

I can understand why Stark wants a little more reassurance that river claims won’t lead to conflict. But, from what I can gather, states are rational and generally responsible about sharing water. Stark argues that:

According to the realist analysis, states will be reluctant to engage in agreements with one another over water allocations because these agreements inherently require the accession of some part of national sovereignty. Given this reluctance, the myriad bilateral agreements that exist in the real world can be explained in two ways. First, agreements are often negotiated in a coercive manner by the more powerful states so that these states often receive the largest allocations of water. Second, Haas argues that negotiations concerning environmental issues occur when two state objectives are pitted against one another: even as states seek to preserve their own autonomy, under conditions of scarcity, a state’s access to water and through it the state’s ability to protect public health and amenities requires coordinated policy actions with other riparian states. In other words, “policy autonomy may only be preserved at the cost of endangering national survival”.[18] This is particularly true for international river basins, when upstream riparians states have more power over water allocations regardless of the power of each state in the international arena, and therefore it is necessary for downstream states to negotiate.

Nit, I don’t see it in the numbers. Belligerents have negotiated settlements over river claims, even nuclear-armed antagonists. Hegemonic states have negotiated in good faith with weaker states. Stark needs to show me a little more for me to get rid of the state.

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Filed under: Academia, Military, Social Science, Spleen Tagged: international relations, michael t klare, rivers, water wars


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