Water security and insecurity are terms used with increasing frequency. And the fear of water wars looms larger as water scarcity problems become more acute in some parts of the globe.[1] The reasoning is straightforward. As populations grow, there is increasing competition for the finite resource of water; competition creates tension, which in turn may lead to conflict; if conflict cannot be resolved peacefully, it may manifest violently or even lead to outright war.[2]

Ensuring water security, then, is in part ensuring competition over water is low. It is about “ensuring that every person has reliable access to enough safe water at an affordable price to lead a healthy, dignified and productive life, while maintaining the ecological systems that provide water and also depend on water”[3]. This understanding of water security is well established in international development.

But how does the idea of water security fit into thinking on national security? First of all, what is security? Like water, it is hard to grasp yet it is embedded in everything – and when it’s lacking, there are grave problems.

Security is an inherently subjective concept. In a constructivist understanding of the world, which stresses the relative nature of phenomena in international relations, security cannot be objectively measured. There is no way of determining how insecure any actor – be it an individual, a community, or a state – really is, and inferences can only be made based on their statements and actions.[4]

Moreover, the notion of security now extends beyond its traditional, state-based, military concept. The Copenhagen School, which was instrumental in developing a broad understanding of security, has identified five security sectors: military; environmental; economic; society; and politics.[5]

The military sector of security concerns the two-level interplay of the armed offensive and defensive capabilities of states and states’ perceptions of each other’s intentions. The political involves the organisation stability of states, systems of government and the ideologies that give them legitimacy. The economic considers the access to resources, finance and markets that is necessary to sustain acceptable levels of welfare and state power. The societal is about sustainability within acceptable conditions for the evolution of traditional patterns of language, culture, religion, national identity and custom. The environmental incorporates the maintenance of the local and the planetary biosphere as the essential support system on which all other human enterprises depend.[6]

Water security can exist as a sub-set within each of these sectors because there are economic, social, political, environmental and even military aspects to water management. But of the five security sectors, environmental security is most closely associated with water security in policy and, indeed, frequently used interchangeably with water security.

Both water security and environmental security are neologisms arising out of the realisation among international relations scholars that the environment is not endlessly abundant and perpetually resilient, and that environmental issues does not respect state or institutional borders. Since the late 1960s there has been a growing awareness that ecological health must be an essential ingredient in any recipe for (inter)national order.[7]

The environment in general, and water specifically, can be both an object to be secured, and a source of risk.[8]Environmental security arises primarily out of resource capture, and ecological marginalisation.[9] This is not to imply, however, that environmental threats are somehow entirely external or divorced from state action. Indeed, whenever the environment is raised to the level of a security issue, some degree of human responsibility is implied.[10]

Culpability for environmental degradation and resource depletion is frequently difficult to establish. The onus of responsibility for environmental restitution is therefore often unclear, and complicated by the fact that those who may suffer environmental insecurity are not necessarily those directly responsible for the resource capture or ecological marginalisation leading to it (e.g., water or air pollution is an example of environmental insecurity that could be felt away from the source of the pollution). Furthermore, environmental insecurity may affect a number of countries at once (for example, through air or water pollution)[11] and as such, presents a classic collective action problem.

Water security too is a collective action problem.[12] It requires the protection and improvement of freshwater, coastal and related ecosystems, and sustainable development while ensuring every person has access to enough safe water at an affordable cost to lead a healthy and productive life.[13] On the international scale, water security involves the multiple goals of ensuring peace, human security and environmental protection in the process of planning and implementation of water resources development and management of basins shared by two or more countries.[14]

The difficulty of ensuring international water security is that the reasonable, equitable and sustainable utilisation of international water courses has long been constrained by national sovereignty and security priorities. Transboundary water management is a wicked problem, with competing interests of agricultural uses, industrial development, environmental sustainability, water sanitation, hydroelectric energy production, etc.

These uses compete for prominence at the national level, and are sometimes irreconcilable with the same competing priorities of neighbouring littoral states. That is to say, the pursuit of one nation’s water use priorities may be considered a security threat to another.[15] For example, if an upstream nation retains water during summer months for hydro-electricity production during winter, its downstream neighbour may be left with inadequate water supply for its agricultural production during the peak growing season.

Cooperation between states regarding transboundary water management has been traditionally seen and interpreted as infringing the sovereignty of riparian states.[16] This approach has been strengthened by the rise of democratisation in the post-Cold War era. An increasing number of people in different states across the globe now understand sovereignty as the exclusive right to exercise supreme political authority over a geographical region, a group of people or oneself, and that this sovereignty is held directly by the people.[17] With this narrow understanding of sovereignty it is perhaps not surprising that the mere suggestion of another national or trans-national coalition making decisions affecting one nation’s territory or social welfare, even positively, can create emotional backlash and a securitisation of water issues.

However, the post-Cold War era of democratisation and globalisation has also seen a proliferation of influence of non-state domestic actors in national decision-making on traditionally foreign policy debates. The definitions of the concepts of sovereignty and security have also begun to evolve, and while these changes entail new threats to collective action problems such as international water security, they also present new opportunities.[18]

It is becoming clear that water insecurity and water conflict cannot adequately be dealt with through the traditional tools of national defence alone.[19] A strong argument can be made, for example, for the re-examination of water management cases through the lens of human security rather than state sovereignty, as commonly done in the past.[20] Another approach could be to reconceptualise water security through a conflict management lens.[21]

This is an approach already being taken by Tufts University professor Shafiqul Islam and MIT professor Lawrence Susskind in their pioneering work on Water Diplomacy. They posit that water conflicts are most constructively understood as differences in values and how to translate those values into policies and actions within the political domain.[22] As such, water security can be achieved by taking a non-zero-sum approach to negotiations with an emphasis placed on value creation.[23]

The Water Diplomacy approach is interesting because it returns to the inherent subjectivity of security. After all, with no objective measures of insecurity, can water security be attained through means other than negotiations based on perceived threats and interests?

Paula Hanasz is a PhD Candidate, Australian National University.

 

NOTES:

[1]Kibaroglu, A., Brouma, A.D., & Erdem, M., 2008, ‘Transboundary water issues in the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin: Some methodological approaches and opportunities for cooperation’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 224

[2]Cosgrove, W. J., 2009, Water Security and Peace: A Synthesis of Studies Prepared under the PCCP-Water for Peace Process, UNESCO, Technical Documents in Hydrology, PCà CP series, No. 29, SC-2003/WS/51, p. 4

[3] Mirumachi, N., 2008, ‘Domestic issues in developing international waters in Lesotho: Ensuring water security amidst political instability’ in Pachova, N., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L., (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, Tokyo, p. 36

[4]Warner, J.F., & Meissner, R., 2008, The politics of security in the Okavango River Basin: From civil war to saving wetlands (1975-2002) – a preliminary security impact assessment’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 256

[5]Emmers, R., 2007, ‘Securitization’ in Allan, C. (ed.), 2007, Contemporary Security Studies, Oxford University Press, Bath, p. 110

[6]Kibaroglu, A., Brouma, A.D., & Erdem, M., 2008, ‘Transboundary water issues in the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin: Some methodological approaches and opportunities for cooperation’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 230

[7]Kibaroglu, A., Brouma, A.D., & Erdem, M., 2008, ‘Transboundary water issues in the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin: Some methodological approaches and opportunities for cooperation’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 224

[8]Barnett, J., 2007, ‘Environmental Security’ in Allan, C. (ed.), 2007, Contemporary Security Studies, Oxford University Press, Bath, p. 184

[9]Homer-Dixon, T., & Levy, M.A., 1995, ‘Environment and Security’, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 1995-1996), pp. 189-198, the MIT Press, p. 192

[10]Al-Rodhan, N.R.F., 2007, The Five Dimensions of Global Security; Proposal for a Multi-Sum Security Principle, Lit Verlag, Zurich, p. 51

[11]Al-Rodhan, N.R.F., 2007, The Five Dimensions of Global Security; Proposal for a Multi-Sum Security Principle, Lit Verlag, Zurich, p. 48

[12] Qaddumi, H., 2008, ‘Practical approaches to transboundary water benefit sharing’, Working Paper 292, Overseas Development Institute, p. 3

[13]Mirumachi, N., 2008, ‘Domestic issues in developing international waters in Lesotho: Ensuring water security amidst political instability’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 36

[14]Pachova, N.I., & Jansky, L., 2008, ‘Domestic drivers of international water security on the Danube’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 61

[15] Mirumachi, N., 2008, ‘Domestic issues in developing international waters in Lesotho: Ensuring water security amidst political instability’ in Pachova, N., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L., (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, Tokyo, p. 37

[16]Pachova, N., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L., 2008, ‘National sovereignty and human security: Changing realities and concepts in international water management’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 289

[17]Pachova, N., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L., 2008, ‘National sovereignty and human security: Changing realities and concepts in international water management’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 290

[18]Jansky, L., Nakayama, M., & Pachova, N.I., 2008, ‘Introduction: From domestic to international water security’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 2

[19] Chellaney, B., 2011, Water: Asia’s new battleground, Georgetown University Press, Washington DC, p. 50

[20]Pachova, N., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L., 2008, ‘National sovereignty and human security: Changing realities and concepts in international water management’ in Pachova, N.I., Nakayama, M., & Jansky, L. (eds.), 2008, International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, United Nations University Press, United States of America, p. 290

[21] Wolf, A., Kramer, A., Carius, A., & Dabelko, G.D., 2005, ‘Managing Water Conflict and Cooperation’, State of the World 2005, The Worldwatch Institute, p. 94

[22]Islam, S., & Susskind, L.E., 2013, Water Diplomacy; a Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, RFF Press, New York, p. 89

[23]Islam, S., & Susskind, L.E., 2013, Water Diplomacy; a Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, RFF Press, New York, pp. 14-18

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