Water, conflict and social sustainability: Bringing power into the water security discourse


Given the manifold and vital roles of water for all manner of life, and its character as a limited resource, there will always be conflicts around water in the sense of clashes of interests in relation to different uses of water. These conflicts have the potential to turn violent and they therefore urgently need to be addressed. However, water conflicts do not necessarily have to have a violent outcome. The fact that some water conflicts remain peaceful does not, in turn, mean that they should not be attended to. Such latent conflicts are often characterised by power asymmetries and by an inequitable distribution of the water resource between actors, which is a problem in its own right.

This chapter has two main purposes. It will provide an overview of the debate on the relationship between (water) scarcity and conflict and it offers a critical perspective on how we can approach water conflicts within a sustainable development framework. As regards to the latter, two main arguments are presented. First, it is pivotal to place focus on power relationships regarding resource distribution in relation to conflicts over water, and second, that the concept of social sustainability can aid the process of analysing and addressing such conflicts and thereby create preconditions for water security.

The chapter begins, in its first section, by defining three core concepts: ‘conflict’, ‘scarcity’ and ‘power’, and then continues by outlining some of the main lines of argument as regards to the debate around the link between scarcity and conflict, both in general terms and in specific relation to water. Furthermore, the risks, identified in the water research literature, connected to water conflicts are outlined, as is the concept of water security. The second section presents how water governance is related to the concept of sustainable development and in particular the concept of social sustainability. This section also provides a discussion of how different populations are understood within a sustainable development discourse and what that means for water conflicts that are paid attention to in global policy. The third section presents how conflicts around water can be addressed through a focus on social sustainability and how this can aid the process of reaching a more water secure world. The chapter is then concluded.

The concepts of ‘conflict’, ‘scarcity’ and ‘power’

Before entering into the debate around the links between ‘scarcity’ and ‘conflict’ and how these are related to ‘power’, it is of importance to make clear how these main concepts are understood in this chapter.

In this chapter, a conflict is understood as a situation in which there is a clash of interest that is either latent or manifest and which can have the potential to either be solved peacefully or escalate into violence. The concept of ‘conflict’ will here, furthermore, be used in order to describe different kinds of conflicts (international, intranational) that take place at different scales (regional, local, basin level), involving different types of actors (state actors and non-state actors such as communities and civil society organisations).

Another important aspect when trying to classify conflicts that involve water is to address the question of what role water has in that very conflict. Researchers who have aimed to give an account of the prevalence of water conflicts distinguish between different kinds of water disputes. The Pacific Institute, with Peter Gleick as its president, tracks and categorises events in relation to water and conflict. This project differs between conflicts in which water is the root of the tensions, a category which they term ‘control of water resources’, and in which water is a military tool, a political tool, the target or tool of terrorist actions of non-state actors, or the military tool of state actors, and lastly in which water is a source of dispute in relation to economic and social development (Pacific Institute, 2017). It is recognised that events can fall into more than one category and that the definitions above are ‘imprecise’ (ibid.). This chapter will give an overview of how different kinds of conflicts have been addressed in the academic literature but will also, in the latter half, provide a critical view on the specific kinds of conflicts that global policy tends to emphasise.

‘Scarcity’ is likewise not a straightforward concept but can rather be used to describe a number of different situations and causes for the lack of water. One common way of expressing the difference between different forms of scarcities is to distinguish between physical, economic and institutional water scarcity. Physical scarcity is when water is limited in quantity or quality. In contrast, economic scarcity depicts a situation where lack of funding and/for infrastructure is the reason that water does not reach the users, and, lastly, institutional scarcity describes a situation where the lack of capacity and institutional framework is the reason that reliable access to water cannot be ensured (see for example FAO, 2016).

There are also several different ways of assessing physical water scarcity'. One way has been to divide countries into those that are water-stressed (when the annual water supply drops below 1,700 m3 per person), water scarce (when the annual water supply drops below 1,000 m3 per person) and suffering from absolute scarcity (when the annual water supply drops below 500 m3 per person). Such a way of measuring scarcity' fails, however, to take into account the differences between countries in terms of their specific patterns of water usage (FAO, 2012, referenced in WWDR, 2016). In order to come to terms with this, another measure has been proposed that instead focuses on the human pressure on water resources in a specific country. This is the way of measuring water scarcity that has been adopted in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (WWDR, 2016).1 There are, however, limitations of such measures as well as the fact that these do not take into account distributional issues within or between different countries. Basin analysts of water scarcity is, in turn, a way of dealing with such shortcomings (WWDR, 2016). For the argument of this chapter, the differences between such definitions and situations of water scarcity is of utmost importance as water scarcity is not viewed solely as a natural phenomenon but rather as connected to institutional factors as well as economic, cultural and social customs and practices.

A third central concept of this chapter is power. Power has multiple understandings (see for example Lukes, 2005) but in the context of this chapter it is understood as relational and productive and in a sustainable development context, particularly focused on the governing of populations. Such a view of power is indebted to the way that Foucault has theorised power (see Foucault, 1977; 1998; 20032). That power is relational means that power is viewed as something that is exercised in social networks and relations in which actors acquire different positions. These different positions are not naturally given. They are to be viewed as the consequence of the productive aspect of power, which assigns different roles and structural positions to actors and the way these actors understand themselves through assemblages of knowledge/power. These assemblages, in turn, are productive of particular ways of seeing and understanding the world. Thus, power is productive of our realities, particular subjectivities, but it is also, especially in a sustainable development regime, productive of particular notions of populations and their relationships to resource use and environmental effects.

The relationship between scarcity and conflict

The role of resource scarcity (not only regarding water) in relation to conflict is a much-debated topic. In global policy, the case has, for some time now, been made that shortages of natural resources can trigger conflicts, social unrest and even civil wars (see for example UN, 2009, cited in Mildner et al., 2011).

The ways in which the links between scarcity and conflict are understood are part of a long trajectory. Ultimately, this debate dates back to the stipulations of Thomas Malthus’ population thesis which put forward that population growth increases faster than its means of subsistence but is ‘kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice’ (Malthus, 1798). What is central along this way of reasoning is that if populations do not consider the future in their present consumption their actions will be destructive and population growth will eventually decline. Important to note here is also that in the original

Malthusian theories, it was certain populations that were seen as unable to instil a sense of futurity: the poor and the ‘underdeveloped’ populations of the colonies (Tellmann, 2013; see also Hellberg, 2018 for a development of this argument in specific relation to water governance).

In environmental discourse, the focus of neo-Malthusian perspectives has not been so much on the effects of population trends but on the effects of increasing populations and their resource use in relation to effects on the environment. Such problematisations have drawn attention to the question of ‘overpopulation’, as the root of environmental problems, one of the central figures in this debate being Paul Erhlich (see Ehrlich, 1968). Working within such frames of reasoning, the scarcity of resources following population growth has been argued to have a positive relationship to (violent) conflict since the increase in populations grow faster than the increase in the supplies of the means of existence.

Thomas Homer-Dixon argued at the beginning of the 1990s (see for example Homer-Dixon, 1994) that environmental scarcity causes violent conflicts and that such conflicts tends to be ‘persistent, diffuse, and sub-national’ (ibid., p. 36). Homer- Dixon also stipulated that the frequency of such conflicts will increase sharply in the coming decades because that scarcity (of such resources such as cropland, water, forests and fish) was projected to worsen in many parts of the world (ibid.).

Such stipulations have long been questioned by researchers who focus instead on the role of innovation in overcoming resource scarcity, such as Boserup (1973) and those who focus on the role of institutions and questions of inequality (for an overview of this debate see Mildner et al., 2011). Recently there has been a wealth of research which has argued that governance and distributional issues affect whether conflicts around resources escalate or not (see for example Benjaminsen and Ba, 2009; Moyo, 2005; Saad-Filho and Weeks, 2013). This means that the neo-Malthusian thesis has been strongly questioned in terms of the direct links between resource scarcity' and conflict that such a perspective stipulates. One aspect is particularly central to the argument of this chapter. Mildner makes this explicit; she writes that ‘[cjase studies that include institutions and power relations in their analysis paint different pictures of resource scarcity’ (Mildner, 2011, p. 162).

The water context: different types of conflicts and perspectives on conflict and cooperation

In the specific context of water, the issue of water scarcity and the relationship to conflict was a hot topic in the 1990s. It was then that the hypothesis around the increasing risk for so-called water wars emerged in both policy and academic debates. At this period of time, such suppositions revolved around the conflicts between sovereign states, that is ‘water wars’ (see Starr, 1991). Subsequently, that water is the new ‘oil’ that we will go to war for in the future became an often-repeated mantra in media as well as in policy circles.

In academia, this debate has now matured. At present, there is a recognition that water, rather than being a cause of conflict, much more often is a catalyst for cooperation (see Wolf et al., 2003; Yoflfe et al., 2003; Yoflfe et ah, 2004). The case has also been made that conflict and cooperation often co-exist and that there is a need for problematising the common view that all conflicts are inherently ‘bad’ and conversely that all cooperation is ‘good’ (Zeitoun and Mirumachi, 2008; Mirumachi and van Wyk, 2010). A critical perspective on cooperation, these authors argue, is needed because of the power imbalances between the parties in water agreements (ibid.). These dynamics have first and foremost been identified in transboundary settings. While this strand of research has remained central to the debate on water conflicts, a larger emphasis is now placed on internal and local conflicts instead of international ones. It is this type of conflict that this chapter will focus on in its remaining parts.

Research on this type of conflict has placed focus on relationships between actors such as communities and commercial fanners and the forestry and biofuel industries (see for example Funder et al., 2012; Gillet et al., 2014; Mutopo and Ghiweshe, 2014). Another, albeit less explored, theme is intra-community dynamics in relation to water conflicts and how class, gender and ethnicity affect the evolvement and nature of such conflicts, which, for example can revolve around irrigation and infrastructure projects (ibid.).

Funder et al. provide important lessons to be learned about dynamics of conflict and cooperation in terms of intra-community dynamics. As is the case in many transboundary settings, the relationship between the different actors (in this case households) is characterised by asymmetrical power and dependency relations. Funder et al. find that the poorest in these contexts engage in collaborative activities but also apply risk avoidance strategies in order to avoid sanctions from more wealthy households to which they are dependent, for example in terms of work opportunities. Because of this dependency, poorer households abstain from confronting more powerful actors in water conflicts, which in turn might end up sustaining inequalities (Funder et al., 2012).

This, Funder et al. argue, should in no way be seen as that the poor do not have agency in relation to navigating their own interest but rather that their way of acting in relation to water conflicts has the character of risk minimising. This, in turn, means that they might turn to ‘alternative, less desirable sources of water rather than engaging in any direct confrontation with more powerful actors’ (ibid., p. 32). Because of these dynamics that Funder et al. have identified, the authors place focus on the problem of engaging grass-roots organisations in water decision making as a way of accommodating community interests as these organisations might become biased towards the interests of the more well-off rather than working solely in the interests of the poorest.

Funder et al. suggest that a broad approach is needed in order to address the position of the poorest in water conflicts. Such an approach includes expanding the range of options available in institutional and socio-economic terms such as providing alternative organisational space where the poor can articulate their grievances. Examples that Funder et al. provide in relation to this matter are customary conflict resolution mechanisms, other community organisations, local government structures, NGOs or informal trusted parties (such as teachers and health workers). Another critical area that is identified by Funder et al. is that firm rights and water-sharing agreements need to be developed and, most importantly, monitored and maintained.

However, as will be argued in this chapter, for the grievances expressed through such alternative space to be taken seriously there is a need for a change in the attitudes of how we view different populations and their relationships to resource use and access. We must therefore go beyond creating better institutional frameworks in order to address the situation of the poorest. This since the frameworks put in place for participation in water governance are constructed within the very space which makes a separation between poor and rich communities in terms of their ability to act sustainably. Furthermore, they premiere the current political economy and its economic growth paradigm. Hence, without such a change, the interests of private companies and wealthier populations will continue to override the interests of the poor in mainstream water governance efforts.3

The water context: risk and water (in)security

The cumulative result of the research that has looked into dynamics of conflicts, both in transboundary and in national and local contexts, has involved a greater awareness of the different factors that potentially could lead to future water conflicts. Such aspects include shifts in water resource availability because of factors related to climate change, population growth, irrigation and dam construction as well as the lack of institutional capacity (Petersen-Perl- man et al., 2017). Some have also placed special focus on the ways in which inequality affects (the risk of) conflict (see for example Funder et al., 2012; Gunasekara et al., 2014). This awareness, together with the acknowledgement of the complex relationships between these different factors, has placed the concept of risk at the centre of the water and conflict debate. At present, identifying, assessing and addressing risks for future hydro-political conflicts is thus one of the central tasks for policy and academia. One central concept within water governance in general, as well as in relation to risks, threats and vulnerabilities in particular, is the concept of water security, which has become one of the most influential in global water policy discussions during the last decade, especially in the context of climate change.

In the process of moving focus from international water conflicts to intranational, there has been a subsequent change in focus in terms of the subjects of (insecurity. This change has involved a move from the focus on the relationships between sovereign states to that of internal conflicts between actors within them. Specifically, this has involved an increasing focus on the water security of individuals, as a part of human security. In tandem with this development, most notions of water security7 lean towards focusing on the individual level and have had little reference to military security7 and so-called water wars. There is, however, no single definition of the water security term as academics as well as policy institutions and organisations apply different definitions.

While the early definitions of water security were human centred (Srinivasan et al., 2017), typically focusing on access to sufficient and affordable water to satisfy human needs, most contemporary approaches embrace a broad understanding of water security focusing on both human and ecosystem needs (ibid.; Cook and Bakker, 2012). One example of such a broad definition, which is based on UNESCO’s International Hydraulic Programme, is proposed in UN Water’s analytical brief:

Water security is defined here as the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water- related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability. (United Nations University, 2013, p. 1)

Other definitions have been proposed. Global Water Partnership (GWP) presents the following definition:

Water security, at any level from the household to the global, means that ever)' person has access to enough safe water at affordable cost to lead a clean, healthy and productive life, while ensuring that the natural environment is protected and enhanced. (GWP, 2000 p. 1)

The 2015 WWDR builds on Grey and Sadoffs (2007) definition:

Water security: The availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environment and economies. (Grey and Sadoff 2007, cited in WWDR, 2015, p. 86)

I will come back to the concept of water security in the last section of the chapter. In particular, I will return to the definition proposed in UN Water’s analytical brief as this definition places focus on the level of the population, which is central to the argument of this chapter. First, I will, however, introduce the concept of social sustainability within the larger frame of sustainable development and also outline how it relates to conflicts, especially in terms of how inequality might play a role.

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