Water for Food

Cooperation and Water Security

August 3, 2015

Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow Patrice McMahon with her daughter Julia near Krakow, Poland.

Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow Patrice McMahon with her daughter Julia near Krakow, Poland.

By Patrice C. McMahon, Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and associate professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Political Science.

An interdisciplinary approach is crucial to our ability to successfully respond to complex global security challenges in the 21st century, particularly when they involve the natural environment. Political scientist Patrice McMahon argues that today’s interdisciplinary research on water security and water management shows that water is frequently a conduit for cooperation and peaceful interactions – and not the cause of violent conflict around the world, as it is often stressed by scholars and policymakers. In light of this idea, McMahon highlights her recent experience at the 2015 International Studies Association Conference in Poland.

More than ever, the insights of various disciplines with their unique focal points and methodologies, are required to understand and respond to global security threats. This is particularly true when it comes to new or non-traditional security issues, such as environmental pollution, water scarcity and global warming. These issues not only affect water and food supplies, but they also can directly threaten the livelihoods and well-being of individuals and states.

Using an interdisciplinary perspective to understand complex and interrelated challenges to global security was the theme of a conference I attended last month at Jagiellonian University located in Krakow, Poland. Thanks to the Water for Food Institute, UNL’s Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and the Department of Political Science, I presented a paper on water security at the 2015 International Studies Association Conference: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Security in a Changing World.

Jagiellonian University, which celebrated its 650th anniversary last year, was an ideal place to discuss the wide-ranging security issues facing states and individuals in the 21st century. I know good deal about Poland and its understanding of security issues. I was a Fulbright scholar at Jagiellonian in 1988-89, conducting research on the budding environmental movement. At the time, I was struck by how important the natural environment was to young people and the role that civil society organizations were playing in trying to peacefully topple the Communist regime. Returning to Poland after more than 25 years, I was excited to see how the country had changed. It is not only a wealthier, democratic country, but it is also remarkably clean. The buildings in Krakow’s 14th century Old Town almost sparkle and the air is clear and refreshing.

Poland is a recent NATO and European Union member, but historically its geography has made it vulnerable and sensitive to security issues. Sandwiched between aggrandizing empires and militaristic countries bent on dividing Poland or dominating it politically, Polish policymakers and academics emphasize the ongoing importance of traditional security concerns, military capabilities and the potential for interstate war. Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine last year is just the most recent reminder of Poland’s dangerous neighbors and the need for its leaders to stay focused on national defense.

More than four decades of socialist industrialization and urbanization have deteriorated Poland’s natural environment. Indeed, not so long ago the entire Eastern bloc suffered from the worst air and water pollution in Europe. But as these communist countries transitioned to democracy and capitalism in the 1990s, their leaders made the environment and so-called human security more of a priority. Perhaps because of this recent history, Polish leaders and academics appreciate the urgency of understanding the diverse threats to security and the importance of international cooperation.

My paper, “Cooperation Rules: Insights on Water and Conflict from International Relations,” which will be a chapter in the forthcoming book, “Water and Peacebuilding in the Middle East,” edited by Jean Cahan and published by Anthem Press, argues that although literature in International Relations (IR) focuses on war and interstate conflict, existing interdisciplinary research on water security and water management agrees that it is cooperation that dominates interstate, as well as intrastate, water relationships. In other words, water may be a tool, target or victim of warfare, but up until this point it has not been the cause of violent conflict and there are many institutions, mechanisms and ideas that encourage states, local authorities and members of civil society to use water (and the natural environment) as a conduit for cooperation and peaceful interactions.

In line with the theme of the conference and the need to approach security issues from different disciplines, I argued that interdisciplinary research can help us appreciate the actual, rather than feared, role of water in the future. Although the idea of “water wars” attracts a great deal of media and academic attention, IR scholars and policymakers need to incorporate the research and advice of environmental scientists and water experts.


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