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Is water scarcity driving conflict?

How many times a day do you wash your hands with soap to prevent the spread of COVID-19, taking for granted your access to clean, running freshwater? World Water Day, observed on March 22, allows us a moment to reflect on the importance of this classical element, not just at a micro level, looking at the impacts to personal health, but also on the bigger picture: how it affects world peace.

The line between safe water and good hygiene is an easy one to draw, and the coronavirus pandemic has only underscored the need for all people to have access to fresh water.

Drinking water is essential to life, yet one in three people live without safe drinking water today, according to the United Nations. UN data shows that 2.2 billion people are living without access to safe water. Inadequate access to safe water leads to waterborne illnesses, including cholera and typhoid, malnutrition, and poverty.

When communities and countries lack access to water, demand for the scarce resource can lead to political and economic instability, and in severe case violent conflict, both within a country and between nations.

Population growth, climate change, and environmental degradation will only exacerbate the problem of water scarcity. The UN estimates that water demand will increase by more than 50 percent by 2040.

Indeed, international leaders have been warning about water as an urgent security issue for decades.

Back in 1985, Egyptian diplomat and later UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned that, “The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.”

More than 15 years later, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan predicted that, “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.

Water scarcity is also a point of contention in Yemen, Somalia, Bolivia, India, and many other countries.

The term “water conflict” was even coined to describe conflict between groups, states, or country over the rights to access water resources.

The good news is water itself does not cause conflict. Research shows that with good governance and management, it’s possible to avert water conflict. This point highlights the need for international cooperation, equitable distribution and access to resources, and united efforts to combat climate change.

Water conflict does not need to be the future. In fact, we can look to the past for guidance. International water treaties date as far back as 2500 BC! More modern iterations include the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan, the United Nations Watercourses Convention ratified by 35 states in 1997, and the African Convention of the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources signed in 1968. These examples show that water, while scarce, does not necessarily need to be an inflection point for violence. Rather, unified efforts to promote green development and protect the environment, coupled with the peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue and negotiation at international governing bodies can ensure that everyone has access to clean, safe water.

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