Water for Food

Global Water Conflict: Avenues for Cooperation

July 17, 2014

By guest contributor Patrice McMahon,
DWFI fellow and University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist

Water remains at the heart of so many conflicts taking place in the world today, particularly in the Middle East, where ethnic and religious tensions exist alongside depleted water resources, uneven access to water and water pollution. Recently, officials even suggested that water may decide the fates of Iraq and Syria as rebels and government forces fight for control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Global water security is a topic filled with pessimism. Most academic research, at least in my field of international relations, emphasizes the role that water, environmental degradation and resource scarcity play in aggravating regional and global conflict. As a 2012 U.S. government report ominously states: in the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability, state failures and violence around the world.

Nonetheless, optimism and hope describe the mood at the recent “Water Security and Peace: Avenues for Cooperation” symposium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Instead of emphasizing disputes, which is too often the case, we wanted to draw attention to the ways in which cooperation can overcome water conflicts.

Water diplomacy isn’t a new issue nor is it limited to conflict, Jerome Delli Priscoli of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said. He used examples from his years of government experience to describe how diplomacy, cross national affinity interests and transnational partnerships shape water issues. Even between the U.S. and China, he said, water has contributed to information-sharing and improved water supplies and quality.

The presenters, from natural scientists to planners and legal scholars, highlighted the different mechanisms that can address water shortages, accessibility and pollution. Itay Fishhendler, of Hebrew University, said one reason water cooperation is often overlooked is because, when we think of water as a security issue, we are more likely to see it as a zero-sum problem that leads to winners and losers. This need not be the case, he emphasized. Water security should be regarded as a process that involves working with others and providing benefits for all.

Yet, too often, water security is a zero-sum proposition in the Middle East and North Africa, both Hussein Amery, of the Colorado School of Mines, and Jenny Kehl, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, made clear. And domestic conditions are crucial to addressing these problems. For example, water trade and importation may be appropriate between Iraq and Kuwait, but these kinds of water interdependences are unlikely to take root any time soon between Israel and Palestine.

Although disappointing and perhaps true, David Lehrer demonstrated that states and macro-level mechanisms are just one way of managing water issues. Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, explained that while Israeli and Palestinian authorities talk to each other at a government level about water, his institute has been working for years with Israeli and Palestinian residents on an issue in the Besor River Basin. His point was clear: people often matter more than states when it comes to water cooperation.

While many discussions focused on water security between Israel and its neighbors, Kehl said other regions, specifically the Nile River Basin, deserve more attention. The 1929 Nile Treaty allocated about 75 percent of the Nile River’s water to Egypt, leaving the rest to nine other neighboring nations. The Arab Spring and violent protests in Egypt have been linked to water and food scarcity but, on the Nile, impeded water flows and a large dam project in Ethiopia may lead to much greater violence in the region as Egypt’s neighbors demand more of the river.

Yes, water brings conflict, but the take-home message was clear: many opportunities exist and, as Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University said, trends are not destiny. Tal, a founding member of Israeli’s Green Party, made the case for adaptive management and technology as game changers. While Israeli’s relationship to water is unique, we shouldn’t ignore how this country has affected both water supply and demand. Technology, specifically Israel’s innovative de-salinization techniques, as well as the country’s effective public policy campaigns have increased the existing amount of water while decreasing demand.

In exploring the spiritual and symbolic importance of water across cultures and religious traditions, Aaron Wolf, of Oregon State University, explained that the West wants to divorce nature resource issues from spirituality. We dictate to others what’s important. Instead, we must see water in a more holistic way and understand how others value water and its cultural role. Lawrence Susskind, of MIT and author of Water Diplomacy agreed; science alone will not be enough. Only politics and diplomacy will promote better water management and more peace.

The presentations, by some of the biggest names in water policy, were not theoretical or idealistic, but based on years of experience and field work. They, along with the lively conversations that took place, left me optimistic about the future of water cooperation and excited for more interdisciplinary conversations on water security, peace and cooperation.

Patrice McMahon is a DWFI fellow and associate professor at UNL’s Department of Political Science. Her research focuses on international security, human rights and U.S. foreign policy.

Water Security and Peace: Avenues for Cooperation took place May 28-29, 2014, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was sponsored by UNL’s Global Studies, Harris Center for Judaic Studies and the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute.

The views and opinions expressed by guest contributors on the Water for Food Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Daugherty Water for Food Institute or the University of Nebraska.


University of Nebraska Logo. Visit the University of Nebraska homepage.
Sign up for our e-newsletter. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our YouTube Channel. Follow us on Instagram. Visit us on Flickr. Follow us on Linkedin. Copyright © 2018 · University of Nebraska Board of Regents.