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Water: A source of conflict or a potential peace builder?

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By Johanna Ospina Garnica, UPEACE Centre The Hague

Summary of the lecture presented by Professor András Szöllösi-Nagy, Rector of UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, on 3 July 2014 (see for more information on UPEACE Centre The Hague and the lecture series “Peace Building in Progress”:

In his lecture about “Water: A source of conflict or a potential peace builder?” Prof. Szöllösi-Nagy raised the question whether water is a potential source of conflict or conversely a source for transboundary cooperation. To find an answer, he proposed to analyse the overall setting, looking at both technical and political issues.

Water on the international agenda

In the first part of the lecture, Prof. Szöllösi-Nagy emphasized the significant progress made in the intergovernmental sector up to now. In 1977, water was put high on the international agenda due to the UN Water Conference held in Mar del Plata, Argentina. In the 1990´s the issue of water was back at the international level when in 1997, as an annus mirabilis, several initiatives took place. These initiatives include the First World Water Forum in Marrakech, Morocco, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) 5-year review of Agenda 21 Chapter 17, the UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Use and the launch of the World Water Vision Project. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) also included water issues, with MDG7 “ensure environmental sustainability” targeting to reduce the proportion of the world’s population without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015 by half.

The current situation

The effort to increase the amount of people with access to safe drinking water (from the MDGs) is still on track, despite some exceptions such as the case of sub-Saharan Africa. However, the aim to have access to basic sanitation has not achieved any significant progress and its situation is getting worse.

Is a water crisis looming and are the times of easy water over? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand that there are many global change drivers affecting water and its availability: population growth, movement and age structures; geo-political changes and realignments; trade and subsidies; technological changes; climate change. Among these population growth is the most determinant. During the last decades the world population has been growing exponentially. The situation has worsened due to an exponential increase in deforestation, CO2 emissions, damming of rivers, water use, etc.Andras Szollosi-Nagy

Prof. Szöllösi-Nagy found that the crisis is increasing, but the world is not running out of water yet. This indicates to us that the water crisis is mainly a governance crisis, and thus we still can do something about it. Hence the world should continue working on WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). Nonetheless, this is not an easy task to do; there are additional challenges that need to be addressed, especially as the increase in temperatures, the global climate change, is a fact. Currently, there are more floods and droughts and all effects of climate change will continue manifesting itself in water. In fact, 90% of all casualties in natural disasters are water-related disasters; thereby floods, droughts, and similar are trans-border issues.

Water: A source of conflict or peace

This accelerating hydrological cycle and the increase of natural disasters are a potential source of conflict. This situation makes it necessary to increase human adaptation and resilience. Possible ways to adapt include: increasing storage (water, food and energy), hydropower, increase groundwater use, increase inland navigation, inter-basin water transfer, conservation and good governance. All of these ways of adapting, except the last two mentioned, are potential sources of conflict.

Politically the most difficult aspects are transboundary problems. Natural flows are cut by political boundaries, creating potential problems between upstream and downstream countries. Currently, 145 countries include territory within transboundary basins, and 21 countries lie entirely within a transboundary basin.

An analysis of the situation in places with transboundary basins (such as of the Nile River basin, the Jordan River basin) shows that water is not necessarily a principal cause of conflict. The opposite, the need for water seems to be so deeply engrained in humanity that it induces cooperation rather than conflict. Thus, water connects and is a powerful instrument for peace.

Requirements for the future

Cooperation in water governance requires institutions and legal instruments. For instance, the highest number of transboundary agreements has been made in Africa. Also the UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Use (1997) is another example of progress made in the International Law.

Another key to water governance is capacity development. Whereas technological developments have helped to solve problems related to water management, water flows can be accurately simulated with computer models, and satellites can detect almost everything, making it possible to see water reserves, monitoring capacity is still limited to primarily Northern America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. There is therefore a need to recognise countries’ shared responsibilities to help increasing water monitoring capacity elsewhere.


Prof. Szöllösi-Nagy concluded that there is still enough water to prevent water conflicts. However, to manage it will require the political will to do it, the capacity to do it right, and the resources to do it right now. But, still there is an important aspect that is missing and does not have enough debate so far: the understanding that the key to sustainability is to generate awareness about water in the minds of people. This is possible through education, especially schools and other higher levels. For this, UNESCO-IHE is providing the knowledge and training for the current and future generation of water experts from different countries.

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