Water Cooperation and Political Security Go Hand in Hand

February 27, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

A fascinating report produced by the Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think tank, shows that cooperation across political boundaries in the management of water correlates quite highly with peace – and that the lack of cooperation correlates highly with the risk of war. 

The report states its conclusions quite bluntly:  “Any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever.”  The report offer intriguing evidence that commoning around water ought to be seen as a significant factor in national security and peace – and as a way of avoiding war and other armed conflict. 

Trans-boundary water cooperation, as defined by the report, does not simply consist of two countries signing a treaty or exchanging data about water.  It means serious political, administrative, policy and scientific cooperation. (Thanks, James Quilligan, for alerting me to this report.)Image RemovedImage Removed

To give the level of cooperation some precision, the report’s authors came up with a “Water Cooperation Quotient” for 146 countries, based on ten parameters.  These include the existence of formal agreements between countries for cooperation; the existence of a permanent commission to deal with water matters; joint technical projects; ministerial meetings that make water a priority; coordination of water quality and pollution control; consultation on the construction of dams or reservoirs; among other factors. 

One of the most striking findings of the report:  “Out of 148 countries sharing water resources, 37 do not engage in active water cooperation.  Any two or more of these 37 countries face a risk of war in the future.”  The regions of the world that face a higher risk of war – i.e., countries with low or nonexistent levels of trans-boundary water cooperation – are in East Africa, Middle East, and Asia. 

This means that roughly one fourth of the nations of the world “exposes its population to insecurity in its relations with its neighbors.”  It also means that water bodies that are not subject to cooperative management are suffering from serious ecological decline – reductions in the surface area of lakes, deeper levels of rivers, pollution, and so forth.

The report notes the particular cooperative actions that countries have taken to manage their respective water supplies.  Singapore, with no natural water resources of its own, reduced its pressures on Malaysia by sourcing water from rainfall, recycling, desalination and imports.  South Africa obtains access to water in a river that it shares with Lesotho, and in exchange is helping the less-developed Lesotho build dams that provide hydropower and economic development.

Conversely, the absence of a cooperative framework is both a cause and symptom of political instability.  The report notes:  “Israel and Jordan have a water cooperation agreement, which was upgraded in 2013 to enable higher outflow of water from Lake Tiberias to the Lower Jordan River.  The two countries also have relative peace by regional standards.  Israel does not have water cooperation agreements with Lebanon and Syria.  There is often speculation of water with these countries.”  The lack of cooperation in the region means that the Dead Sea is shrinking and may die by the end of this century,” according to the report.

To me, “Water Cooperation for a Secure” world suggests that bioregional commons could play a significant role in fostering peace and avoiding war.  If cooperation could extend beyond the state and bureaucratic level, and move to the everyday practices and cultural norms of people in those regions, we would likely see a reduction in the pressures to over-exploit resources and go to war to protect them. 

The full 128-page report can be downloaded here (pdf); and a concise 18-page version can be downloaded here (pdf). You may wish to check out an interactive map that shows the “water cooperation quotient” for each country in the world and its corresponding risk of war.

Photo credit: Wikipedia/Mikhail Evstafiev

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: water wars