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The people working to stop wars over water

It has been said that in the future, wars will be fought over water—but one organisation is trying to change that. 

Dr Martina Klimes, an advisor on water and peace for the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) says the challenges are vast.

Over 150 countries and 50 per cent of the world’s population relies on freshwater from rivers that are shared by two or more countries, yet, as SIWI points out (through UN records), there is an absence of any form of collaborative framework in more than 60 per cent of these basins.

“The increasing effects of climate change means that we have fewer water resources. It is affecting the volumes of water available in these transboundary water resources, and that places additional pressure on the countries sharing them,” she says.

Countries often find themselves competing for decreasing amounts of water, while at the same time seeing increased demand with growing populations, as well as developing industries and economies. Klimes says that transboundary water disputes are particularly prevalent in regions that already have problems with poor governance.

“The problem in these situations is that without formal cooperative management frameworks or agreements between countries, it can be difficult for the countries to address the issue effectively. In contrast, mutual understanding of shared risks intensified by the impacts of climate change can motivate countries for cooperation over shared waters.”

In June 2019, researchers published a paper in Nature magazine showing that climate change exacerbates armed conflict within countries already facing political tensions and resource mismanagement. The study also found that climate change is expected to increase risks of future conflict, as states and organisations compete for scarce resources. 

“The biggest transboundary challenges we see at present are, for example, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, which flows through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and a small part of Saudi Arabia; the Nile River in northern Africa; the Lake Chad in West Africa; and the Hari River shared by Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan – to name a few,” says Klimes. 

The SIWI is using  a multi-track policy approach, including informal diplomacy, to get competing states to the negotiating table to work out how to share water resources. 

Klimes has found that one of the most effective ways of helping countries strengthen capacity on water diplomacy is by taking water negotiators to see cooperation agreements working in comparable countries and to those share experiences with their peers.  

One such agreement Klimes points to is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. A partnership between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa, it comprises a system of several large dams and tunnels throughout Lesotho and delivers water to the Vaal River System in South Africa.

“We see that there is a continuous need to communicate more effectively across science, policy, and practice, attempting to speak the same water diplomacy language and striving for integrated approaches to tackle complex issues, like transboundary water cooperation in conflict-affected regions,” says Klimes.

To find out more about becoming a leader who understands how to manage social, economic, ecological, and engineering dimensions to effectively address complex sustainable development challenges that have water at their core, take a look at our Master of Integrated Water Management program.


About the author: Brett Richards is the Marketing and Communications Director at the International WaterCentre.

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