Author : Vikrom Mathur

Published on Mar 21, 2024

Restoration, management, and protection of water resources can contribute to peace and long-term stability

Water for Peace: Sustainable water management can play a pivotal role in building and maintaining peace

This article is a part of the essay series: World Water Day 2024: Water for Peace, Water for Life

The growing demand for water resources induced by population growth, industrial development and climate change is increasing the vulnerability of communities across the world. Water scarcity has become a major concern in the past few years as its impacts on human security and sustainable development have become widely apparent. It is further expected to become a crucial point of engagement in geopolitics. 

However, contemporary narratives around water are often seen through the hawkish lens of conflict, while speculating that the water crisis may even lead to wars between countries. As we mark the UN World Water Day on 22 March with this year’s timely theme ‘Water for Peace’, it is crucial to emphasise that water has been a point of peace and cooperation far more than it has induced conflict. While water crises may have the potential to cause serious conflict, it also has a strong motivation for cooperation between groups and countries. Water cooperation has contributed to the establishment of several successful local and transnational agreements, policy guidelines, and practices that support sustainable and equitable management of shared water resources.     

The Indus Water Treaty that was signed in 1960 between India and Pakistan was seen as one of the most successful international treaties that has provided a framework for irrigation and hydropower development for over six decades. It has stood the test of time amid decades of military conflicts, border skirmishes and, territorial disputes between both the countries. Even within the strenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine, sharing the waters of the Jordan river has always proven to be a connecting point between nations providing a potential pathway towards peace. These instances bring to the fore the misguided notions of ‘water wars’ while reiterating that there are no clear instances of war fought over water. Furthermore, there are strong frameworks along with consistent global efforts towards sharing water resources of river basins through dialogue, cooperation, and participative management.  

Recently, through the emerging field of environmental peacebuilding, there has been increased attention and emphasis from researchers and policymakers on the crucial role of water management in fostering peace in post-conflict societies. By drawing insights from peace and conflict research, the emerging field is attempting to understand how restoration, management, and protection of water resources can contribute to peace and long-term stability. 

There are 276 transboundary basins providing 60 percent of the global fresh water flow which is shared among 148 countries. In addition, 300 aquifer systems are transboundary in nature with nearly 2.5 billion people across the world dependent on groundwater. In order to strengthen water security that caters to the growing demand, there is a need for frameworks that strengthen trust and develop mutual cooperation.

This cooperation is not only crucial at the national level but also at the local level to improve governance around water commons.  

One of the major challenges in recent times towards water security is the politicisation of natural resources. For instance, the longstanding conflict between the two Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over Kaveri river is one such example. The origins of the dispute dates back to the late 1800s when agreements were made between the princely state of Mysore (now part of Karnataka) and the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu). Seen as the crucial lifeline that cuts across the heart of South India, the dispute is primarily centred around the allocation of water resources during the periods of water scarcity. Although several agreements were attempted to resolve this issue peacefully, it is often used by the political parties as an electoral issue that gets flared up consistently. It has become increasingly apparent that effective conservation strategy—that goes beyond resource sharing but focuses on effective resource management—is the potential solution for the Kaveri water dispute.     

Poor management of water resources has forced the state of Karnataka into an abyss this summer as it faces a severe water crisis induced by poor rainfall in 2023. Its effects are felt strongly across the Bengaluru city which excessively depends on the Kaveri river and groundwater for its drinking water needs. This excessive reliance on Kaveri coupled with poor management of water resources has resulted in the current crisis. In the peak summer, the prices for these tankers skyrocket, which severely affects poor communities. As an emergency response, the deficit in drinking water is filled through tankers bringing water from nearby towns. Other efforts by the government include prohibiting the use of potable water for cleaning vehicles, construction activities, laws, etc. Several strategies that were in place through Karnataka Water Policy 2022, which includes recycling, reuse of treated wastewater and rainwater harvesting have not been implemented at scale. 

In the wake of these emerging issues around water crises, it is also an opportune time to rethink water subsidies for select agricultural crops. By moving away from water-intensive crops such as rice and incorporating dry-land crops including millets in our diets could be a game-changer. 

Resource management is key 

Effective management of water resources is crucial to determine the availability of water for daily use. This involves institutional strengthening, enhancing information management and infrastructure development for effective governance of water commons. Infrastructure at a city level includes rainwater harvesting structures to recharge groundwater, recycling of stormwater and wastewater, and developing non-conventional water sources such as fog harvesting, rain enhancement through cloud seeding, etc. 

Institutional tools such as legal and regulatory frameworks must shift their focus from merely a resource sharing perspective to a much wider view of resource conservation which includes interventions on water pricing and incentivisation of water conservation efforts. Furthermore, there is a need for strong information management systems that rely on monitoring available water resources, water accounting, and hydro-meteorological forecasts.  

There is no doubt that climate change and changing land use patterns will induce more stress on our natural resources including water in the years to come. Therefore, viewing this an opportunity for peacebuilding rather than a potential conflict in the making would create a more viable transitional pathway towards a sustainable future

Vikrom Mathur Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Vikrom Mathur

Vikrom Mathur

Vikrom Mathur is Senior Fellow at ORF. Vikrom curates research at ORF’s Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED). He also guides and mentors researchers at CNED. ...

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