This article is an abstract from Dan Smith’s contribution to the new Foreign Policy Centre pamphlet Tackling the world water crisis: Reshaping the future of foreign policy.
Water is a basic condition for life. We depend upon it for daily use, agriculture and industry. Both declining availability and quality as well as an excess of water undermines welfare, impairs human security and generates risk of conflict.
In recent years, there have been two commonplace statements about the link between water and insecurity, both containing elements of the truth salted with a great deal of imprecision. The first view is that the wars of the future will be about water rather than oil. However, the second is that so far, there have been very few violent international conflicts over water, and that shared water resources have more often led to cooperation than outright conflict. If this second insight vitiates the first, several points should be added. To begin with, when the cooperation is between unequal powers resulting in agreements unfair to one side, this cooperation merely masks conflicts rather than offering a genuine resolution.
The key to understanding the human and social impact of climate change is water – too little of it or too much, in the form of drought or floods, or simply a changed timing, as with the monsoon in Nepal, or a changed location, as with the shifting pattern of typhoons in the Philippines.
The unfolding effects of climate change will increase water scarcity, both long-lasting drought and seasonal variations. This reduces livelihood security. Crop yields decline. In South and Southeast Asia, climate change threatens rice production in the long term with potentially catastrophic economic and human consequences.
When basic components of human security are threatened, evidence shows that one result is increasing pressure on increasingly stressed government structures. People need a responsive state to respond to their needs. When it cannot, conflicts over a narrowing resource base cannot be resolved. This produces social conflict and political instability. As pressures increase, violence may escalate into open armed conflicts. And instability and violent conflict within states may feed instability and conflict between states.
One reaction to the pressures is migration. In Bangladesh, migrants that have left the delta because of loss of tracts of land due to directional changes of the river have traditionally gone to northeast India, Dhaka or the Chittagong Hill Tracts. All three places have considerable levels of insecurity, often worsened by the arrival of new migrants.
The experience of Bangladesh – where, according to a government strategy paper, there will be 20 million people displaced over a 20-year period – stands as an illustrative warning about the chain of consequences from carbon emissions through climate change via migration to conflict, instability and rampant insecurity.
It follows from the link between water insecurity and more generalised human insecurity that good water management is part of peacebuilding – both in preventing countries from lapsing into violent conflict, and in helping them not relapse after a period of armed conflict. Equally, peacebuilding is a part of good water management.
In 2008, the Nepali government’s failure to prevent the Koshi River from flooding fed resentment and instability in the already tense southeastern Terai region. The government had actually contracted an Indian company to fix the river defences, but political disputes shaped by the aftermath of civil war blocked the work from going ahead. The challenge of managing the Koshi and other comparable challenges arising from or exacerbated by the consequences of climate change requires the framework of a well functioning state.
An effective river-management scheme would reduce the discontent caused by the massive socio-economic consequences of flooding. In the case of Nepal, this is only possible if the political parties cooperate, suspending rivalries in the name of the people’s interest. This would both achieve the immediate desired effect of flood prevention and increase confidence in the political process in general, which in turn would lubricate other crucial peacebuilding and state-building tasks.
The issue of climate is thus an issue of peace and of governance. It requires an approach to state-building that, like peacebuilding, emphasises the participation of citizens and the mobilisation of social resources. To achieve this, people must know and understand what is required, and for this they must trust the message and the messenger. When societies are able to digest and disseminate complex and challenging information and respond to it by undertaking major changes, they are in the process of building states that are responsive, inclusive and legitimate – and therefore stable.
The effects of climate change on water supply offer huge, inter-related challenges. They also offer multi-dimensional opportunities for progress. The quality of political insight and leadership will determine which track will be followed.
The new FPC pamphlet, Tackling the world water crisis: Reshaping the future of foreign policy, will be launched at a public event on Thursday 3rd June at 4.30pm at the House of Lords. For more information and/or to register for the event, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information about both the event and the pamphlet (which is available to download in full, free of charge) can be found at www.fpc.org.uk.
Alert’s Secretary-General Dan Smith will be speaking at the launch on water, peace and security.