“Countries—even countries that don’t like each other much—have, and continue to have, conversations over water resources, even when they won’t about other issues,” says Aaron Wolf, Director of Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University, in this week’s Water Stories podcast.
Wolf’s research shows that water stress—instead of spurring wars between countries—can actually bring them to the negotiating table. “Water creates horrible suffering, human destruction, ecosystem degradation, and very, very little political violence,” says Wolf.
Tensions can rise, however, when an upstream country wants to build infrastructure (such as a hydroelectric dam) that would impact the people downstream. “It is not that the dam itself that causes the problem; it is the dam in the absence of an agreement about how to mitigate the impacts of the dam,” says Wolf.
Many treaties do not account for greater variability in flow arising from droughts or floods—both of which will be exacerbated by climate change. In the Middle East, “there are droughts that were so bad that the Israel-Jordan water agreement had nothing in text to deal with that. Fortunately, their relationship was solid enough that they could adapt based on their personal relations,” says Wolf.
To identify these gaps, Wolf and his team developed the Basin at Risk project, which provides a quantitative, global-scale exploration of the relationship between freshwater resources and conflict, as well as indicators to measure cross border tension. “With those verified indicators, we were able to look at basins in the next three to five years. Fortunately, most of those are no longer at risk precisely because the global community did what it does best—they help with the institutions, they help build the river basin organizations, and the treaties, and so on,” says Wolf.