31 July 2018

Where Water Wars Are an Imagined Threat—and Where They Are a Real Danger

Although alarmist headlines often announce imminent water wars over scarce resources, the truth is that cooperation over shared waterways, particularly rivers, is historically more common than conflict. In fact, even among bitter enemies, the historical record shows that water conflicts around the world do get resolved, even to the point that international cooperation often increases during droughts. However, common causes of water conflicts remain a concern. Unilateral actions to construct a dam or river diversion in the absence of a treaty or some other protective international mechanism are highly destabilizing to a region, often spurring decades of hostility before cooperation is even pursued. Similarly, as access to irrigation water is threatened, one result can be mass migrations of out-of-work, disgruntled people from the countryside to the cities—invariably a recipe for political instability.

Water is a vital resource for which there is no substitute, one that ignores political boundaries and has conflicting demands on its use. In the international realm, these problems are compounded by the fact that the international law that governs water is often contradictory. So it is little wonder that water is being portrayed not only as a cause of armed conflict in the past, but as the resource which will bring combatants to the battlefield in this century.

Can Improvements in Water Management Bring an End to Water Wars?

Water, unlike other scarce, consumable resources, is essential to all facets of society. Moreover, it fluctuates wildly in space and time, its management is usually fragmented, and it is often subject to vague or contradictory legal principles. The 21st century has seen access to new technology which adds substantially to the ability both to negotiate and to manage transboundary waters more effectively. More effective management of the root causes of water conflicts means that if there is to be water-related violence in the future, it is much more likely to be of the "water riots" variety than the "water wars" scenarios across national boundaries. In any event, changing circumstances, both in terms of the environment and available technology, mean that water-management approaches must adapt as well.

The Economic Impact of Water Conflicts Around the World

One area of particular danger is not shared waterways, but maritime resources, particularly ocean fishing. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens the economies of many developing nations, as dramatic reductions in fish stocks would mean economic calamity and the prospect of millions of jobs lost in vulnerable economies. IUU fishing is also linked to criminal smuggling rackets, terrorist organizations, and human trafficking—including children trafficked into the fishing industry as laborers. The good news is that governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector and NGOs have started to see IUU fishing for what it is: a geostrategic challenge with devastating global consequences for conservation, development and security.

Declining Maritime Resources Escalate the Threat of Water Wars

Illegal catches and China's aggressive approach to its global fishing fleet pose significant dangers to development and security. While China’s fisheries are overexploited and collapsing, its fish consumption is growing. In order to meet the demand, China has built a large, state-subsidized, distant-water fishing fleet, which is getting more hostile, with illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers steadily increasing, especially in China’s East Asia neighborhood. China’s behavior should be considered an early warning sign of the security implications of unmanaged fisheries and illegal fishing as two growing causes of water conflicts around the world. 

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