In recent years, conflict over water has gained a substantial foothold, particularly within the media. A Google search for the term “water wars” returns 77.8 million results, including websites for prominent documentaries and books on the subject. This perception is hardly new, though. In 1995, former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin told the New York Times that the “wars of the next century will be over water.” Given the fact that there are 263 transboundary rivers and lakes worldwide, any increase in conflict over water resources would likely affect a large swath of the developing world.
Yet, despite the amount of attention “water wars” have garnered, the concept that water will drive violence and conflict throughout the world largely appears misguided. Contrary to the popular conception, shared water resources have historically been a driver of cooperation, not conflict. According to Dr. Aaron T. Wolf, a leading scholar on the issue, states that share river basins are more than twice as likely to cooperate as they are to engage in any form of conflict. Wolf stresses that the last interstate conflict over shared water resources occurred in ancient Sumer nearly 5,000 years ago.
Throughout the world, states that share the same river basins (co-riparian states) have drafted, signed, and abided by more than 3,600 treaties around water issues. Some of these treaties have taken root in regions which have historically been plagued by conflict.
In 1960, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty, ensuring that the two neighboring states would equitably share the waters of the vital river that flows through the Indian subcontinent. This treaty has remained in place through three separate wars between the states, providing a forum through which these adversaries have remained in constant contact. Similar treaties have helped promote peace, cooperation, and sustainable development among Israel, Jordan, and Palestine in the Jordan River basin; nine co-riparian states along the Nile River; eleven states along the Danube River in Central Europe; and the United States and Mexico along the Colorado River.
Recognizing these facts, the United Nations declared 2013 the “International Year of Water Cooperation.” World Water Week 2013, which began on Sunday and continues all week, has further built upon that concept, using the theme “Water Cooperation – Building Partnerships.”
Among all natural resources, water appears the most ripe for peacebuilding and cooperation. It is vital for life, and clean, sustainable water resources are essential for agriculture and industry. Additionally, water pollution is an issue that affects all co-riparian actors. As William McDonough has aptly noted, “In planetary terms, we’re all downstream.”
Drink Local. Drink Tap, Inc. has likewise recognized the key role that water can play in promoting peace, understanding, and cooperation. Through its Wavemaker™ Program, the organization is connecting schoolchildren in Northeast Ohio to their local water resources. More than this, however, it is linking them to the children we are serving through clean water projects in Uganda. Locally, several schools elementary and high schools have helped raise money to provide sustainable access to clean water for hundreds of children at St. Bonaventure School in northern Uganda.
DLDT, Inc.’s work is enabling students from Northeast Ohio and East Africa to make long-term connections and learn from one another, despite being separated by 7,500 miles. It is further demonstrating the potential of clean water to build peace and understanding across cultures, despite the challenges.
By: Tim Kovach