Water, war and peace

An international media workshop in Nepal highlighted how the precious commodity of water can be both a source of global conflict and an instrument of peace. Rita Payne reports

There are many reasons why countries go to war, the most common being territorial and ethnic disputes. However, one key factor attractsless attention: the potential for conflict over water. Yet the effects of climate change, leading to fierce competition for dwindling supplies of fresh water worldwide, is making the threat of serious conflict alarmingly likely.

Frustrated by the lack of media coverage regarding the link between water and peace, international think tank the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) brought together journalists and opinion formers from across the world to highlight the issue at a recent international media workshop in Kathmandu entitled‘Global Challenges of Water and Peace’. Each speaker presented facts, figures and examples of how their regions were directly affected and the dangers that lie ahead.

No two countries engaged in active water cooperation go to war, asserts Sundeep Waslekar, President of the SFG. This is why the group organised the Kathmandu meeting: to make the international media aware of the links between water, peace and security. Waslekar highlighted the dangers of terrorists taking control of water resources and water infrastructure, giving as examples ISIS’seizure of the Tabqa Dam in Syria, which aided their long survival, the Afghan Taliban’s control of water resources and the shelling of water treatment plants in Ukraine. ‘So water is at the very, very core of the new terrorism and new conflicts,’ he warned.

Changing nature of the media

The meeting examined a host of issues, including how coverage of environmental issues is affected by the changing nature of today’s media. Global financial pressures and lack of resources have led to many media houses shutting down their environmental desks. Much water-related news tends to focus on sensational stories such as tsunamis, earthquakes and the devastation they cause. This has created a vacuum in environmental reporting which is gradually being filled by freelance journalists, who have begun re-shaping the business model on reporting environmental issues and have countered the fatigue which comes with reporting on climate change by being more focused on specific topics. Working independently, these journalists are freer to visit places and meet people which it would have been difficult to do if they were reporting on more general issues.

Water will most certainly begin to dominate the news agenda

In many countries water is an issue of nationalism and this can cause added difficulties for freelance journalists who might not have a large media organisation covering their backs. In some developing countries, there is active government interference in reporting on sensitive trans-boundary water issues, so journalists are told what to ask and what to leave out, and can face lawsuits if they don’t comply. For instance, when a journalist took pictures of the pollution in the Litani River in southern Lebanon, a lawsuit was filed against him because such images supposedly ‘threatened’ tourism.

Effective storytelling

The participants unanimously agreed that, since water is a global issue, it is imperative to tell stories related to water resources more imaginatively, integrating audio, video, text and graphics to make a story more comprehensive and compelling. Water will most certainly begin to dominate the news agenda, especially water quality and water availability. Journalists at the workshop spoke of the need to bring out the human element in order to tell an engaging story and there was general agreement that when reporting on water, images can covey more than words. One example cited was the haunting image of a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a beach in Turkey, which graphically illustrated the reality of the risks faced by those seeking a better life.

Experiences from different regions

Rita Payne speaking at the Kathmandu Workshop (photo courtesy of SFG)
Rita Payne speaking at the Kathmandu Workshop (photo courtesy of SFG)

Water issues are diverse and there is wide disparity across regions regarding access to water. Reporting on water and environmental issues can also pose dangers for journalists. In Nepal, for example, if journalists report on the effects of mining and other activities which destroy the environment, they are immediately labelled as being ‘anti-development’. Also discussed was China’s strategic interest in constructing infrastructure projects in various South-East Asian countries, including dams on the Indus, a hydro-power station in Bangladesh and a port in Sri Lanka. Stories related to water in Africa are tied in headlines to land grabbing and land acquisition, while Latin American countries have to deal with their own unique set of problems.

Another growing problem is the displacement of people as a result of water scarcity and the fallout from industrial activity. Indigenous people living close to affected areas suffer the most. The harsh reality is that since air and water have no boundaries, these communities suffer from pollution even if they do not live directly inside the affected zones.

In the Middle East, the weaponisation of water by armed non-state actors, coupled with the region’s complex geopolitical situation, only serves to reinforce the role of water as a multiplier of conflict. For instance, the Euphrates basin is emerging as a theatre of war between rival Syrian forces, US and Turkish troops, and any solution to the crisis in Syria will have to take developments in the Euphrates basin into consideration. In the US, water is regarded simply as a humanitarian aid issue, withattacks on water infrastructureby ISIS, Boko Haram and other militant groups regarded as isolated military incidents, ignoring the deeper issue of how water sustains non-state actors.

Water and links to security

The role of water in relation to military bases and security establishments will become more critical as sea levels continue to rise, with countries like the US feeling compelled to relocate or even shut down coastal bases. A case in point is the Norfolk Virginia military base, which may have to shut down in the next 25 years because of the rise in sea-levels. Examples were also discussed of how water utilised in military operations can be used as an instrument of peace, such as the French army’sbuilding of wells in Mali so that water cannot be used as a bargaining tool by non-state actors, and the question of how to prevent water from being used as a weapon in conflict, possibly through diplomatic treaties or government policies.The workshop also discussed the very real threat of cyber-attacks, especially after the recent hacking of a database which had information about dams in the US.

Positive impact of civil society and the media

It was observed that journalists can play a role in reducing possible tensions in cross-country exchanges on water-related issues. Media coverage of collaboration on the ground could encourage countries to further strengthen cooperation at a higher level. There were many positive examples of ground-level cooperation between cross-border communities – for instance, the resolution of tension between Bhutan and Assam in north-east India through local initiatives, the establishment of an early warning system by cross-border residents of the Karnali River (which flows through Nepal and India) to mitigate the loss of agricultural crops, and collaboration betweencommunities along the Indo-Bangladesh border in order to re-populate the rivers with Hilsa fish, part of their traditional diet. Such positive stories receive local rather than broader media interest, yet the role of local media is key in enabling local civil society groups to promote problem-solving interaction between populations living in upper and lower reaches of rivers.

The Euphrates basin is emerging as a theatre of war between rival Syrian forces, US and Turkish troops

Lessons from Nepal

Nepal is a nation from which much can be learned. Having adopted a federal structure of government in 2015,it is already experiencing conflicts between the provinces over water. Containing these internal clashes is a big challenge, but Nepal has faced up to it, launching a hugely popular community radio station which reports on all local issues, including water.

The reality is that natural resources, including water, are not limitless. Climate change alone cannot be blamed for the worldwide depletion of water; one must also take into account the part played by the misuse of technology, changes in social mores, migration and other factors which have led to inappropriate or plainly wrong policies being formulated to tackle the current environmental crisis. We are at a point, maintains the SFG, when journalism can play a vital role in engaging stakeholders and helping to prevent countries from going to war over water. This precious resourcecan no longer be taken for granted, and unless the world sits up and takes notice,in the not-so-distant future countries may well find themselves at war as the competition for water becomes ever more intense and desperate.

Rita Payne is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News

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