Water scarcity is widely believed to be a common source of violent conflict. However, in a recent policy brief I wrote with Clionadh Raleigh, we show that a direct water-conflict link is largely refuted by empirical research.
In the conventional narrative, it is believed that population growth coupled with scarce water resources will lead to tensions. There is a danger in assuming such a simplistic causal relationship between a physical asset and societal response, since it detaches the problem from the political arena. A main insight from the book chapter The Absence of Water Conflicts in the Developing World: Evidence from Africa, upon which the policy brief builds, is that it is the politics of water, rather than scarcity per se, that increases the risk of conflict.
Rather than positing a direct relationship between the physical availability of water and violent conflict, one should look at how policies influence water availability and distribution.
Water, along with other public goods, is subject to corruption, the mixing of formal and informal authority, and access parameters which are not entirely based upon need. Water services are often distributed based on the political weight of communities, rather than on need and vulnerability. The distribution of water may favor specific groups and areas, while leaving other groups marginalized. For example, eight of ten people without improved water access live in rural areas. Furthermore, poor state management leads water services to be channeled through social networks and informal service providers, including militias and gangs, which increases insecurity. There are millions of urban dwellers that have unsafe, unreliable, and possibly privatized access to water; compared to other developing regions, African urban dwellers have the least access to water and sanitation.
This inequality may induce new contests in Africa, where environmental vulnerability is high, and the physical changes imposed by climate change are considered most pressing. The focus of policy makers and conflict researchers should be directed toward the way in which water policies benefit certain groups or geographical areas and leave others in marginalization and poverty.
Water politics is similar to the politics that govern public goods access throughout Africa, in that it is subject to the same abuse and corruption, mixing of formal and informal authority, and access parameters which are not entirely based upon need.
Click here to download the policy brief and read it in its full length.