On water wars: Opinion article by a collective of authors

King’s Water member, Dr Naho Mirumachi, joined a collective of authors to pen an opinion article on water wars. This piece serves as a reality check to the hype around water wars, especially when water issues are in the limelight with World Water Day debates. The full opinion article is published below.

 

“Why are water wars back on the agenda?

And why we think it’s a bad idea!”

There is a recent and worrying trend towards a renewed “water wars” narrative in some policy and media circles. As readers may remember, the water wars discourse emerged out of the early post-Cold War period of the 1990s. More than twenty-five years later, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is back. This short opinion article critically reflects on this trend and questions its timing, purpose and the evidence on which it is based. To speak of ‘war’ is to invoke images of militaries, violent conflict and destruction on a grand scale. Although we do not deny that water can be a factor – one among many – in some conflicts and mainly at intra-state level, we question why this drift towards water ‘securitisation’ at this time? To align ‘water’ with war is without doubt worrying, for water is an essential and non-substitutable resource needed by all. But to suggest that inter-state water wars are forthcoming is to ignore or undervalue decades of cooperative action. What is being argued here is in support of a more nuanced approach, that is both more evidence-based and constructive, highlighting the many varied and overwhelmingly positive efforts at an international level in support of cooperation within complex shared river basins. Ultimately, we believe that transboundary water cooperation is primarily a development issue and one that should remain in that space.

Four critical observations:

  1. ‘Water wars’ are trendy again. Articles on “water wars” are reappearing. Alarmism and sensationalism are long-standing characteristics of the media. Overstated headlines generate ‘clicks’ and higher advertising revenues. In a world of huge information volume there is, arguably, a ‘race to the bottom’ to capture the attention of information consumers. So Cape Town’s “Day Zero” has captured international media attention, whereas the everyday struggles of millions of rural and peri-urban people without water goes largely unnoticed. This kind of reporting returns us to the early 1990s and the original “water wars” narrative that water stress and scarcity would drive 21st century inter-state wars and conflicts. We now see a similar trend where security and military actors are using water, climate and environmental issues in their analysis of inter-state instability and conflict. International think-tanks and NGOs have been picking up on the theme. This re-emergence of ‘water wars’ as an acceptable narrative without substantive evidence is vividly exemplified in the Nile Basin where the BBC recently broadcast a series entitled “The ‘water war’ brewing over the new River Nile dam”. Without balance, this story failed to reference actual cooperation processes underway (see other examples from the Nile 1,2). Likewise in the Mekong (1,2) and river basins in South and Central Asia, and in regions of the world where there is recent violent conflict – e.g. Darfur, Syria, Yemen or Lake Chad – there is a rush to find ‘water causality’, whilst disregarding other local drivers and important geopolitical context. Reinforcing a simple dyad of resource scarcity-conflict renders simplistic what is frequently complex and multi-causal. Thirty years down the line, we observe this new water securitisation trend is also being linked with other global concerns – such as terrorism and intercontinental migration – that put pressure on the existing international order. Some global powers have been responding to these interlinked concerns by bringing water into their foreign policy agendas, in particular when linked to regions and countries they consider of geostrategic importance. The new US Global Water Strategy, launched last November, is a case in point.
  2. Dubious correlations/causality. We argue that selective use of evidence and/or the disproportionate and ill-informed attention to specific complex and contested rivers is partially responsible for the re-emergence of ‘water wars’ headlines that can obscure what is really going on and mislead the wider public. Recent studies on the negative effects of biased selection of case-studies and on the links/variables describing climate-conflict relationships illustrate how easy it is, as a result, to skew public perceptions. These biases are essentially reductionist and limit wider public understanding of the complexities at stake. In the Nile, for instance, many processes of cooperation are in parallel with the wider discourse of dispute and conflict but are often ignored in the mainstream media. If they were given more air time, the ‘slide to war’ thesis would look somewhat threadbare and misleading. Some studies do convincingly link climate change and water scarcity to particular local level, low-intensity violence, but these cannot then be extrapolated up and out to larger geographic (e.g. river basin) or political/administrative (e.g. inter-state) contexts. Indeed, exhaustive studies show inter-state water conflict to be extremely rare in most international contexts and cooperation and even peacebuilding are closer to the norm.
  3. Heap fiction upon fiction, and we miss the big picture. One of the most negative facets of the ‘water wars’ narrative is that it blocks out other, more pressing, narratives. Here are three examples. First, actual cases of resource-based conflicts and associated inequities at the national and sub-national levels. These affect the human and livelihood insecurity of the most vulnerable segments of society across the Global South, including appalling limits to water access facing hundreds of millions of people, as well as insecurities and inequalities driven by land and water grabbing in Sub-Saharan Africa, or rampant hydropower development in Asia. Second, the big picture on transboundary cooperation work, including high watermark processes such as the entering into force of the UN Water Convention, and having all UN member states commit to operationalising arrangements for transboundary water cooperation by 2030 under the SDGs. At a regional level this includes Southern Africa advancing legal and institutional cooperation at a transboundary level, and in the Nile Basin the recent heads-of-state meeting between the Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to discuss filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Third, the spectre of ‘war’ distracts us from the role that shared waters play in bringing ‘parties’ together to generate significant economic benefits for societies – including sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people for centuries in the Indus, Nile, Euphrates and hundreds of other shared river basins; or the hydroelectric power development that has helped Norway and Canada grow into large world economies; or, in particular, the trade in billions of cubic meters of “virtual water” through global food systems that helps ameliorate water deficits. All these (and other) important elements are so often overlooked under mainstream coverage as they sit outside the ‘water wars’ narrative.
  4. Over-securitisation of transboundary water resources: Why now this re-emerging trend towards ‘securitisation’ of water resources? One reason seems to be the military and security communities once again focusing on transboundary waters as a corollary to discussions surrounding climate change and national security. Evidence includes a very recent report produced by US military actors (and endorsed by some international water scientists) that places water stress as a factor in global conflict hotspots. This helps the security community ‘self-justify’ while providing space for some to argue that, in the face of potential climate-induced mass migrations, ‘the only force that can beat climate change is the U.S. Army’, as stated in a recent Foreign Policy article. There are well-rehearsed risks associated with processes of securitisation. Framing water competition as a ‘national security’ issue closes off public debate and may exacerbate tensions. This framing can also juxtapose water challenges on other issues of migration, ethnic complexity and the upholding of human rights. Securitisation can also conflate basin-level challenges with wider geopolitical processes and interests (including those that extend beyond riparian countries alone). The net effect of all these processes is to present transboundary waters as a highly conflict-laden challenge, rather than as a developmental challenge that constructive cooperation can help to unpick. Instead, shared waters become dangerous and states sharing resources become ‘enemies’, rather than ‘good neighbours’. Therefore, ‘over-securitisation’ runs the risk of contributing further to diverting attention from fundamentally important technical, social, environmental and economic factors that should drive future management, development and allocation decision-making processes.

 

Some ways forward: So, what can be done? On this World Water Day, and in the broad spirit of cooperation, we offer up three suggestions.

First, researchers have to bring their accumulated evidence into a more public domain, and place greater emphasis on bringing to the public evidence that cooperation is the norm, not conflict. We need to show that deterministic analysis of water and conflict is misleading and that, above all, a critical – and more public – debate is required that challenges speculative and unsubstantiated analysis of transboundary water processes.

Second, we call on foreign-policy communities (development partners and international organisations, including think-thanks) to continue to support riparian countries and regional organisations in their existing ‘collective action’ processes, namely transboundary water cooperation rooted in local and regional contexts, where substantial success has been achieved over a sustained period. Make these the focus for engagement and debate and let the current and future priorities – and framings – be defined by riparians themselves, rather than by international media or other external actors and agendas. In this we call for greater leadership of the narrative by riparian countries themselves in order to communicate more effectively how regionally-driven and participatory transboundary cooperation process(es) achieve success and can help to refute more unconstructive securitisation narratives.

Third, and last, we call on international and regional media outlets, particularly editors and senior journalists, to avoid sensationalist conjecture and present a more balanced view that goes beyond simplified ‘water wars’ narratives. They should be more responsible in their coverage and framing and use their own editorial guidelines more faithfully to report all sides of a story. More pro-active engagement of media, researchers and policy-makers will help in supporting a more constructive, inclusive, and above all peaceful dialogue on solving the many transboundary water management challenges facing the international community in coming years.

Authors: Ana Elisa Cascão; Alvar Closas; Emanuele Fantini; Goitom Gebreleul; Tobias Ide; Guy Jobbins; Rémy Kinna; Flávia Rocha Loures; Bjørn-Oliver Magsig; Nate Matthews; Filippo Menga; Naho Mirumachi; Ruby Moynihan; Alan Nicol; Terje Oestigaard; Alistair Rieu-Clarke; Jan Selby; Suvi Sojamo; Larry Swatuk; Rawia Tawfik; Harry Verhoeven; Jeroen Warner; Mark Zeitoun

 

STUDENT PROFILE: NATHAN GOLDSTEIN MSC IN WATER SCIENCE AND GOVERNANCE

Nathan Goldstein is a current MSc student in the Water Science and Governance program at King’s College London and hails from West Bloomfield Michigan, a township located near Detroit, Michigan.  He completed his Bachelors of Science in both Marine Geology and History from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Not wanting to leave the warm weather, he spent time both volunteering and working with the United States Geological Survey under Dr. Kimberly Yates. During his time with Dr. Yates he assisted on 3 field excursions to the Dry Tortuga National Park. This, in combination with his liaison role between government agencies, pushed him to better understand the ways in which science is communicated and understood as well as the dangers of climate change. In pursuit of this goal, Nathan looked towards King’s Water program as a way to do so. Primarily, its interdisciplinary capacity and breadth of faculty research drew him towards the program. Its reputation and location also provides excellent international opportunities which he hopes to capitalize on for both future research and career paths.

Nathan preparing sample bottles in the Dry Tortugas. (Photo Credit to Benjamin Drummond)

Nathan preparing sample bottles in the Dry Tortugas. (Photo Credit to Benjamin Drummond)

Nathans project at King’s will centre around the dangers of climate change, its threat to fresh water security and the (hopefully) multiple ways in which these can be averted. Having grown up in a region that has abundant fresh water (The Great Lakes and the multitude of small lakes) and lived on the Gulf of Mexico’s coast, water has been a constant is Nathan’s life. The threat of Climate Change and its multitude of dangers to coastal cities, state resources and infrastructure are an ever present and growing fact of life. Nathan hopes that his research will allow him to assist at risk areas by expressing the full extent of the dangers that loom in the future.

KING’S WATER ANNUAL LECTURE

The King’s Water Activity Hub is proud to announce our 2017-2018 Annual Lecture, featuring Professor Richard Thompson from Plymouth University. The Annual Lecture will be held Tuesday January 30th, between 4:30 and 6pm in the Pyramid Room (K4U.04), Department of Geography, of the Strand Building, King’s College London. A drinks reception will follow.

King's Water Annual Lecture

 

 

King’s College Team Records Ecology of the Tidal River Thames

In early November, a team of 30 volunteers from King’s College and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) undertook a unique and exciting survey on the bed of the River Thames near Richmond.

Armed with only tapemeasures and quadrats, our group made recordings of over 3600 benthic organisms and their habitat over a 2 day period. It was an intensive and often strenuous effort made to better understand population dynamics of invasive and native mussels in the Thames. Further, a sorely needed expansion to ecological knowledge in this typically inaccessible section of the tidal river.

Uniquely, the Port of London Authority (PLA) had permitted our access to the foreshore during an artificial drawdown of the river. Here, maintenance work on an upstream weir had locked the outgoing freshwater tide upstream: resulting with a window of opportunity where almost the entire Thames bed was exposed for us to survey (See Picture).

Thames

Photo Credit: Eleanore Heasley

Despite the cold starts and the frequent threat of rain, our memorable Kings College team contributed hugely to the data collected, now to be shared with ZSL for an upcoming report. Among many highlights, our work suggested that in terms of individuals, 97% of all recorded mussels were invasive, rather than native species in this section of the Thames. With mussels often being such an important component to freshwater communities, seeing such alien varieties so dominant is arguably of great environmental concern. Much is now left open for future research in this area of the Thames.

Particular thanks for such a great few days go to our ZSL partners but also the KCL team: Gemma Borelli, Nathan Goldstein, Claudia Gutierrez, Eleanore Heasley, Giacomo Moretti, Bruce Main, Mike Chadwick, Anna Lavelle, Eleri Pritchard, Richard Mason and Harry Sanders. As always, the debrief in the pub was a pleasure! –Daniel Mills, Kings College London

PhD Researcher Profile: Pratik Mishra

‘What can the study of informal and subversive practices by which peri-urban farmers lay claim to urban-oriented water flows in drinking and waste-water canals tell us about the equity and justice dimensions of urbanization in growing Indian cities?’

‘How do notions of honor attached to agricultural land interact with its market-determined value to create a context of exchange where different ‘regimes of value’ coexist?’

‘Why do countries with similar economic backgrounds end up with different levels of alcohol consumption per capita and different mixes of beer, wine and spirits up to the present day?’

 

These are three different questions that Pratik Mishra has committed his time to answering over the last 2 years before he joined King’s as a PhD researcher in Human Geography, basing his research more or less around the first question.

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Pratik Mishra is from Bhubaneswar, a city on the east coast of India. He completed his Bachelors in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur and his Masters in Sustainable Development Practice from TERI University, New Delhi. Though he has held no prior position that would strictly count as a job, he worked on a number of internships and his ethnographic rural field research experience would make for around 15 months cumulatively. In a subtle incremental way, this experience has helped him quite a lot in knowing the right questions to ask and negotiating research in completely new villages looking out of place with a backpack and a notepad (though he still remains quite afraid of stray dogs which is a significant occupational hazard in his line of work!)

Pratik’s project will explore the ways in which canals meant to serve the urban metabolism do not constitute inert flows as they make their way through ‘conduit’ peri-urban villages serving variously as sites of seepage, irrigation, theft, conflict, street-level bureaucracy, etc. The canals that represent rural-urban flows of water come to signify a relationship between the urban and its periphery that might be expropriative or otherwise, but of course in a much more nuanced sense. He hopes that his research will be able to intersect and provide new insights in literatures on Southern Urbanism, Water Politics and Institutions, and Urban Political Ecology. Given that social research on urban metabolism bringing out all the lopsided design, institution and politics will always have as its baseline motive and reality the human suffering that is a shameful consequence of it all, he aspires to not lose track of that all too human reality in situating his work around infrastructures. In that direction, narrative ethnographies on the borderlines of literary non-fiction are a thing of great fascination for him.

He received PGR funding from the Graduate School for his research. His Lead Supervisor is Dr. Alex Loftus.

Pratik’s three Water Words:

Network

 

                                    Norms

 

                                                                        Non-neutral

 

For more about research opportunities with King’s Water, check out our website. To keep up to date, follow us on Twitter!

By students, with students and for students: Furthering the discussion on water security

Stemming from a series of discussions regarding the future of development and cooperation in West Asia and North Africa (WANA), King’s College London recently hosted a Water Security Workshop in partnership with the University of Oxford, the University of East Anglia and The Third Line development think tank.  This workshop was organised by students for students wanting to build networks and to develop a forum for water security discussions.

Kieran Lutton, a MSc Water: Science & Governance student and a member of the organising committee, reports on the event:

Our host at King’s was King’s Water, a wide scoped interdisciplinary group concerned with researching water, environment and development spanning social and physical sciences. I sat on the Workshop Organisational Committee as a King’s Water graduate student. Following an undergraduate degree in BSc Geography, I have been completing my MSc in Water: Science and Governance this past year, and developed a keen interest in water related issues regarding both their cause and management. In particular, my course has delved into the WANA region among other arid areas in detail, and opened my eyes to the important dynamics of cooperation and conflict in these locations.

The workshop focussed on the potential for connectivity models through life elements such as food, water and energy. Not only did the workshop draw upon talks by academics with years of experience in the transboundary water resources field (Dr Mark Zeitoun and Dr Tony Allan from UEA and King’s respectively), but also early career academics with a range of interests and opinions regarding water the WANA region. It was these talks that later facilitated wide ranging and valuable discussions contemplating the common challenges between agriculture and water security, before identifying gaps and opportunities for future water-energy-food cooperation.

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Kieran with other members of the organising committee and speakers

 

From my own perspective, the workshop provided an interesting way to solidify what I have learnt this year at King’s. Particularly in the working group discussions I was able to contribute to the task, discussing the importance of greater discourse and transparency between stakeholders, a regional strategy, and the ways in which both could be supported in the future. On the other hand, the varied talks – ranging from the use of water as a weapon in Syria to the potential of solar power as an alternative energy source to benefit irrigation – built upon my own knowledge in a way that also highlighted both the scale and complexity of the task at hand.

The demand for the establishment of an international platform supported by academics in the WANA region is evident; an international platform that raises awareness and technical capacity of the region while overcoming the food security and irrigation paradox that currently exists. With this in mind, we are interested in continuing the work that has been made to date, but in the meantime a full report on our opening workshop can be found below.

Download workshop report

 

Marking a decade and then some: Developments in transboundary water analysis

King’s Water has been an active partner of the London Water Research Group and over the years hosted numerous workshops and events. The London Water Research Group is a vibrant network of 100+ international water professionals, activists and scholars from over 10 countries dedicated to understanding and influencing transboundary water management, politics and policy. Spanning across multiple disciplines, the group has published key articles on the deeply political nature of water cooperation, governance, water security and the political economy of water use. From King’s Water, master’s, PhD students, researchers now in academic positions and professionals have been involved in the development of this international network.

Now the London Water Research Groups marks a milestone with members publishing a capstone paper “Transboundary ‘hydro-hegemony’: 10 years later” in the journal WIREs Water. The paper traces the establishment and progress of transboundary water analysis of the group, now often known as the ‘London School’, and discusses future directions for scholarship. Authors of the paper are: Jeroen Warner (Wageningen University); Naho Mirumachi (King’s Water, KCL); Rebecca L. Farnum (King’s Water, KCL); Mattia Grandi (Independent Researcher); Filippo Menga (University of Reading; former visiting student to King’s); Mark Zeitoun (University of East Anglia).

Previous publications of the London Water Research Group can be found here. Requests of copies of the paper in WIREs Water are welcome to Naho Mirumachi as well.

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Seeing water science and policy come together: Beth reflects on her trip to the Okavango

My name is Beth and I’m a MSc Water: Science and Governance student at the Department of Geography, King’s College London. I have just returned from an interdisciplinary fieldtrip to the Okavango Delta, Botswana, in partnership with the PLuS Alliance, which gave us the chance to work in collaboration with students and staff from UNSW Sydney and Arizona State University. I got to experience ‘the science’ part of environmental management in a different country’s context; conducting aquatic, riparian and terrestrial-based ecological surveys, collecting water quality data and learning a lot from the Australian students’ various ecology and biology backgrounds.

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The most enjoyable part of the trip for me, besides the stunning safari drives and elephants, was ‘the governance’ aspect of the trip. We held a debate over the opportunities and challenges of managing the Okavango river basin from the perspective of each basin state, after lectures from UNSW’s Dr Richard Kingsford about adaptive management and King’s Dr Naho Mirumachi on the role of power in transboundary governance. It was rewarding to hear the themes we had discussed then reflected in a guest talk from Dr Ebenizário Chonguiça from the Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM).

Throughout the trip, our group were introduced to many stakeholders in the river basin. I’m now in the process of developing a podcast of conversations with the members of Botswana Predator Conservation Trust and Elephants Without Borders, to a former farmer, member of the Kalahari Conservation Society and past Permanent Secretary of the Botswanan Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. It was great to learn about the river basin in situ, to get an insight into the effects of human development on the valuable wetland ecosystem, how these views of development are contested, and how we use science to monitor the effects. It has helped me to explore ideas for my dissertation next term, such as exploring the trade-offs between maintaining a free-flowing river system and seeking transboundary cooperation to share-benefits from the basin’s development.

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This research trip comes after another water-orientated experience where I worked with WWF-UK as their Freshwater Science and Policy intern for three months at the start of 2017. The internship really appealed to me as a parallel to the science and governance elements of my course at Kings. It gave me a working insight into how an international organisation uses fieldwork, research and multidisciplinary expertise to become a knowledge producer and leading authority on environmental issues, and go on to empower communities and influence policy makers. I assisted in researching for, and drafting a primer on water infrastructure, and gave a talk on the impact of dams in front of many delegates from other national and international organisations.

All these experiences in my first year as a part-time student at King’s have given me real insight into many current water issues and how these can be tackled in a future career in water. After working alongside world class water experts and academics, seeing science and policy come together whilst working at WWF-UK or seeing it in the field in Botswana, it has been inspiring. I hope to go on to work in a research or policy role that makes a difference on the ground to people and the environment, wherever in the world that may take me.

Student Profile: Mari Joins Okavango Field Project

Following the previous post on the Okavango field project, we’re introducing Mari, one of our mix of BA, BSc, MSc students joining the trip. We’ll be featuring more stories from student and from the field so keep checking on our blog as well as twitter @ KingsWaterKCL !

” I am a final year BA geography student from West Wales graduating this July. I have spent the majority of my three years at King’s trying to find a balance between the human and physical disciplines of the subject. My interests lie in the meeting point of social-political dynamics and the physical conditions they are situated within. I have particularly enjoyed the various political ecology and related modules available at King’s to further this interest.

Throughout my three years here I have found a real passion for research, particularly in the developing country context. Previous studies I have been involved in have included fieldwork in Kerala, India in the second year; as well as a self organised Royal Geographical Society part-funded research trip to Napo in Ecuador to collect dissertation data. These experiences of international research have provided me with valuable experiences of research and other cultures.

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My trip to the Okavango is funded by the King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship (KURF) under the guidance of Dr. Naho Mirumachi.  It presents a final opportunity to get involved in an interdisciplinary study at King’s and hope to further my research experience with fieldwork in Okavango, Botswana.

I hope to better understand the dynamics of the river delta, including the socio-political structures that influence the river itself as well as development in the region. I also hope to benefit from working within an academic team, as well as in collaboration with students and lecturers from other universities across the world (Australia and the US) within the PLuSAlliance. Hopefully this fieldwork will result in the creation of a new truly interdisciplinary module for future students at King’s – something that I believe is vital to our subject. “

Setting off: Okavango field project for interdisciplinary learning

This month, King’s Water staff and students will travel to the Okavango delta in Botswana for an interdisciplinary project on river sustainability.  As part of the Global River Basins Connections project funded by the PLuS Alliance, a network between Kings, Univ of New South Wales and Arizona State Univ, this trip aims to enhance experiential learning on key issues of river basin management, water cooperation and conflict and human-ecosystem dependence.

The Okavango delta is a significant biodiversity hotspot as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The management of the river requires international cooperation with the river being shared between Botswana, Namibia and Angola.  This basin has also recently experienced drought, making the question of sustainability even more pressing.

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Students from the three universities will working together to practise various field sampling, survey skills and monitoring methods to understand the river and terrestrial environment as well as enhance their knowledge of river basin governance, development and geopolitics in this  transboundary setting.

From King’s Water, Dr Mike Chadwick, Dr Naho Mirumachi and Dr Emma Tebbs coordinates this trip to pilot an interdisciplinary fieldwork module for the Geography Department.  Six undergraduate and master’s students from the department have been selected on a competitive basis to join this trip.

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