Demand for water is projected to outstrip supply by 2030 as a result of numerous mega-trends including climate change, rapid economic and population growth and urbanization. As such there is potential for water to become a catalyst for conflict between multiple users and uses. Conflict could occur inside nations with local water users competing for limited resources or it could occur at the nation-state level with nations competing over transboundary water resources.
Rather than being a source for conflict water can be a catalyst for cooperation with all sections of society, across political boundaries, involved in the decision-making process of managing precious water resources. However, before we can reduce the potential for conflict over scarce water resources and promote cooperation we first need to understand how water scarcity can lead to economic loss, political instability and environmental degradation, which in turn can trigger conflict.
Water scarcity and economic losses
Water is a vital resource in the production of economic goods and services. Many industrial sectors, including the food, pharmaceutical and textile manufacturers, rely on large volumes of water for production of food, medicines and clothing and therefore are exposed to the risk of drought. However, it is not only scarcity of water that can impact production of goods and services but too much water as well, for instance floods damage critical infrastructure and contain excessive amounts of chemicals and sediments making water unsuitable for industrial use. As such, both floods and droughts have the ability to impact revenue generation of businesses. At the aggregate level, floods and droughts can impact exports of goods and services, which in turn can affect overall employment and income levels leading to social unrest. Meanwhile, water is essential in the production of energy and so a lack of water from droughts can impact electricity production while floods and extreme-weather events can damage energy infrastructure further reducing economic output.
Water scarcity and political instability
Political instability from floods and droughts can occur at both the intra and inter-state level as the majority of the world’s river basins cross political boundaries. At the intra-state level, conflict can occur over scarce water crossing local political boundaries. With numerous countries having internal ethnic disputes these tensions have the potential to spark civil conflict between various sections of society. Meanwhile, there is the potential for tension and even conflict over scarce water resources between nation-states sharing transboundary water resources. This can occur with upstream states diverting water resources for hydropower, agricultural or industrial production. Even floods can cause tensions between states with upstream states failing to provide early warning to downstream states of predicted flood events.
At the local level human activities, such as rapid urbanization or industrial production, impact the health of waterways, which in turn impacts the availability of clean water for all users. For example, the impact of urbanization is increased runoff, which increases pollution loads of rivers and streams through non-point source pollution, while industrial production often leads to point source pollution affecting the quality of water available for other users. In addition, the health of aquatic ecosystems, which provides vital ecosystem services to both humans and nature, is also degraded. This in turn impacts nature’s ability to provide healthy water for human use. At the international level contamination of water resources can lead to conflict between water users as polluted ground and surface water crosses international boundaries. While water has the ability to spark conflict it can also promote cooperation in and between nation-states.
Water scarcity a catalyst for cooperation
The Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) framework has been developed to promote the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources at the river basin level in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner. IWRM also promotes the sustainable use of water resources to ensure healthy ecosystems. IWRM promotes the participation of individuals, communities and water users in all aspects of water management policy and decision-making. To ensure water is used sustainably, IWRM promotes management instruments to balance demand with supply. Management instruments include: Water assessments with hydrological, demographic and socio-economic data collected for informed decision-making; demand management including pricing of water, subsidies and rebates to encourage efficiency and awareness campaigns on the need to conserve water; conflict resolution mechanisms to set water allocation rights, water-use limits and dispute resolution tools; regulations to cover pollution control and land-use; technology that increases the efficient use of water resources in domestic and non-domestic use, and finance with investments made by governments, private partners in implementing IWRM. By implementing IWRM scarce water resources can be managed in a sustainable way that maximizes economic and social welfare in an equitable manner while ensuring the health of ecosystems.