#03 development cooperation
Annabelle Houdret

Water – A Resource of Conflict And Source of Cooperation

Water conflicts arise where increasing water scarcity meets growing competition. Both rising demand for food production and industrial processes, but also changing lifestyles require more and more freshwater. At the same time, climate change is reducing the availability of water in many regions, pollution restricting accessibility to clean water and inefficient management causing losses of up to 50% of the water that is mobilized for consumption. In this context, clashes of interest over the sharing and use of this precious resource become more frequent. Yet, at the same time, water can also be promoted as a tool for peace-building between riparians on transboundary rivers or lakes. In many cases, cooperation over this common resource provides opportunities for trust-building, shared economic development and sustainable water management beyond national boundaries. Both trends, the increasing water conflict potential and perspectives for water cooperation, are highly relevant for development cooperation since:

  • Water projects may be disrupted by water conflicts and/or directly or indirectly contribute to their emergence
  • Increasing water scarcity or conflicts over water governance may affect other development projects within or beyond the water sector
  • Water may provide common ground for cooperation (not only) in post-conflict environments

What is a water conflict and how does it emerge?

Water is at the heart of our daily life, whether for domestic needs and hygiene, the growth and processing of food, or industrial processes. In many countries livelihoods are extremely dependent on water. Conflicts over the distribution of and access to this resource are therefore rarely limited to the resource itself. They often involve other social, political and economic interests. While on the surface water disputes are over quantity, quality and the timing of water flows, the underlying reasons for the clashes are manifold. For example, where population groups are discriminated against, inequitable water policies are felt as an additional method of victimization and may fuel pre-existing tensions. Power struggles, economic disparities and socio-political marginalization are key triggers of water conflicts and need to be considered in conflict prevention and resolution.

Because of these interdependencies, water scarcity alone is not a viable indicator for potential water conflicts. But where the demand for water is higher than its availability, where extreme water events such as floods or droughts affect livelihoods, and where already marginalized population groups become even more disadvantaged through these trends, water conflicts are likely to occur.

Water conflicts may take different forms. Open disputes over access to boreholes or drills in water-scarce regions may include violence, such as between farmers and nomads. Disagreements over the high price of drinking water may lead to a confrontation between water users and management authorities. And at the transboundary level, conflicts over water quantity may lead to restrictions in water flows for the lower riparian, and water pollution and the timing of water flows may cause disagreements between countries upstream and those downstream. There are many other types of water conflicts and their degree of violence varies. However, most water conflicts are first articulated verbally via protests or complaints and parties seek out a formal institution or informal mediation to claim their rights. Where no solution is found, the next step in escalation often involves damaging the infrastructure, riots, breach of agreements and violent protests. The degree of escalation, whether at the local, national or international level, then depends on the availability of credible institutions for mediation, the overall socio-political setting and the pre-existence of violence in the respective country.

What can development cooperation do about water conflicts?

Water conflicts affect development cooperation in many different ways. They have a high potential for socio-political destabilization inside and beyond the water sector. Considering the above mentioned trends, development cooperation should therefore increasingly integrate the dimension of conflict and cooperation into water project planning and implementation. Potential measures include the following:
- Existing water management approaches, which include capacities for technically, environmentally and socially sustainable water governance, should be further strengthened.
- Cooperation and negotiation on water issues can help to support water governance and also stabilize social relationships beyond the resource itself. Identifying and strengthening effective institutions for (water) conflict mediation and prevention is a key aspect in this regard.
- Conflict-sensitive strategies, which are increasingly part of development cooperation, require specific adaptation for the water sector. They should be applied in all phases of a project from design to implementation and evaluation. They should also take into account trends beyond the water sector that could impact socio-political stability or water availability and quality.
- Opportunities for water cooperation and peace-building need to be considered in all project stages in order to prevent and mediate conflict and improve water management.
- Capacity-building measures for conflict awareness, prevention and resolution can help in the provision and distribution of useful approaches and improve their implementation.
- The cross-sectoral dimension of water conflict and cooperation needs to be better reflected in development strategies: water conflicts can negatively affect development in other sectors and also be provoked by non-water related developments. Similarly, water cooperation and peace-building can help improve water management along with making better use of development opportunities in other fields. The sectors of agriculture, urban planning, trade and environment are some of the relevant fields to be considered for the application of such cross-sectoral approaches.
- Improving water governance at the transboundary level can contribute to regional stabilization and create development opportunities. Development cooperation should therefore consider transboundary aspects in water projects where appropriate, but should also contribute to shared water governance between riparian countries.

Further reading:

Annabelle Houdret, Annika Kramer and Alexander Carius: “The Water Security Nexus. Challenges and Opportunities for Development Cooperation”, GTZ 2010.
www.gtz.de/de/dokumente/gtz2010-en-water-security-nexus.pdf (invalid path)

Annabelle Houdret; Meike Westerkamp: Peacebuilding across Lake Albert. Reinforcing environmental cooperation between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, adelphi/ European Commission 2010

Annabelle Houdret: Scarce Water, Plenty of Conflicts? Local water conflicts and the role of development cooperation, INEF 2008