Water Has Significant Peacebuilding Potential, Say ECSP's Geoff Dabelko and Karin Bencala

Article in Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs Explores Prospects for Cooperation, Conflict Over Water

May 12, 2008

"There is considerable conflict over water, but it is not necessarily where politicians, journalists, or advocates suggest we should expect it. Countries have historically been quick to rattle their sabers over water, but they have nevertheless been content to keep them sheathed," write ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko and ECSP Program Assistant Karin Bencala in "Water Wars: Obscuring Opportunities," published in the Spring/Summer 2008 issue of Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs (JIA).

Dabelko and Bencala explain that the same water interdependencies that can make water a matter of high politics can also lead nations to avoid actual conflict and instead seek to cooperate. Joint water basin management initiatives such as the Nile Basin Initiative can help prevent conflict between states even when they are framed as development efforts. Transparent, equitable water management can also be critical to ending conflict and to preserving a fragile post-conflict peace.

Dabelko and Bencala do not discount water's potential to cause conflict, however, especially at the local level. Long-term drought and desertification are part of the causal mix in several of East Africa's conflicts. Large dams and water diversion projects have displaced tens of millions of people over the last century. Water pollution in China (coupled with SMS cell phone technology) has generated overnight demonstrations with tens of thousands of protesters. In arid parts of the developing world, women and girls must often walk long distances to collect water, and they are sometimes subjected to sexual violence on these journeys.

The Spring/Summer 2008 issue of the JIA, entitled "Water: A Global Challenge," features numerous contributors, including Aaron Wolf on water management and spirituality, Saleem Ali on the water politics of South Asia, Ashok Swain on the Nile Basin Initiative, and Marwa Daoudy on Israel and Syria's negotiations over the Golan Heights.

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