Cooperation, Not Conflict, More Common with World's Water

This World Water Week 2013 post was originally published in March for World Water Day. The theme of "water cooperation" ties both events together. The annual Stockholm World Water Week is one of the largest and most important water-focused events, which runs this year from September 1-6.

What is the 21st century outlook for the world's freshwater future? Many believe that the path ahead leads to a dystopian future of drought, pollution, water and food shortages and, ultimately, "water wars" among nations (and sub-nations) as rapidly growing populations compete.

But this World Water Week, let me offer another possible - maybe even more likely - scenario where people engage in water cooperation rather than conflict. March's World Water Day (WWD) marked the launch of the UN-adopted 2013 International Year of Water Cooperation, which emphasizes the importance of freshwater to the natural world and human social and economic systems. As stated on the official WWD website:

In designating 2013 as the UN International Year of Water Cooperation, the [United Nations General Assembly] recognizes that cooperation is essential to strike a balance between the different needs and priorities and share this precious resource equitably, using water as an instrument of peace. Promoting water cooperation implies an interdisciplinary approach bringing in cultural, educational and scientific factors, as well as religious, ethical, social, political, legal, institutional and economic dimensions.

This theme of cooperation might seem naïve to some because of the real and daunting challenges that confront us in the so-called global freshwater crisis. The evidence in favor of impending conflict is convincing. For instance, even though the volume of water on earth remains essentially same, demands on freshwater are increasing due to population growth that is expected to rise from seven billion today to an estimated nine billion by 2050. Population growth combined with increased wealth in developing countries further increases water use demands since an improved standard of living often means greater consumption of water-intensive goods and services, like meat, electronic gadgets and electricity to power it all. Add to those factors the intensification of the water cycle due to climate change - producing "drought and deluge" conditions - and arid areas may become even drier.

Conflict over freshwater is as old as human civilization (see the Pacific Institute's Water Conflict Chronology), and today the world is rife with water scarcity hot spots where potential outbreaks between countries could tip into conflict. Tension over water exists between many countries such as India and Pakistan, India and China, Ethiopia and Egypt, and Israel and Palestine, to name a few. In some instances the conflict turns hot, as was the case with Sudan where control of water resources played a role in the long, violent civil war that led to the South Sudan's eventual break from Sudan to the north.

Ongoing disputes over water rights happen closer to home in the US, as seen with continued legal and political flare ups between competing states like Florida, Alabama and Georgia over water use from two contested river basins, the continued mess between northern and southern California over Delta water transfers, or between Texas and Oklahoma over the Red River water which will go to the Supreme Court in April 2013

Projections of more water-related problems like water shortages keep mounting - the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Environmental Outlook to 2030 report estimates that the number of people living in severely water-stressed areas will increase to include 47 percent of the global population. Another recent analysis by the US National Intelligence Council warns that that the world must be wary of natural resource scarcity, particularly with regards to water.

From that perspective, how could anything but water wars be expected? But water is a shared resource with unique characteristics to which no one person, ethnic group, company or country can lay claim. Plainly, water is needed by everyone yet total control over it is extremely difficult to achieve.

According to Dr. Aaron Wolf, one of the foremost scholars of transboundary water conflict, resolution and management at Oregon State University, there are 263 water basins and 265 aquifers (groundwater) that cross and are shared by two or more countries. Of the world's total global population, 90 percent of people live in countries with international basins, which means that most countries around the world are currently and peaceably sharing freshwater resources. He goes on to write that

While the potential for paralyzing disputes is especially high in these [shared] basins, history shows that water can catalyze dialogue and cooperation, even between especially contentious riparians. Moreover, as we move from thinking about rights to thinking in terms of equitably sharing "baskets" of benefits, opportunities to cooperate become palpable.

Considering the many challenges we face, Wolf emphasizes the need of all parties involved to engage and update existing water treaties and transboundary arrangements with a "new focus on resilient agreements." This is as true for India and Pakistan as it is for US states waging their battles in the courts.

So the good news is that water tends to bring people together rather than tear them apart. The strongest argument for this cooperation theme are the nearly 450 international water agreements signed between 1820 and 2007 still in effect today. Water cooperation extends to the type of technologies we deploy, too, as we create mutually beneficial processes and systems like wastewater reuse for power plants. In a time of water resource constraints, a reminder of humanity's genuine and enduring water cooperation is in order.

Read seven experts debate the "existence of water wars, consider the difficulty of owning a fluid resource, and examine the hot spots for future conflict" in this interesting SEED Magazine special feature.