War and peace and water

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In­dia is cur­rently fac­ing its worst water cri­sis in years, with an es­ti­mated 330 mil­lion peo­ple – one-quar­ter of its pop­u­la­tion – af­fected by se­vere drought. Ethiopia is also deal­ing with its worst drought in decades, which has al­ready con­trib­uted to the fail­ure of many crops, cre­at­ing food short­ages that now af­fect around a tenth of the pop­u­la­tion. Un­der such cir­cum­stances, the risk of ten­sion over re­sources is high.

In the past, droughts of this sever­ity have led to con­flict and even wars be­tween neigh­bour­ing com­mu­ni­ties and states. One of the first in recorded his­tory erupted around 4,500 years ago, when the city-state of La­gash – nes­tled be­tween the Ti­gris and Euphrates rivers in mod­ern-day Iraq – di­verted water from its neigh­bour, Umma. Com­pe­ti­tion for water sparked vi­o­lent in­ci­dents in an­cient China and fu­elled po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity in Pharaonic Egypt.

To­day, ac­tual wars be­tween coun­tries over water re­sources are un­com­mon, ow­ing to im­proved di­a­logue and cross-bor­der co­op­er­a­tion. But, within coun­tries, com­pe­ti­tion for scarce water is be­com­ing a more com­mon source of in­sta­bil­ity and con­flict, es­pe­cially as cli­mate change in­creases the sever­ity and fre­quency of ex­treme weather events. As we de­tail in our new re­port “High and Dry: Cli­mate Change, Water and the Economy,” lim­ited and er­ratic water avail­abil­ity re­duces eco­nomic growth, in­duces mi­gra­tion, and ig­nites civil con­flict, which fu­els fur­ther po­ten­tially desta­bil­is­ing mi­gra­tion.

This cy­cle has been ap­par­ent in some re­gions for decades. In Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, for ex­am­ple, pe­ri­ods of low rain­fall over the last 20 years have of­ten been fol­lowed by spikes in vi­o­lence, civil wars, and regime change. And in many parts of ru­ral Africa and In­dia, a de­cline in rain­fall has acted as a “push fac­tor” for in­ter­nal or cross-bor­der mi­gra­tion to more water-abun­dant places, of­ten cities, cre­at­ing new so­cial pres­sures as the num­bers of dis­placed peo­ple grow.

In our re­port, we pre­dict that water scarcity could act as a con­flict-risk mul­ti­plier, fu­elling cy­cles of re­source-driven con­flict, vi­o­lence, and dis­place­ment, es­pe­cially in al­ready water-stressed re­gions, such as the Mid­dle East and the Sa­hel in Africa, where agri­cul­ture re­mains an im­por­tant source of em­ploy­ment.

For­tu­nately, there is a way to avoid the cy­cle of poverty, de­pri­va­tion, and con­flict. If coun­tries take ac­tion now to im­ple­ment ef­fec­tive water-man­age­ment poli­cies and prac­tices, backed by well-de­signed in­cen­tives, they can not only re­verse the slide to­ward water scarcity, but also raise their rates of eco­nomic growth by as much as six per­cent­age points per year.

One water-scarce coun­try that has taken ac­tion to im­prove its re­silience to cli­mate change is Morocco. In years of low rain­fall, Morocco’s river-basin au­thor­i­ties give the low­est pri­or­ity to crop ir­ri­ga­tion, the largest con­sumer of the coun­try’s water. But, of course, agri­cul­ture re­mains crit­i­cal to feed the pop­u­la­tion. So, the gov­ern­ment has been in­vest­ing in mod­ernising ir­ri­ga­tion in­fra­struc­ture to pro­vide farm­ers with more ef­fi­cient water ser­vices that en­able them to ad­just more eas­ily to vari­a­tions in water avail­abil­ity.

The Moroc­can au­thor­i­ties are also work­ing to im­prove ground­wa­ter gov­er­nance, to avoid over-ex­trac­tion. Farm­ers en­gaged in rain-fed agri­cul­ture re­ceive sup­port that helps them to make bet­ter use of rain­fall – such as through the in­tro­duc­tion of cli­mate-re­silient prac­tices like di­rect seed­ing – re­sult­ing in higher yields than tra­di­tional prac­tices pro­duce dur­ing dry years.

The mes­sage from Morocco – and from our re­port – is that, with smart water poli­cies and in­ter­ven­tions, coun­tries can en­sure a cli­mate-re­silient, water-se­cure fu­ture. At the core of ef­fec­tive water-man­age­ment strate­gies will be im­proved plan­ning for water-re­source al­lo­ca­tion, the adop­tion of in­cen­tives to in­crease ef­fi­ciency, in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture for im­proved water se­cu­rity, and bet­ter ur­ban plan­ning, risk man­age­ment, and cit­i­zen en­gage­ment. The re­cently cre­ated In­ter­na­tional High-level Panel on Water, com­pris­ing ten heads of state, will be pro­mot­ing pre­cisely this agenda to foster bet­ter water man­age­ment glob­ally.

Of course, not ev­ery coun­try will fol­low the same path in safe­guard­ing a water-se­cure fu­ture. But, as coun­tries de­velop their strate­gies, they can look to one an­other for ideas and in­sights into what works – and what doesn’t. With strong and pru­dent ac­tion, gov­ern­ments around the world can cope ef­fec­tively with the nat­u­ral lim­i­ta­tions and un­cer­tain­ties af­fect­ing water re­sources, en­sur­ing that their peo­ple and economies are pre­pared for what might lie ahead.

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