From water wars to bridges of cooperation: Exploring the peace-building potential of a shared resource

Despite widespread perceptions that water basins shared by countries tend to engender hostility rather than collaborative solutions, water is an often untapped resource of fruitful cooperation. Women carrying water in GuatemalaThe Story
Water, a vital source of life, has been known for centuries to be a major cause of tensions or conflict — within countries, as well as among nations. With world demand for water increasing six-fold over the 20th century, there was no let-up in disputes over transboundary water issues, prompting some experts to predict that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. While freshwater’s propensity to strain relations among countries frequently makes headlines, the other side of the coin – water as an agent of cooperation – rarely gets sufficient attention. Nevertheless, research has shown much more historical evidence of water playing the role of a catalyst for cooperation, rather than a trigger of conflict. There are examples of workable accords on water reached even by States that were in conflict over other matters, including the cases of India and Pakistan, and Israel and Jordan.

With more than the 260 water basins in the world transcending national borders, it is hardly surprising that the situation is widely perceived as being fodder for hostility. On the other hand, as UN experts point out, given water’s importance for practically every aspect of life – health, environment, economy, welfare, politics and culture – it is well beyond the scope of any individual country to resolve many of the issues unilaterally. This offers an opportunity to transform a situation fraught with conflict into an opening for mutually advantageous solutions. What are the practical ways of reaching that goal? In an effort to find answers to this question, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched a project, From Potential Conflict to Co-operation Potential (PCCP), as part of a UN-wide initiative to promote water security in the 21st century. The project aims to foster cooperation between stakeholders in the management of shared water resources, while helping to ensure that potential conflicts do not turn into real ones. Addressing the challenge of sharing water resources primarily from the point of view of governments, it focuses on the development of tools for the anticipation, prevention and resolution of water conflicts.

The Context

  • There are more than 3,800 unilateral, bilateral or multilateral declarations or conventions on water: 286 are treaties, with 61 referring to over 200 international river basins.
  • The past half century has witnessed more than 500 conflict-related events over water, seven of which have involved violence.
  • According to UNESCO, 145 nations have territory within a transboundary basin, and 21 lie entirely within one. Twelve countries have more than 95% of their territory within one or more transboundary basins. Approximately one third of the existing 263 transboundary basins are shared by more than two countries.
  • In a case study demonstrating the effectiveness of the cooperation approach, Bolivia and Peru, the two countries sharing Lake Titicaca, have recognized how crucial it is to work together on management of the water resources of the basin through the creation of the Autonomous Water Authority.
  • The Northern Aral Sea is being successfully restored after its surface had shrunk to less than half its original size as a result of a massive diversion of water under the Soviet Union, which had drained the two rivers feeding it and devastated the surrounding environment. The Aral Sea is shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but its fresh water basin also encompasses Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Thanks to a World Bank project, the sea has now begun to fill up following the completion of the Kok-Aral Dam. Newly rehabilitated waterworks along the Syr Darya River are benefiting farmers by irrigating their lands. The next step is to improve the irrigation efficiency of two-thirds of the land in the Kazakh part of the Aral Sea basin. Better water resources management will benefit Central Asian countries by allowing them to address energy and conservation needs more efficiently and potentially even earn revenue from the sale of hydropower to upstream countries.
  • Women, who produce between 60 and 80 per cent of the food in most developing countries, are major stakeholders in all development issues related to water. Yet they often remain on the periphery of management decisions and planning for water resources.