By Marije ten Have

When studying domestic or international conflicts in the African context, we usually try to make sense of them by looking at ethnic, religious or political disputes. However, underlying tensions can be founded on the struggle for something as basic as access to clean water.

Water security is often overlooked in international affairs, even though an equal distribution of clean water is essential for peaceful and sustainable societies to develop and to persist. Some arid areas becoming even dryer is a known consequence of climate change. This insight is crucial to investigate water security in the context of conflict. In the Darfur region, for example, structural and emerging tensions between tribes are often based on the scarcity of clean water, causing problems that call for solutions other than solely traditional humanitarian or diplomatic action. In these cases, we are forced to look into other means of sustainable and ethical action, among which water security should be a priority.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back

Water security is a relatively new concept in International Relations, only emerging in the 1990s. With the Cold War coming to an end, scholars began exploring non-political causes of conflict and violence, such as poverty and environmental changes. This established the idea of non-political aspects affecting a country’s stability and drawing groups into conflict. Rather than being a direct cause of violence, most research that has been done on the topic shows that water scarcity serves as a “threat multiplier”, meaning it can intensify many of the underlying causes linked to conflict.

In his article on environmental scarcities and violent conflict, Homer-Dixon (1994) argues that a combination of environmental change, population growth and unequal redistribution of resources is likely to lead to internal conflicts. This combination can put extra pressure on existing cleavages, which, if the state does not have the means to act accordingly, can lead to violent conflict.

Specifically, water security is closely linked to the energy and food sectors. To produce food, a large share of our energy and water is put into agriculture. A lack of energy or water is likely to impact the other sectors. As the population is growing, the demand for these resources increases, while the effects of climate change might put these resources in danger. A lack of access to clean water can lead to increased insecurity and forced migration, which are often root causes of tension and conflict in areas that are economically and institutionally unstable.

Water sources are often shared by multiple countries. Today, there are more than 270 cross-national river basins in 148 countries. This means international and regional corporation is crucial in ensuring access to water for millions of people. More and more countries worldwide are aware of the risks of water scarcity, the US Department of State currently lists water scarcity as a security risk and calls it “one of the greatest challenges of our time”.

Darfur is a region located in the west of Sudan. Ever since Sudan gained independence in 1956, the country has been in unrest. Tensions in the Darfur region between the Sudan state (supported by Arab groups) and the civilians (of which many belong to African tribes) were largely ignored at the end of the 20th century as a result of the war between the north and the south. Since 2003, Darfur has been the stage of a severe armed conflict, killing more than 300.000 citizens and displacing millions, according to UN estimates. Currently, the region is still tense.

Darfur: a conflict with ecological roots

Often, the Darfur conflict is made sense of from a traditional security perspective. Sudan has been in a military conflict ever since the 1950s, which has prevented the country from establishing strong democratic institutions and has limited economic growth and development. Outbreaks of violence between tribes are often interpreted through social, ethnic or political differences.

However, the conflict is not just based on these differences, but also on the quest for clean water. Being one of the driest regions on earth, all tribes (both of Arab and African origin) rely on fresh water for their livestock herds. Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations argued in 2007: “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”

Still, the struggle for water and the consequential displacement causes local disputes which could quickly cause the conflict to explode again. The population in the Sahel is expected to double in the next twenty years. This will likely put more pressure on the region and its resources.

The Darfur conflict shows that it is crucial to take into account the environmental perspective when studying conflict. An ecosystem that is under too much pressure will not only do harm by environmental disasters but also by conflict. Let’s drink to that.

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Marije ten Have (1995) is a political scientist-to-be. She is also a member of the Uppsala Model United Nations host team. Marije loves long train-rides, hiking the Upplandsleden and trying out all the fika.

Illustration: Merle Ecker

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