Glass Half Full: How Water Management Efforts Can Spur Cooperation and Deter Conflict

Ship in the Aralkum desert, Moynak, Uzbekistan, on the sea bed of what used to be the Aral Sea. Photo credit and copyright: Alfred Diebold

Even if you know the history, it’s always jarring to look at photographs of the Aral Sea. Instead of water, there’s dry, inhospitable land, littered with the rusty hulls of abandoned ships. The Sea, once one of the world’s largest lakes and a valuable water source in Central Asia, has now all but vanished, a result of Soviet-era irrigation and agricultural practices. This activity left in its wake a bowl of contaminated dust that, when the wind blows, is picked up and falls onto nearby glaciers, which then melt polluted water into the nearby rivers every summer. The Sea’s disappearance is an added challenge for a region already tasked with finding ways to cooperate in the management of its shared water supplies.

In the coming decades, the management of water supplies will be among the most urgent and pressing issues facing economies, the environment and people. As competition for scarce natural resources grows, tensions can rise. This is especially true when unexpected changes occur in the availability or quality of water due to activities such as dam building, irrigation or pollution, or following climate-related events, including floods and droughts.

The UN recognizes that water is a human right. Water security, then, is essential; UN Water defines it as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”.

That security is at risk not only when water sources are mismanaged, but also when they become targets — or accidental casualties — of conflict. In Syria, airstrikes cut off the water supply to 3.5 million people in Aleppo. In Iraq, conflict between government forces and ISIL/Da’esh resulted in the loss of access to clean water in Mosul for over 300,000 families. Drops in water supply for any reason, not just conflict, can be disastrous; droughts in Somalia, for example, put pressure on pastoral livelihoods already threatened by the activities of Al-Shabaab. This has led to increasing numbers of displaced people in the region, as well as provided a source of potential new recruits to the terrorist organization.

Disputes over transboundary water supplies — the aquifers, and lake and river basins shared by two or more countries — exist around the globe. There are 280 watercourses around the globe that are shared by two or more countries, while about 60 percent of all aquifers are transboundary. Three quarters of UN Member States share rivers or lake basins with their neighbours. The risk of disagreements over these shared resources is high, if not monitored or adequately addressed, as factors including climate change and population growth place increasing strain on global water supplies.

For these transboundary or shared water sources, cooperation, as well as proper management, based on legal and institutional frameworks, is vital, and can help foster peacebuilding in conflict-affected areas. In fact, evidence shows that transboundary water resources are more commonly a trigger for cooperation rather than conflict. Deals such as the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, a water distribution agreement between India and Pakistan brokered by the World Bank, or the creation of bodies such as the Senegal River Basin Organization or the Lake Chad Basin Commission, are examples of mechanisms for cooperation between countries over shared water resources.

The Role of the UN

The UN promotes collaborative water resource management mechanisms at the local, national and regional levels. The Department of Peacebuilding and Political Affairs (DPPA), alongside its Special Political Missions and regional offices in Central Asia, West Africa and Central Africa work closely with governments, regional and other organizations on issues related to water.

“The mismanagement, scarcity and unregulated competition over water resources can act as a risk multiplier, compounding existing pressure points and exacerbating vulnerabilities”, Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenča told Politically Speaking. Not only that, but in conflict situations, competition over the control of water resources can influence the conduct and duration of hostilities.

However, despite these challenges, Jenča is optimistic. “Let us not lose sight of the great potential water holds as an instrument for peace”, he said. “Water offers entry points for prevention, cooperation and communication. It can help build confidence and promote regional cooperation”.

With this in mind, and to further strengthen the Department’s capacity to respond to the growing challenge of water security, DPPA is currently seeing whether it is possible to identify a climate change and natural resource adviser that could be added to its 2022 Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisers. The Standby Team is comprised of mediation experts who can be rapidly deployed to provide advice on a wide range of issues that tend to arise in mediation and preventive diplomacy efforts. As the effects of climate change accelerate, demand for climate expertise in support of mediation engagements is expected to also rise.

The United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) is currently supporting work towards creating conditions for enhanced dialogue and trust-building on transboundary water management between five countries of the region. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all share a common water resource from two major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. These rivers became even more important as the Aral Sea began to vanish. Situated in a terrain that remains dry for most of the year, the rivers are a vital supply of water, not only for potable purposes and sanitation, but also for energy and crop irrigation.

Philipp Saprykin, Deputy Head of UNRCCA, notes that the Centre, with its unique regional preventive mandate, is assisting the countries of the region in issues related to their shared water supply. “We’re helping to find a durable and sustainable common framework for managing trans-boundary water on an equitable and mutually beneficial basis,” Saprykin told Politically Speaking.

The Centre supports the various regional initiatives and implements a regional triennial project on water. It has established good partnerships with regional organizations and stakeholders on water, including the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. There are several existing regional arrangements between the countries of Central Asia that provide a valid foundation for ongoing work.

UNRCCA also assists with capacity building, along with Afghanistan, harnessing existing expertise to advance preventive diplomacy and confidence building to foster conditions for dialogue among water-sharing countries. It engages local experts and showcases existing efforts, including at the local and international level, for the Aral Sea Basin as a whole. The Centre helps to streamline the gender perspective into regional transboundary water management. It also addresses climate change with activities that focus on melting glaciers in the Tian-Shan and Pamir Mountains, which are major source of water for the Aral Sea Basin. It holds ongoing consultations on transboundary water in regional capital cities, as part of the good offices of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Natalia Gherman. This contributes to building consensus on key issues and raises the profile of transboundary water management on the regional agenda.

The Pamir mountains; their glaciers are a major water source for the region. Photo credit: Alfred Diebold.

In Somalia, which hosts another UN Special Political Mission, 75 percent of new population displacement in 2020 was due to flood or drought. As Christophe Matthew Hodder, climate security/environmental advisor at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), points out, such climate events not only bring about displacement, they can also spark disputes over natural resources, such as grazing lands, access to water, and fishing rights. “Although it can’t be said that there is a direct link between conflict and climate change, the effects of climate change can be a multiplier of conflict,” said Hodder.

UNSOM coordinates a task force on flooding alongside humanitarian and other peacebuilding actors, focusing on both short-term and long-term flood mitigation efforts. The task force is currently carrying out “rewilding” projects in Belatwane, Joha and Jubaland. “Rewilding” is an environmental conservation effort that seeks to reducing flooding by planting particular types of trees and shrubs that help to stabilize riverbanks and catchment areas (the area of land over which rain falls and is caught to serve a river basin).

The Shabelle River at Belet Weyne, the site of an UNSOM “rewilding” project. Photo credit: FAO

Another UNSOM research programme focuses on five water wells along a trade route in Hirshabelle to understand the conflict dynamics between the groups that share this water source, in order to help mediate, as well as to support peacebuilding approaches. A further UNSOM project seeks to pilot an environmental mediation approach, bringing communities together to discuss peaceful solutions to natural resource conflicts. Another research initiative examines climate changes in relation to tuna migration routes and conflict between local and illegal fishing vessels.

In 2018, DPPA jointly with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) formed the Climate Security Mechanism (CSM). Helena de Jong and Thomas Ritzer, who represent DPPA in this initiative, say that the close collaboration with UNEP and UNDP has been critical to connect the Department’s work on conflict prevention and sustaining peace with climate adaptation and resilience programming. DPPA, together with the CSM, provides technical support on climate security to field missions and UN Country Teams, builds capacity, strengthens partnerships, and enhances knowledge management on a range of issues, including those related to water.

In-depth analysis is critical to identify potential environmental drivers contributing to conflict, including tensions over shared water resources. “Conflict and cooperation are not either/or. You can have both”, said Matti Lehtonen, Coordination Officer at UNEP and a member of the CSM. In other words, countries engaged in disputes in other areas can work together when it comes to shared water resources — the two are not mutually exclusive. “History is not a predictor, but still, there are few actual examples of water wars”, said Lehtonen.

Catherine Wong, Climate and Security Risk Policy Specialist at UNDP and also a member of the CSM, said her office is working with stakeholders and communities to promote water security through advancing effective water governance. This helps foster social, economic and environmental resilience and help reduce conflict. Together with the CSM, this work includes a project in the Andean glaciers in Southern America and the Liptako Gourma region in Central Sahel. UNDP is using data and analytics to inform early warning and cooperation over shared water resources, as well as the need to tackle the root causes of increased water insecurity as a means to address water-related conflicts. It has also found that technical solutions for water management and adaptation to climate change can be an entry point for peacebuilding efforts.

UN mediation tools

According to “Natural Resources and Conflict: A Guide for Mediation Practioners”, a report produced jointly by UNEP and DPPA, there are several tools available for the mediation of water-related disputes. For example, in transboundary disputes, tensions can arise when stakeholders use different methods and terminology for calculating water use. Adopting a common methodology, based on recognized international approaches, can help actors to reach an agreement more easily.

It can also assist parties to consider a combination of demand-side and supply-side solutions to address water scarcity. “Supply side” refers to the meeting of demand for water with new resources, while “demand side” manages consumption in order to postpone or avoid the need for new resources. In recent years, there has been a shift towards demand-driven approaches that focus on conservation and water-use efficiency, which are essential for the sustainability of water resources, the environment, economic efficiency and social development.

Agreements over shared water resources, be they local, regional, national, or transboundary, can serve as a platform to build cooperation between parties who might otherwise fall into conflict. DPPA can help stakeholders address the linkages between natural resources like water, climate change, the environment, and peacebuilding, in order to find common ground.

As Assistant Secretary-General Jenča notes, this commonality is essential. “Water is a vital natural resource, indispensable for human life, dignity, resilience and sustainable development,” he said. “Political dialogue and confidence building measures, taking into account gender dimensions, can bring about solutions to water management that are collaborative, and meet the needs of all.”


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