Water and War: The turbulent dynamics between water and fragility, conflict, and violence


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For the past two years, the rains have been poor in Somalia. What comes next is tragically familiar. Dry wells. Dying livestock. Failed harvests. Migration.  Masses of people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The same is happening in Yemen, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. However, poor rains are not the only water problem that creates havoc. Floods, water-borne diseases, and transboundary water conflicts can all cause severe human suffering and disruptions to political, economic, and environmental systems.

As we rush to mobilize resources to respond to the famine, we also need to ask ourselves why this downward spiral continues to happen. Water has always been a source of risk. Drought and floods have always occurred, and with climate change we can expect them to be more frequent and more severe. But crises on the scale we see today in these drought-stricken countries do not arise solely from these natural events; they arise from our failure to manage these age old risks. When institutions fail to prepare, predict, or respond to water-related risks, the impact of a dry well, of a cholera outbreak, or of a flood have much greater human, political, and economic consequences.

In countries experiencing fragility, conflict, and violence, it is particularly challenging to achieve water security – that is, to deliver water services to the population and to protect them against water-related risks. Resources are spread thin. Physical security creates limitations. Infrastructure is damaged by violence and people become forcibly displaced. It is also particularly costly to fail in these contexts.
Today, 2 billion people live their lives affected by fragility. By 2030, virtually half of all the world’s poor will live that way.

A new report, Turbulent Waters: Pursuing Water Security in Fragile Contexts, describes what happens when institutions in fragile countries fail to manage the range of challenges related to water.  When water insecurity repeatedly affects populations, it can act as a risk multiplier, fueling the perception that institutions and governments are ‘not doing enough’, exacerbating existing grievances, creating new risks, and deepening inequities. In turn, this contributes to destabilizing already fragile contexts, aggravating the challenges of water management, and perpetuating a vicious cycle of water insecurity and fragility.

We must work to disrupt this vicious cycle of water insecurity and fragility . Greater water security can help prevent countries from sliding further into fragility. It can provide a measure of resilience against water-related disasters, and a tangible demonstration of a government’s ability and commitment to provide basic services. In this report, we discuss how investments to reverse the cycle of water insecurity and fragility can take place during situations of development opportunity, when conflict has subdued, or during times of crisis, when conflict is still ongoing.

At moments like these, as humanitarian crises unfold, we must redouble our efforts to use water as a path toward resilience and stability .



Claudia W. Sadoff

Director General, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

Edoardo Borgomeo

Water Resources Management Specialist, World Bank

Ed Bourque
April 19, 2017

The humanitarian context you describe is clearly a unique and particularly challenging situation. Floods and other disasters destroy homes and livelihoods, leaving households in tenuous situations, rife with horrible environmental sanitation contexts. Building adaptation capacity to these challenges is a major way to provide security to households.
In a more general/non emergency context, I think that there should be a greater focus on the distinction between the issues behind IWRM-scale scarcity and mis-allocation/poor management of bulk water and determinants of access to drinking water.
Ultimately, access to water is often a factor of affordability of water and accountability (or failure) of governments to provide and as is cited in the report's summary:
"(1) failure to provide citizens with basic water services;
(2) failure to protect citizens from water-related disasters; and
(3) failure to preserve surface, ground and transboundary water

April 19, 2017

we are human, how we help the humanity. every peoples in the world is worry about his own so many problems no one worry about another problems of foods, water and air.

Nand Kishore Kumar
April 19, 2017

My native village is flood affected area.But Nuclear Power Plant at Rajauli in Nawada District Bihar India faces scarcity of perennial source of water. Hence ,both scarcity and abundance of water is regretted.

April 20, 2017

This is a must read for all people living in the African continent, especially people in influential positions. The current perception about portable water availability should change, and be replaced by the fact that the dams that are filled with water can soon dry out.

January 31, 2019

Through history, conflicts have been waged for vital resources on all continents. But nothing more valuable then water. Due to the diminishing supply of water, rising ocean levels and the continued disregard for climate change, conservation and treaties need to be negotiated. Countries are interconnected due to this resource. Conflicts can be avoided through conservation and working together to accomplish the ultimate goal of survival. Without water all communities will disappear.

Faith Weyombo
April 27, 2017

Cross sectoral approach
The water fragility issue can not be tackled in isolation but by involvement and consultation with those in the environmental sector to find ways to preserve the few existing sources and communities to find a way to share them harmoniously, water management agencies to recycle and reuse as much as possible, harvest in times of plenty as witnessed during the long rains and floods in some areas in Kenya and investing in long term preventive solutions as opposed to short term solutions to address insufficient water supply that are often costly and short lived and don't reach all intended beneficiaries in time. For example real efforts in preservation of water catchment areas and warding off human encroachment or look for symbiotic ways of coexistence between communities and forests as opposed to exploitation for purely commercial purposes depleting the natural resources.

July 13, 2017

There won't BE any water - or unsunk land with any water - in 20-30 years.
Water is not a human right. Water belongs to life, to the Great Mother and all who live by her simple laws.
It is hers to give, hers to take away, and man can do nothing now but reap the effects of his irresponsible actions. Nothing.
It's over.

May 31, 2018

About 1 in 12 people globally lack access to clean water and proper sanitation.
Around 800,000 children under the age of 5 die each year, 150,000 of which are due to a water-related illness. In 2018, this is wholly unacceptable.
People affected by water scarcity issues are caught in a vicious cycle wherein the factors for their issues are well beyond their control. Be it war, political turmoil, rapid urbanization, or sheer incompetent government. Unfortunately, lack of water usually exacerbates the problem, compounding itself.
Communities without reliable access to clean water are overwhelmingly unable to pull themselves out of poverty, yet it is incredibly difficult for those in poverty to gain access to clean water without outside help. This is where international organizations need to make a concerted effort to change the conditions and turn the tables.