PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Water Resources in Regional Conflicts

November 8, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations



Roundtable on Environmental Stress and Conflict

November 8, 2002

Presider and Project Director: Ann R. Markusen

The speaker presented research that he conducted over nine years (1989-1998) in cooperation with several American organizations and foundations. The studies, carried out with one hundred researchers in fifteen countries, examined the links between scarcities of environmental resources – cropland, fresh water, and forests – and mass violence, including insurgencies, ethnic clashes, urban unrest, and rural banditry. Afterwards, a discussant described what he felt were the failings of the speaker's project.

The speaker's conclusions include the following:

• Environmental scarcity is a significant cause of violence in developing countries. The speaker identified a few such cases where we see such linkages between scarcities of resources and conflict by referring to a few brief news headlines:

a. "Bolivia calls an emergency after protest over water" La Paz, Bolivia. (The New York Times, April 9, 2002).

b. "Fourteen killed in Tana River Clashes" Nairobi, Kenya. (U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks, November 20, 2001).

c. "87 orphans will the the told of the killers next door" Santiago Xochiltepec, Mexico. (The New York Times, June 4, 2002).

d. "In Israel and Lebanon, talk of war over water" Karf Kila, Lebanon. (The New York Times, October 16, 2002).

• The links between environmental scarcity and violence are usually indirect. Therefore, the role of scarcity as a cause of violence is often not recognized. The speaker uses a two-stage model:

a. Scarcities of renewable resources precipitate intermediate social effects of various kinds – increases of localized poverty, institutional breakdown, large-scale migrations, and deepening of segmentation of ethnic groups.

b. These social effects then contribute to violence.

• Environmental scarcity is neither a necessary nor sufficient cause of violence; rather, it is one component of a complex, multivariate set of causes. The relationship between these causes is invariably synergistic or interactive.

• The response of political, social, and economic systems to such environmental stresses is almost always nonlinear. Predicting the specific incidence of violence, therefore, is usually impossible.

a. Non-linear: there can be stickiness in social systems so that change is not incremental. For example, there may be a build-up of stress that leads to a sudden break-down of the social or economic system, which in turn causes violence to erupt. Watch-lists or specific predictions of violence arising from environmental stress are likely to be unsuccessful because of such threshold effects.

• Violence to which environmental scarcity contributes is usually sub-national, diffuse, and chronic; outright "resource wars" are unlikely. Early on, people assumed that if environmental stress was a cause of major conflict, it was likely to cause wars among countries. However, the speaker did not see such a phenomenon in his research.

a. Wars over Water: The speaker felt the claim that we will see wars over water in the 21st century is erroneous. Only a very specific and unusual combination of factors, he explained, lead to such wars between countries. For example, the upstream country must have the ability to divert the water supply; the downstream country must have a significant dependence on that water supply; there must be a history of antagonism between the two countries; and the downstream country must be significantly more powerful militarily than the upstream country. If these conditions hold, then the likelihood of violence increases significantly, yet there are very few places in the world where such conditions do hold. The most obvious example is the area surrounding the Nile – people speculate about war between Egypt and Ethiopia, or perhaps the Sudan.

• Environmental scarcity, in combination with other political, economic and social factors, contributes to violence. This violence produces institutional dysfunction, which in turn prevents the social system from responding effectively to scarcity. For instance, markets may cease to work properly so that entrepreneurs no longer have incentive to respond effectively to the scarcity.

• The incidence of diffuse, sub-national violence will increase in the future because a large fraction of the world's population will remain dependent on renewable resources for day-to-day needs. Currently, about half of the world's population is dependent on local water, land, and fuel-wood supplies, yet interacting demand, supply, and distributional pressures are exacerbating local resource scarcities. At the same time, national economic, political, and social institutions are in many cases too weak to provide an effective collective response.

Conversation centered on the aim and methodology of the speaker's research, the two models of conflict and the possibility of combining them, and the speaker's recommendations to the U.S. government, which include the following:

• As an aid to policymaking, the U.S. administration should develop the internal capacity to track severe environmental and demographic stresses in the developing world and to predict their negative social outcomes, including violence.

• To cope with the additional 2 billion people that will be added to the developing world's population over the next 25 years, the U.S. should substantially and immediately increase funding to the Consultative Groups on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system of agricultural research institutes.

• The U.S. should undertake a major research and policy effort to reform the current system of national income accounts to incorporate the costs of depletion and degradation of our environment.

• The United States should use its influence with the governments of rich countries, commercial banks, and international financial institutions (IFIs) to reduce the debt burden on poor countries.

• American development aid should be targeted to build poor countries' technical capacity in environmental management.

• The United States should work with other rich countries to coordinate efforts to fund the development and diffusion of environmentally benign technologies for use in poor countries.

The discussant described three ways in which his thoughts and conclusions diverged from those of the speaker.

1. He felt that the conclusions were too complex to hold the attention of the media and the foreign policy community. The message was too dense, in other words, collapsing under its own weight.

2. Each case studied, he noted, was so distinct that one could not generalize about a causal connection between environmental stress and conflict. The research, therefore, failed to generate useable policy recommendations: the speaker's advice was unrealistic, banal, or too broad in scope. Moreover, the research could not be used to create a watch-list of troubled areas in the world, and such a list is what policy makers seek.

3. The speaker attempted to appeal to two policy communities: one focusing on civil war, and one focusing on the environment. Civil war, as the speaker described it, is a symptom of grievance and political collapse stemming from the lack of access to vital resources. However, the discussant pointed out that there is another model of civil war that contains no environmental element. According to this model, civil war is a criminal activity: when the perceived benefits exceed the risks, people engage in violence in order to obtain private or group gain. The discussant said that he would rather see environmentalists work to include their issues in the development agenda instead of both the development and peace agendas, as the speaker did. The clear, compelling connections between environmental stress and development, the discussant argued, can more easily be acted upon.

More on This Topic


Prioritizing Water on the Global Agenda

Speaker: Angel Gurría
Presider: P. J. Simmons

Angel Gurría provides his perspective on the crucial need to deliver on present and future water challenges around the world, and advocates...


Water and U.S. National Security

Speaker: Joshua W. Busby
Speaker: David Michel
Presider: Paul B. Stares

As part of the Center for Preventive Action's Flashpoint Roundtable Meeting Series, Joshua Busby, associate professor of public affairs at...

Other Report

Water and U.S. National Security

Author: Joshua W. Busby

Water and security are inextricably linked in every region of the world, yet water as an issue for U.S. national security lacks sustained...

Research Links


Provides background information on water rights and conservation, data on water availability, water issues related to environmental and...