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Water security is deteriorating worldwide. How are water scarcity and conflicts connected? And how can joint expertise and collaboration in water management help in such situations? The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership argues that a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder response is required to successfully address water-related tensions.
People are interconnected through water and multiple stakeholder collaboration is required for sustainable and conflict-sensitive water resources management. Stakeholders are in this together, for better and for worse. Water management, often seen as a technical expertise, is in fact also a social and political field of expertise.
Fresh water is essential for all life. Therefore, the stakes are extremely high to ensure reliable, safe and sufficient access to water for all, to sustain ecosystems which provide key assets for livelihoods and economies. As water is a shared resource, its management is also a shared responsibility. When a dam is built upstream in a river, it may decrease water flows, impacting food production in downstream communities or countries. Similarly, when water is pumped excessively from the ground for irrigated agriculture, this may deplete drinking water wells on which communities nearby depend. A drought can displace people, leading to tensions in host communities that receive them. It could also result in food scarcity, leading to price sparks in distant cities. People are thus connected through the water resources they use. Water shocks may have rippling impacts on communities close by and far away.
Water shocks, like a drought or flood, can stress social, political and economic relations and may even trigger conflict. Conflicts may emerge due to direct competition over scarce water resources. However, it is more common for water insecurity to act as a threat multiplier, adding pressures to existing social and economic tensions. Such pressures can lead to escalations of tensions, especially in already strained and fragile contexts.
The vulnerability of societies to water-related conflicts is determined by a complex and dynamic system of intervening factors. A key factor is the level of resilience that mitigates water shocks and their impacts. This resilience covers both the resilience of ecosystems to absorb water shocks and the resilience of communities and societies to deal with their implications in an effective and peaceful way. Strengthening resilience through sustainable water management and by strengthening social cohesion and (water) governance, are key interventions that can prevent or mitigate water-related conflicts. This requires collaboration among stakeholders who have a stake in - or can influence - water management and the impacts of water shocks.
The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership argues that a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder response is required to successfully address water conflicts for three reasons: First of all, both water management and peace building require different stakeholders to collaborate. Furthermore, the issues at stake cover multiple sectors and areas of expertise. And thirdly, effective action at scale needs scientists, practitioners, decision makers and communicators from different disciplines and backgrounds to work in partnership.
Collaboration in water management as a driver for peace
Both effective water management and peacebuilding require multi-stakeholder cooperation. The shared nature of water resources implies that effective management requires the involvement of key water users and water managers, while bringing in technical experts. This is best done in a context of collaboration and trust. At the same time, peacebuilding centres around enhancing collaboration, and trust among different parties to a conflict. Peacebuilding efforts will be more sustainable if natural resources, like water, are taken into account as potential drivers of both conflict and peace. Both fields of work strengthen each other. Therefore, WPS aims to work on both at the same time and integrate them.
Joint expertise from different sectors
When understanding and addressing water-related conflicts, both the socio-political /economic and the biophysical context (which refers to ecosystems and water systems) are relevant. The interactions within the biophysical system, between biophysical systems and society, and between various societal actors are complex, and are not easily understood without analysis. WPS therefore includes expertise in hydrology and environmental sciences and from social sciences, such as political science, law and conflict and peacebuilding expertise, aiming to bridge between these disciplines.
A partnership for capacity building, dialogue and policy advice
To be able to take adequate action, relevant stakeholders need to understand the complex and dynamic systems behind specific water-related conflict risks in specific local contexts. Key decision makers also need to feel the urgency to undertake conflict-sensitive and effective interventions and to mobilize the required capacities. To this end, WPS offers early warning and analytical tools, provides policy advice, raises awareness, enhances capacities and supports dialogues, adapted to local needs. To do this, WPS unites scientific expertise, with the practical skills and networks required for awareness raising and stakeholder support on the ground.
WPS is a consortium of knowledge institutes and NGOs, collaborating with government agencies and international organisations at local, national and global levels. WPS incorporates a wide range of different perspectives, areas of expertise and networks, which provides the partnership with a comprehensive set of skills and knowledge to address the complexity of water-related conflict risks.
The journey of WPS itself has been a learning opportunity on multi-stakeholder collaboration. Working in a multi-disciplinary partnership is very rewarding, as it provides access to wide spectrum of areas expertise, skills and networks. To truly benefit from this diversity, it is important to select partners that really add a specific value to each other. At the same time, they need to share a keen interest in the overall objective and a curiosity to learn and innovate together, beyond disciplinary boundaries. This motivates partners to be attentive to other partner’s approaches and adapt accordingly. Initially, conceptual frameworks, language, values, institutional interests and processes will differ between partners. By working together, these become gradually more aligned.
Within WPS, we learned that working across partners and fields of expertise requires additional investment in time to exchange, learn and coordinate. To fully benefit of our diversity and avoid siloed activities, we needed to design, plan and implement project activities in co-creation, incorporating the different perspectives of partners. This was initially a challenge, but delivered value-for-money in terms of innovation, quality and efficiency during programme implementation with local stakeholders, as programme activities and expertise of partners were combined in a truly integrated and ultimately more effective approach.
For example, a sequence of participatory workshops with local stakeholders from different backgrounds in Mali and in Iraq, designed by WPS partners together, allowed stakeholders to analyse and discuss water-related conflict dynamics in their region and identify potential responses. The participatory method reinforced (mutual) understanding, communication, learning and awareness and enhanced dialogue. At the same time, the workshops provided data inputs for participatory human response modelling by scientists. These models – which combine hydrological and social data – can next be used to understand conflict dynamics and inform policy responses through early warning, scenario analysis or as decision support tools.
Based on this experience, we argue that complex multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral issues like water-related security risks require a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder response through a partnership approach. This approach has to be truly integrated to combine expertise from different sectors and engage multiple stakeholders in a locally contextualised response.
Read more about Water, Peace and Security in Mali and Kenya here.