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Are water wars or environmental peacebuilding possible?
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Are water wars or environmental peacebuilding possible?

Water scarcity in Thailand

Moscow announced early in Russia’s invasion that it had destroyed a dam at the North Crimean Canal. The dam was built by Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It blocked vital water supplies to the occupied territory, resulting in severe water shortages. 

The conflict in Ukraine is not over Crimea’s water supply. But the Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology details examples of wateras a weapon, casuality or trigger of conflict going back millennia. Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict at Uppsala University in Sweden and former UNESCO chair for international water cooperation, says Crimea’s water supply is another example of this. 

But shared water resources can be a source of cooperation. Ashok says that even in Crimea the international community could have engaged Russia or Ukraine to help solve the humanitarian water crisis. 

Water tensions 

Around 40% of the world’s population lives along rivers that cross international borders. The climate crisis has made it more difficult to share these vital resources fairly.

In February, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam finally turned on, despite continued objections from Egypt, Sudan, and others who have long feared the dam would have an impact on their farmlands further below the Nile. 

Dams built along the Mekong River, China, have been blamed, in part, for the drought in Thailand, and Cambodia. Tensions between India, Pakistan and China have been increasing over their shared Indus River Basin waters. 

The online tool Water Peace and SecurityThe World Resources Institute and others created this map to show a planet that is rife with tensions over water. It threatens to become violent. Scott Moore, author “Subnational Hydropolitics”: Conflict, Cooperation and Institution-Building In Shared River Basins, argues that such unrest is more common within countries than between them. 

Moore states that international tensions about water rarely escalate to full-blown conflict. Even when disputes do flare, Moore says that water is often used to proxy for other issues. 

Moore states that while the intuition is that water causes tension and conflict, Moore believes it’s usually the reverse. Moore says that geopolitical tensions and economic disputes translate into water.

In the case of dams going up on the Mekong, for example, complex factors resulting in low waters levels in downstream countries can be downplayed in the face of China’s massive campaign on dam-building upstream. Moore said that there is increased anxiety among neighbouring countries about the potential consequences of China’s growing power. 

Water scarcity in Thailand

Thailand has been left with water shortages by Chinese dams

Politics and drought in Middle East

Water shortages in Iran have fueled protests , dubbed the “Uprising of the Thirsty”, since last summer. Meanwhile, tensions flare in long-standing disputes between Afghanistan and Iran over the Kamal Khan Dam that is located upstream of the Helmand River. 

Susanne Schmeier, associate professor of water diplomacy and law at IHE Delft in The Netherlands, believes that blaming neighbouring countries for hoarding can be a convenient diversion to domestic issues about water pricing or inefficient water infrastructure.

Schmeier explains that Iran faces a strong domestic water crisis, which could include protests by farmers and conflicts between urban residents and farmers. “You also see strong statements from Iranian policymakers towards Afghanistan, saying, We want our fair share of this river.”

Iran Krise l Proteste gegen Wasserknappheit in Isfahan

Iranians protest water scarcity

Iran accuses its neighbor upstream of hoarding water. However, it is also building dams on the Helmand and other rivers. This includes a tributary to the Tigris that flows into Iraq, which has its own water scarcity issues. 

Drought-stricken Iraq blames Turkey as well as Iran for its water problems. Turkey has dams at the Euphrates as well as the Tigris. Both Syria and Iraq say that these dams are drying them out.  

Tensions are exacerbated by climate change 

Turkey had to release 500 cubic meters of Euphrates water per second to neighboring Syria when it was constructed in the 1980s. Turkey blames climate change as the reason for the flow that is now well below its original goal. But Syrian Kurds from across the border believe Turkey is punishing their political rivals. 

Swain claims that tensions about Ethiopia’s GERD hydropower are also rooted deep in a complex web of geopolitical, climatic and political factors. In theory, the dam could be mutually advantageous: Sudan and Egypt could use its cheap electricity. The dam could also be used as a control point for the flow of the Nile, to avoid flooding like that which has decimated parts of Sudan in recent times. 

However, the question is: What happens if Ethiopia holds back water for a few dry years? Swain states that this is why there is so much fear about climate change. 

Water as a depoliticized’ matter

International cooperation regarding the Nile waters would be easier if upstream as well as downstream countries didn’t fall under different geopolitical divisions. Swain stated, “The world is divided into two groups… Ethiopia is receiving support from China and Russia,” while Egypt and Sudan are closer to the West.

Yet Mehmet Altingoz, who researches transboundary management at the US University of Delaware believes focusing on the humanitarian issue of Crimea’s water supply could have helped diffuse tensions along precisely this global divide. 

“NATO and West missed an opportunity for tensions to ease in the region by asking Ukraine to find a way of cooperating on water access to Crimea.” An article he co-authored recently is argued by. 

He told DW that it was easier to cooperate on environmental assets. His research has focused on Turkey and Armenia, two countries that do not have diplomatic relations but share ownership over a dam from the Soviet era that is located at their dividing border. 

Altingoz explains that every month, a technical committee made up of members from rival nations meets to decide how water should be allocated. “There is extensive cooperation over the water body, and it is improving relations locally.”

Water for cooperation and not conflict

The UN claims that more than 300 international water treaties have already been signed since 1948. These treaties rarely make the news. 

Moore stated, “There are far more examples and cases and cases of cooperation over waters, especially if we define that in terms international agreements dealing with management of shared water resources than there is instances or cases or examples or conflicts.” 

Though water tensions have regularly flared between India and Pakistan, the rival nations have worked together through the Indus Water Treaty, dating back to the 1960s, even as greater tensions ignited, Schmeier says: “India and Pakistan, even when they were at the brink of nuclear war, kept meeting under the treaty.” 

The Danube Bend

The Danube is a source of tension and cooperation for 19 countries that share its basin.

She also cites the stability agreement that helped to build peace in Balkans after the war of the 1990s, using the Danube’s shared waters as a point of departure for cooperation.  

Schmeier stated, “They negotiated an accord, set up river basin organizations, and that brought the nations together. Then that spilled over into trade, into cleaning up war remnants, and all other things.”

Edited and written by Jennifer Collins.

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