Taming conflict through research and engagement
By Sara Drexler
Throughout the river basins of the world, water management issues have been caused or exacerbated by instances of destructive conflict. On Wednesday, experts gathered at the Stockholm World Water Week session entitled “Water Management and Peacebuilding: Connecting the Local to International Policy” to share examples and theoretical frameworks around peacebuilding and water.
Globally, we are approaching the “perfect storm” for water demand, of scarcity and climate change, that will lead to conflict situations if we are unable to collaborate and promote understanding, emphasized Dr. Alain Vidal, Director of the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF).
Collaboration will help us mitigate water issues, but speakers at the session agreed that collaboration agreements must include two important factors: they must be grounded in science and must involve multi-stakeholder engagement.
Get the evidence
Frequently, stakeholder perceptions surrounding water use and water scarcity are not connected with proper science based evidence, yet stakeholders do not have mechanisms to receive evidence to make informed opinions and decisions.
In order to “hit the right target”, Vidal explains, stakeholders need access to information about the scientifically understood causes of the issue. CPWF has researched food, water and poverty in ten basins around the world, including the Andes, Volta, Niger, Sao Francisco, Limpopo, Nile, Karkheh, Indo-Gangetic, Yellow and Mekong Basins. Parsing empirical data to find what affects local and regional issues is not always simple, but it is vital.
Misperceptions in Ghana
For example, in the Volta Basin, Ghanaian authorities had concerns that small reservoirs upstream, storing water for crops, livestock and fisheries both within Ghana and in Burkina Faso, were threatening Ghana’s ability to generate power from the Akosombo Dam. After extensive research, CPWF found that evaporative losses from small reservoirs, such as those upstream from the Akosombo Dam, were less than 50% of that which was previously assumed. In the Volta Basin, Vidal explained, quadrupling the number of small reservoirs already in existence would use up less than 1% of the total available water.
Researchers realized that the hydropower crisis in Ghana was not caused by these small reservoirs; conflict was arising among stakeholders based on misperceptions. As Vidal explains, using science to inform the conversation between stakeholders will make sure we are going to “hit the right target”. These better feedback mechanisms can link policy aspirations and local realities, helping to fuel the local dialogue that will lead to cooperation.
The second factor that must be present in collaboration is multi-stakeholder engagement. Diane Hendricks from Quaker United Nations Organization (QUNO) discussed their approach to bring conflicting parties together to discuss water resources. Because water issues have so many stakeholders, from government agencies to local people to NGOs, the process of mitigating conflict must be all-inclusive.
Hendricks says that skills building and attitude change must be made at all levels for the source of destructive conflict to be mitigated. If the local government’s concerns about a water project are met, but the local people have not yet built skills to interact with that government, conflict will inevitably reemerge.
Dialogue in the Mekong River Basin
A particularly illustrative example of this type of engagement can be seen in the Mekong River Basin. Government representatives did not engage the local communities in decision making around dams and hydropower in the Mekong region. CPWF sought to increase public participation in these processes, given the high impact on local agriculture, fisheries and land heritage.
CPWF took local stakeholders and government representatives to tour the river together, from the banks to existing dams. Bringing the stakeholders together at the river to discuss issues at the source brought a new level of understanding to the multiple stakeholders that rely on the Mekong’s limited resources. Today, if decisions regarding hydropower dams remain driven mostly by economic imperatives, dialogues have been established with stakeholders that enable decision-makers to consider different strategies.
The nature of our current water stressed world will likely continue to engender conflict, especially as population grows and climate change advances. At World Water Week, experts may not have agreed on precise mechanisms or programs to mitigate conflict around water, but they did agree on two things: peacekeeping attempts must target the real problem using well-informed research, and they must include all stakeholders, from the federal government to the pastoralist land owner.
For more information:
CPWF Water Dialogue Posters - promoting dialogue and discussion in river basins
About the Author:
Sara Drexler (@drexsa) is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania working toward a Master of Environmental Studies degree with an emphasis in Corporate Sustainability. Previously, Sara was the Sustainability Analyst intern at FMC Corporation. She received her undergraduate degree from Colgate University.