The politics of water development: a source of conflict?

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The politics of water development: a source of conflict?


Lack of clean, accessible water is not due to a lack of fresh water on the planet. Instead, there are systemic issues in water development regarding infrastructure, funding and economic sustainability, and education. Approaching these issues from the perspective of political scientists, we can begin to view the issues as parts of a greater conflict in securing global development. This notion is not new – in fact, there is a growing body of literature dedicated to focusing on the politics of water development. Approaching water development as an issue of a political nature (sometimes called ‘hydropolitics’) can illuminate some of the additional areas of concern.

According to figures proposed by United Nations Sustainable Development research into the development of water and sanitation, by 2050, at least one in four people will be likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh, clean water. Targeted goals with broad scopes aim to tackle the issues related to sanitation, hygiene, resource management, water quality, water-related ecosystems, and public health. Clean water projects in needy areas incorporate expertise in engineering, health and medical needs, and education. Likewise, the politics of water development should be of special interest to political scientists.

Speaking during the 1990s, former World Bank vice-president Ismail Serageldin predicted, “The wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water”. Therein drives the question as to whether a nation would resort to conflict if water resources become too scarce or non-existent. Barnaby (2009) sees this notion of ‘water war’ as a myth reaffirmed by the attention given to global water crises; instead, her argument boasts the effectiveness of the mechanisms trade, international agreements, and economic development which ease water shortages. Moreover, identifying water as the ‘primary object of contention’ in a conflict is difficult, whereas the traditional notions of security, territorial claims, and identity play more central roles in conflicts with water-based issues present (Setter, Herschinger, Teichler, & Albert, 2011).

Outside of nation-state conflict, the lack of sustainable water development in key areas suffering from poor water quality, health crises, and sanitation issues is substantial and critical to community-based issues. In Mozambique, 14.8 million people have no clean water. Seven out of every 100 children in Mozambique die before turning five due to health crises linked to the lack of sanitation. Lack of clean water creates a competitive environment, leading to internal conflicts within communities over this vital resource.  This isn’t war – but it’s also not conducive for peace. Peace and security cannot be obtained without providing the necessities for survival.  Thus, it is imperative for political scientists to approach the notion of water development as something which may not directly cause conflict, but rather as a contributing factor interlinked with additional systemic issues which are conducive for potential conflict.

Barnaby, W. (2009). Do nations go to war over water? Nature, 458. pp. 282 – 283.

Stetter, S., Herschinger, E., Teichler, T., & Albert, M. (2011). Conflicts about water: Securitizations in a global context. Cooperation and Conflict, 46(4), pp. 441-459.

Kayla McCrary   Kayla McCrary (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Kayla McCrary
Kayla McCrary is currently a MSc student in International Relations at the Royal Holloway, University of London. Splitting her time as an undergraduate between the United Kingdom and her home country of the United States, she ultimately graduated with an Honours BSc in International Relations (minors in Modern European Studies and Political Science) from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. During her time as an undergraduate, Kayla participated in Model United Nations, worked in international development in Washington, D.C., and served as a peer reviewer for Scientia et Humanitas academic journal. Her main research interests include the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom, British politics and foreign policy, and research methods in International Relations. Kayla is currently living in London and doing research on the diplomatic relationship between former President Barack Obama and former Prime Minister David Cameron.

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