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The Absence of Water Conflicts in the Developing World: Evidence from Africa

Abstract and Keywords

The debate concerning how water access, availability, and change will impact conflict is bolstered by growing evidence that some influence exists, however inconsistent. Clear conclusions are obscured by the variety of water issues in developing countries, the difference between direct and indirect effects on conflict, and the additional uncertainty of what future climate changes may do to water availability and rights. This chapter summarizes how the conflict literature has integrated water issues into analyses of violence. In contrast, water researchers are mainly concerned with how little and how poorly water resources are used and managed across Africa. Resource management and politics emerge as the most serious contributors to water stress. Initial conclusions suggest that climate change and associated water shortages are far less of a problem than access and scarcity, and that water politics is leading to new contests, possibly violent, embedded in patterns of marginalization, exclusion, and poor governance.

Keywords: water, Africa, conflict, governance, climate change

Concern is mounting over the impact of water scarcity on conflict patterns across the developing world. Recent studies present a growing but inconsistent link between water stress and political violence, with the majority contending that water stress is not strongly related to increases in violence (see Subramanian, Brown, and Wolf 2014). Violence around water issues may increase as climate change alters the availability and access to resources, and as developing countries strive to deliver and manage necessary supplies and demands. Yet, there are several problems in assuming that water stress does, and will, produce violence, including poor theoretical links between physical and political processes, abstract and insufficient measures of water stress, and a notable absence of information on how water politics in developing states shapes access, use, and availability. The chapter details how water researchers argue that the main “water issue” in developing states is not the lack of this resource, but how poorly water resources are managed, and especially so across Africa. In turn, water politics may give rise to alternative forms of political violence from that which is common across the continent now, emanating from land use, poor governance, informal resource provision, and competition for rights to all public goods. In short, the politics of water availability should be the focus of studies investigating the links between water and conflict.

As with many variants of the environmental security discussion, the “water conflict” debate joins perspectives from two communities. The first is from the conflict community, which seeks to explain variation in conflict rates, types, and intensities in developing countries that are experiencing a range of instabilities. The second perspective is from physical and social scientists, who observe community and regional consequences from key changes in environmental parameters and natural resources access. Their separate conclusions regarding water stress and its consequences demonstrate that conflict scholars often lack contextual knowledge around water science and water politics and physical science often lack understandings of how political violence emerges.

In this chapter, political violence refers to any act involving force or aggression, carried out with the purpose of pursuing a political agenda. Conflict emerges in many guises including state violence against citizens, civil wars, acts by political militias (defined here as armed groups operating on behalf of a political elite), and communal violence, which consists of violent contests occurring among local identity or livelihood groups (Cederman, Gleditsch, and Buhaug 2013; Raleigh 2016).1 Conflict studies considering water stress as a potential motivation for violence argue that changes in environmental conditions may alter power relationships, livelihood security, traditional lifestyles, cultural norms, and present and future economic growth. Indeed, in local settings, conflict groups often garner support for violence through articulating the “grievances” and demands of different communities, and challenging how they experience governance and power on the local, subnational, and national levels. For example, communities that consider themselves marginalized, repressed, or ignored by national regimes or local governance may be more amenable to alternative governance forms. To that end, appeals from conflict agents to potentially supportive communities often address modern struggles, including climate change, demographic crisis, democratic failures, and entrenched instability through horizontal inequalities in vulnerability, exposure, and impact of negative consequences.

Water stress can alternatively operate as an “opportunity” for violence if changes in the spatial and temporal patterns of environmental resources alter the strategic periods that facilitate spaces for actions between hostile groups. For example, conflict rates between President Kiir of South Sudan and his opponents, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition, are strongly affected by the rainy season, when conflict falls precipitously, and the dry season, when it is at its most active. Seasonal shifts allow for longer or shorter conflict periods.

While grievance and scarcity underlie the “motivating” aspect of this discussion, the active manipulation of the environment underlies the “opportunity” aspect. Popular and public narratives often frame water conflict in terms of scarcity, yet existing academic literature is far more circumspect about a “scarcity” link. Indeed, multiple case studies suggest that in local situations of scarcity, cooperation—rather than conflict—is the dominant societal response in both domestic and international settings (Brochmann and Gleditsch 2006; Dinar et al. 2007; Eaton 2008; Ostrom 2010; Subramanian, Brown, and Wolf 2014; Wolf 2002).

While conflict research generally focuses on scarcity and stress as underlying factors in “water conflict,” alternative interpretations of water issues across Africa underscore the considerable spatial and temporal variability of water access and suggest that water stress is largely due to improper use and management of the resource. In short, water stress and intermittent availability is a function of “water politics” over negative physical attributes or changes; these factors remain largely unaddressed in any study of water conflict. Hence, this chapter advocates a break from previous interpretations of water conflict that assumes water is scarce, poorly distributed, and a “weapon” leading to the onset and duration of violent conflict (Gleick 1993). Instead, the chapter presents the benefits of interrogating how water politics benefits particular areas and communities. Water politics, as with many public goods across the developing world, are shaped by elite competition for access to wealth and power.

This chapter concentrates on African states, as many of them are expected to experience the worst outcomes of climate impacts on water availability and thus, intensified patterns of politics around this issue (United Nations 2015). Africa is home to some of the most extensive environmental challenges, as witnessed by the droughts and subsequent famines in the 1970s and 1980s; it remains particularly vulnerable to the most negative effects of climate change and water stresses. Water’s impact on well-being is particularly pronounced in Africa where the majority of the population relies on rain-fed agriculture and pastures as the basis for their livelihoods. Further, poverty, demographic change, instability, and poor governance exacerbate the current environmental conditions, although there is significant variation across Africa on the extent to which negative outcomes may be likely.

In the following sections, the assumptions and conclusions from conflict literature are juxtaposed with relevant information from the physical and social sciences on water use, availability, management, and access. The focus is largely on the tension between water scarcity arguments and those that suggest the politics of water access yields mismanagement and poor governance that increase conflict risk. There are far higher risks of conflict from the politics of water access than that of water scarcity. This tension is especially obvious in the debate concerning climate change. While the conflict research tends to emphasize how the changes to water availability will bring increased instability to developing countries, scholars concerned with physical science and social scientists concentrating on cooperation suggest that water stress is not a harbinger of doom; rather, management and collaboration can control the negative effects of climate change on water availability and access.

Evidence of a Link between Water and Violence

Most of the environmental security literature concentrating on water issues considers rainfall as both a direct and indirect influence on conflict. The measures for rainfall are from different meteorological indices and applied to conflict on various and multiple scales (see Linke et al. 2015; O’Loughlin, Linke, and Witmer 2014a,b).

Four possible relationships link water access variability to political conflict. The first is “scarcity” whereby increased conflict is likely to follow periods of above-average decreases in rainfall. This is the standard, “zero-sum” argument that contends groups will use force and violence to compete for ever-scarcer resources. Second, it is, however, equally plausible that decreases in conflict are likely to be correlated to decreased rainfall, as there is little over which to fight. This is a “no-gain” argument, which contends that relative gains from conflict during a drier period are too low to justify the labor of conflict. Third, it is also plausible that increases in political violence will directly follow periods of higher-than-average rainfall. This hypothesis largely rests on the notion that abundance will spur rent/wealth-seeking and recruitment of people to participate in violence. Fourth, there may be a decreased frequency in political violence following increases in rainfall as individuals and groups are self-sufficient and unlikely to motivate participants during these times (see, e.g., Raleigh and Kniveton 2012).

In many studies of all four possibilities, rainfall rates and variation have an inconsistent relationship to conflict: both higher and lower anomalous rainfall is associated with increased levels of communal conflict, although dry conditions have a lesser effect (Hendrix and Salehyan 2012; Raleigh and Kniveton 2012; Theisen 2012). However, recent analysis observing inter-annual rainfall variation suggests that increased rain decreases conflict in subsequent years (Hendrix and Glaser 2007) and that conflicts respond to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) across Africa (Hsiang et al. 2011). However, ENSO creates disparate and indeed opposite weather patterns across affected countries, hence there is no clear indication of which weather patterns may trigger conflict.

Indeed, there is also evidence that different types of conflict react differently to changes in weather patterns, through the effects on both motivation and opportunity factors. For example, violence rates in areas with high levels of communal conflict are affected by rainfall anomalies in that they strongly respond to seasonal shifts. As evidenced by regions in the Kenyan northwest, Ugandan East, Somalia, or northern Sahel regions, raiding and local fighting increases in response to rainfall shifts, and there is more conflict in wetter seasons. Several studies reiterate that communal violence during wet years and seasons is strategic because of the high grass, healthier animals, dense bush in which to hide, and availability of surface water (Adano et al. 2012; Meier et al. 2007); in such cases, territorial boundaries between groups become the frontlines of intermittent, retaliatory violence (Smith et al. 2000; Witsenburg and Adano 2007, 2009). The context of such violence is that high variability in productive resources leads to strong variation in competition and that conflicts resemble strategic contests to preserve or gain access to resources over the long term (Turner 2004; Unruh 2005). Yet the underlying motivation for communal violence episodes can hardly be associated solely with the weather: case studies of pastoral environments suggest that raiding behavior between traditionally hostile groups is often supported by political elites on the regional and national level (Hagmann and Mulugeta 2008; Smith et al. 2000; Witsenburg and Adano 2009) and conforms less to a “stress/scarcity” explanation than to that of competition. Elites amass wealth by competing via “proxy” fights for regional dominance and influence. Most pastoralists are, in fact, victims of highly volatile inter-group relationships among locally powerful and wealthy actors (Mulugeta and Hagmann 2008).

In contrast, rebels (and by extension, civil wars) may be more active during dry seasons, as the conditions are strategically favorable for large troop movements over space and frontline attacks (Raleigh and Kniveton 2012). The recent conflict in South Sudan clearly illustrates these characteristics (Kishi 2014) and changes on a seasonal level, yet overall patterns are only partially upheld when investigating the water conflict link on a case-study basis: a specific analysis of Darfur refutes a link between decreased rainfall and violence (Kevane and Gray 2008; for a more general review of cases, see Buhaug et al. 2014).

Indirectly, changes in rainfall may lead to negative economic growth and, by association, increase the risk of civil war across African states (Miguel et al. 2004). This popular theory posits that lower economic growth creates grievances in employable young men, and further lessens the cost of rebellion through opening avenues of recruitment; however, multiple empirical tests of this argument have found that lower rainfall levels actually lessen the onset of civil wars (Ciccone 2011) and that, when using stronger empirical tests, the presumed relationship disappears (Jensen and Gleditsch 2009). Finally, climate variability has been found to have little to no effect on economic growth or the risk of violence (Koubi et al. 2012).

Long-term environmental degradation (e.g., soil erosion) and water scarcity explanations also have limited or insignificant roles in generating civil or international wars according to cross-national studies (Raleigh and Urdal 2007; Theisen 2008). Drought and similar conditions are associated with a decrease in conflict through large-N empirical studies (Theisen et al. 2011). Further refuting the notion that climate and rainfall aberrations are a cause of conflict is that more violent events do not occur in low-availability/low-yield areas according to the analysis by Rowhani et al. (2011) of East Africa; at both regional and village levels, conflict was found to be more likely in areas of high vegetation compared to areas with previous water stress. Case studies of local areas suggest that water scarcity has no effect on communal violence in select Sahelian cases (Benjaminsen et al. 2012) and that insecurities around water and food are best explained by local political and social factors (Allouche 2010). Several researchers contend that the issue is not scarcity, but rather the allocation of water (Allouche 2007; Gizelis and Wooden 2010).

Therefore, it is possible to conclude from a review of recent literature that water stress and scarcity are inconsistent determinants of political violence. Yet, it is equally plausible to suggest that generalized or direct interpretations of the relationship between water and conflict suffer from mismeasurement of key variables—in particular, what measures of water stress are employed and what kinds of conflict are privileged. The main measures and applications in water-conflict studies include rainfall and drought indices; aberrations in the former and the presence of the latter may both serve as further evidence of the grievance-based mechanisms already detailed (e.g., state mismanagement of local vulnerability) or of opportunity factors (i.e., aberrations in rainfall producing conditions in which some forms of conflicts flourish). However, water research from across Africa reveals the paucity of both rainfall and drought as effective measures of water access, availability, and use for the majority of people, for several reasons. One problem is inconsistent and poorly scaled data: fine-grained temporal and spatial measures are necessary to capture the variation in rainfall for communities at risk, yet there has been a reduction in routine reporting of these and other environmental factors in Africa since the early 1990s (Vörösmarty et al. 2005). In addition, high spatial variability, coupled with poor distribution of rain gauges means that there are few continuous measurements of rainfall for much of Africa. Hence, precipitation trends across many regions of Africa are unknown or unavailable for public use.2 Meteorologists and climatologists often rely on indirect measures of rainfall from satellite data. There are multiple country-wide programs in effect, including rural extension projects, which aim to assist farmers with crop management, mitigation, and adaptation to changing environmental conditions. However, the information from meteorological organizations and rural extension work is often not made public; indeed, water data generally remain ambiguous and sometimes highly politicized, especially irrigation statistics (Vörösmarty 2002; Vörösmarty et al. 2005).

While the exact rainfall rates and trends across local areas are unavailable or inconsistent, many conflict studies rely on much larger units of aggregation (e.g., 250 km by 250 km) and monthly or annual variation. These statistics can obscure as much information as they provide: while rainfall rates are often locationally and temporally specific, there is also evidence that, in recent years, the effects of climate change have increased volatility and variability in the seasonality of rainfall, but not the overall amounts for year to year. Indeed, while the effects of volatility are quite serious for local producers and those dependent on rain-fed agriculture, it is unclear how this variability would affect the underlying motivations or strategies for conflict groups. If absolute rainfall rates are not the best way to gauge present and future water use, and if adaptations (including irrigation) that seek to relieve dependence on rainfall are underway, then the presumed relationship between this direct resource measure and conflict may be inconsistent, exaggerated, or spurious.

Water Availability and Use

An unaddressed aspect of water conflict studies is that narratives of scarcity are based on an interpretation of water access, availability, and use that may have little relevance to actual water processes across developing states. Furthermore, in case studies of water stress and its consequences, the role of managed water, adaptation potentials, and infrastructure around use has been shown to play a central role. In the following section, the propositions of climatologists and water-use studies are presented as a counter to assuming that water conflict is definitive in areas or periods of scarcity, or indeed, that conflicts regarding water are likely to be violent.

There is little question that African farmers are highly vulnerable to a relatively high degree of water stress. This is largely due to their reliance on rainwater, their inability to supplement through managed water sources (e.g., limited availability of water storage facilities), and Africa’s largely arid environment. In most African countries, over 60 percent of the labor force is involved in agriculture and 95 percent of the cultivated land is under rain-fed agriculture, of which the majority is smallholder farming (Rockström 2003; World Bank Water estimate 2016 (at 96 percent)3). Water access is therefore pivotal to livelihoods, local economics, and general well-being.

At the local scale, water access is initially determined by climate. Climate is a function of several factors: small-scale, confined, physical processes,4 the non-local responses to large-scale climate phenomena such as ENSO, and the influence of changes to the global radiation balance as exemplified by the addition of greenhouse gases (Christensen et al. 2007). Local physical processes include orographic uplift and land-atmosphere couplings. Together with local weather systems, these processes control the net transport of heat, moisture, and momentum into a region that help determine the dynamics of a local climate.

In association with temperature, rainfall primarily determines the amount of water available for crops and a range of commercial activities. However, rainfall varies over quite limited spatial scale (tens of meters), while temperature variation is much less fine-grained, both spatially and temporally. Rainfall also has a complex inter-annual variability and sharp gradient, meaning that the change from excessively wet to dry can take place over a small area. But even in typically abundant areas, seasonal and annual variation can severely affect water supply, both from river runoff and in situ rainfall (Vörösmarty et al. 2005).

Hence, from the perspective of physical risk, Africa is considered to be more “water stressed” than many other global regions, and this is likely to increase in the future. The climate moisture index (CMI) is an aggregate measure of potential water availability imposed solely by climate.5 Most of Africa is arid or semiarid (82 percent), almost 30 percent higher than global average, and has a corresponding low CMI making it a relatively dry and water-scarce continent (Vörösmarty et al. 2005). The end result of these variations is that only 10 percent of Africans are calculated as having access to “abundant water”; 25 percent experience intermediate conditions; and 65 percent live with occasional limitations; these levels do not appear to have shifted in the past ten years (see The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2016). Sixty-five percent of Africans are reported as having “improved water access” over the course of the last decade; this figure is 15 percent lower than the global average and by far the lowest of all world regions (The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2016).6

Thirty percent of people have both limits to inter-annual variability and access to limited runoff (Vörösmarty et al. 2005), yet people living and working on these lands have adapted their agriculture and livelihood practices to these realities. Indeed, rain-fed agriculture problems in water-scarce tropics are largely a function of the high intensity and spatial and temporal variability in rainfall, rather than low cumulative volumes (Mahoo et al. 1999; Rockström et al. 1998; Rockström et al. 2010). Variability is a major issue in planning, harvesting, and yields. Coefficients for variation range from 20 to 40 percent and increase with seasonal rainfall averages, and most people experience small variations (a matter of weeks) in water stress (Rockström et al. 2010). The result is a high risk of meteorological drought and intra-season dry spells, which have significant effects, despite the short time periods. Despite the focus on meteorological droughts, its likelihood remains once every ten years (Stewart 1988) and the occurrence of dry spells (short periods of two to four weeks without rainfall) far exceeds the occurrence of droughts. Paradoxically, when considering the local measures and volatility of rainfall, it appears that much of Africa is not water stressed as a permanent condition, but that stress is often expected and coped with.7 Serious water stress has occurred, on average, once in a generation (Vörösmarty et al. 2005), but intra- and inter-annual variability is increasing.

The Politics and Politicking around Water and Water Access

The physical effects are critical because they shape, and are shaped by, local politics, development, and governance. The effects of variability are likely to affect Africans because of the lack in many countries of planning, infrastructure, and adaptability to these known risks. Development programs and a large investment in climate adaptation have improved the access to water for millions, as well as creating sustainable use patterns.

The distribution of water rights, technology, and assistance is a key determinant of how people experience the physical realities in most African environments. Climatologists agree that Africa’s water potential is not adequately harnessed, nor is water being appropriately managed to address the needs of a water-needy population (IPCC 2014: p. 233). Much of Africa’s agricultural capacity is distributed across dry regions; with 75 percent of cropland in areas with a CMI of less than 0; hence in the driest cropland, irrigation is required (Vörösmarty et al. 2005). As with most access issues across Africa, the available evidence suggests that the economic and social characteristics of the area determine where, to whom, and how much the state delivers public goods, including irrigation (Ahmed et al. 2011; Badjeck et al. 2010; Eriksen et al. 2005; Hertel et al. 2010; Jones and Thornton 2009; Mendelsohn et al. 2007; Paavola 2008). The rate of irrigation vastly differs across the continent, largely in line with the wealth and stability of states (World Bank 2016): in Madagascar, 30.6 percent of cropland is irrigated; in Ethiopia, 0.5 percent; and in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda the figure is less than 0.1 percent. Across Africa, on average only 4.7 percent of arable land is irrigated, although You et al. (2011) estimate 6 percent of the continent is irrigation-equipped.

Irrigation and water-saving technologies are required in any intermittent or long-term water-needy environments. Within states, irrigation is found mainly in areas that are economically productive; Rockström et al. (2009) finds water assistance is limited to areas producing cash crops. These same zones are often where communities have inclusive and favored relationships with governments (Boone 2003). This indicates that climate adaptation measures and water-stress assistance may be influenced by the relative wealth and political weight of areas (Barrett 2013, 2014). Hanjra et al. (2009) argue that the barriers to achieving a massive increase in irrigated land are mainly financial and educational, but others consider alternative political and economic constraints (see Barrett 2014). In short, in terms of water access—defined here as equitable availability, affordability, and conditions of and for use—political and economic circumstances may matter far more than physical need and vulnerability.

The political weight of communities and their rights to water, land, and other public goods are issues that rarely emerge in the water-conflict literature, yet contests over water rights are paramount concerns across Africa. In many countries, mismanagement or limited capacity to provide adequate water, characterizes governance around water availability and use. Solely from a capacity standpoint, most African states have stagnated in their delivery of water across rural areas while marginally increasing access to urban areas from 2004 to 2013 (World Bank 2016). Eight of ten people without improved water access live in rural areas (UNICEF, 2015).

In 2006, only 16 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa had access to drinking water through a household connection (an indoor tap or a tap in the yard), with severe concerns about water quality routinely being unaddressed (Awuah et al. 2009). This low level of access obscures domestic water politics and processes that determine where, when, and for whom water is accessible. To that end, several strategies to deal with water use and availability in arid, urban, and farming areas underscore how poor management has exacerbated problems: with the lack of national programs and infrastructure to deliver water to both rural and urban residents, water, like many nominally “public goods,” can become a club good provided to particular communities and identity groups, especially in urban areas (McGranahan et al. 2005).

Most direct governance intervention to dictate and determine water access include livelihood changes which are imposed in exchange for water access, often in pastoral areas where the state is eager to change and restrict traditional practices (Gomes 2006; Muller 2007; Raleigh 2010); violent and nonviolent conflicts arise from contests between participants of this and other public-goods provisioning processes. Water access is also subject to administration issues characterized by unclear and contesting, overlapping authorities (including formal and informal authority, and community management around resources); “parish pump” politics, referring to the use of local politics focused on practical issues and leading to low-level corruption resulting in poor delivery, upkeep, use of public goods funds and employing poor representation (Muller 2007); or the rise of private‒public “partnerships” to supplement the capacity of the state (Budds and McGranahan 2003).

In turn, water services and the politics of water access is changing the nature of local governance and is a key way to understand who is privileged, who benefits from water politics, and how the overall state is functioning. For example, Madulu (2003) notes that in Tanzania, 50 percent of rural residents and 73 percent of urban residents have access to water; these rates for the poorest of Tanzanian citizens remain unchanged in 2015 (UNICEF 2015: 54). Multiple, overlapping bureaucracy around water is cited as a reason for ineffective and selective servicing of urban and rural areas: 30 percent of water schemes are not functioning, which has led to an increase in community management, a decrease in pumped water availability due to population, and situations where the poor rely on non-piped water for use. In another example, Nyarko et al. (2009) find that the inability of the Ghanaian government to achieve adequate supply (with access in 2015 at 56 percent of households) results in rural and urban populations being reliant on boreholes, wells, and rivers.

Governments are under pressure to increase the availability of water to multiple communities, but especially to cities, which often have high rates of water stress. In most African cities, less than 10 percent of the population is connected to sewers (Njoh 2011; Satterthwaite 2010). There are millions of urban dwellers that have unsafe, unreliable, difficult, and possibly privatized access to water; compared to other developing regions, African urban dwellers have the least access to water and sanitation. Many African governments have little ability or inclination to provide widespread urban services, hence service provision (especially of water) is handled in a private and informal way (Bolnick et al. 2006). Services—including water—are often channeled through social networks (Tacoli 2003).

Combined with the lack of formal capacity and management, the tendency for water to be provisioned as a club good and allocated unequally based on social networks, creates spaces for informal service providers (ISPs), including community organizations, the controllers of private boreholes, water tankers, and mobile vendors. These agents are bound by no proper regulatory mechanism and can take advantage of immediate need for water (Ibekwe and Ewoh 2012; Rapley 2012). While some ISPs represent community-based or religious organizations, many such groups are alternatively referred to as gangs, militias, or political thugs and often use service provision as “rent seeking” behavior in addition to operating in a security and conflict role (e.g., Kenya’s Mungiki). Ibaba and Ikelegbe (2010) confirm that militias engage in water provision where the state lacks the capacity to do so, leading to an increase of insecurity within African cities. These providers are increasing as larger proportions of Africans urbanize.

The alternative provision of security and services is not limited to cities. In the water-conflict literature, the position of pastoralists is often presented as the most “violence-prone” due to the ongoing tensions between contested livelihoods (see Raleigh and Kniveton 2012). In these environments, as in cities, governance (or lack thereof) contributes to conflict through advocating changes that benefit some communities over others. In the absence of plans to sustain pastoralist livelihoods and land access, actions often encourage livelihood transitions such as sedentarization through increasing water access via permanent boreholes, as a means to encourage pastoral settlements and in an attempt to lessen incursions. As pastoralists have faced increased competition for water and pastures resulting from decreased rangeland access, boreholes—in theory—increase access and use by communities who might otherwise be denied those rights. As Gomes (2006) finds sedentarization around managed, permanent water sources offers a minority an alternative livelihood, agricultural development, and access to public goods, but the price is the concession of a livelihood. In these scenarios, questions over land rights and tenure use water as a proxy for who can legally access land permanently and who has the political clout to determine those rulings (Kramon and Posner 2013).

The issues run deeper than forced changes in livelihoods and cultures. Land ownership around areas with permanent water access is highly contested. Temporary wells are under customary/community collective ownership, these and other surface water sources are often not subject to appropriation and allow use by multiple communities (Gomes 2006). Permanent boreholes and other development interventions (including irrigation) are formally owned and managed, due to infrastructure requiring responsibility and accountability. But who gets to claim ownership? Such arrangements can be the source of local conflicts, especially in arid and semi-arid areas and those under the severe strain of other instabilities (Behnke 1988; Hogg 1997; World Bank 2001).

Conflicts and contests are increasingly likely to emerge in these spaces because, like irrigated areas, water-accessible land creates better positions for communities and groups to benefit from agriculture, and access a range of in-situ public goods linked to sedentarization. In turn, water development has promoted a competitive sedentarization process for individual and collective economic prosperity among and within pastoral communities (Bruce and Mearns 2002; Gomes 2006; Scoones 1994). Residents, and those responsible for the water sources, often fence rangelands to reserve grazing areas and limit encroachment. Multiple cases of tension have arisen across Africa as access to rangeland has been denied by both farmers and settled pastoralists; for example, Clanet and Ogilvie (2009) documents how sedentary farmers in the Volta Basin deny pastoralists access to water and an opportunity to graze stock. This behavior changes the geographical distribution of traditional activities and endangers the pastoralist livelihood.

To summarize, water politics is similar to the politics that governs public goods access throughout Africa, in that it is subject to the same abuse and corruption, mixing of formal and informal authority, and access parameters which is not entirely based upon need. These qualities of water governance are exacerbated when the resource in question and the capacity of the state are “limited.” Conflicts in previously stable places may emerge as water politics alter livelihoods and change how communities are expected to interact and use resources. These aspects of water use and availability are not determined by rainfall, water quantity, or expected changes in physical patterns of availability. For those reasons, studies that do not acknowledge local and national water politics cannot teach us about present or future reactions to water availability, including those that presage or increase the risk of various forms of violent conflict.


The large-N quantitative literature on water conflicts fails to identify consistent direct or indirect links between rainfall aberrations, scarcity, or droughts and increased conflict. Recent empirical research and case studies suggest that the scarcity and grievance narratives typically underpinning environmental security discussions obscure three important phenomena: (1) the ways in which conflict is often tailored to favorable environmental conditions, such as raiding behavior preceding the wet season; (2) how changes to water management create new land scenarios in which livelihoods are threatened; and (3) how poor capacity and governance around water access, availability, and use has given rise to “informal providers,” particularly in cities. These new agents use water access as one mode of local control and are often engaged in violent activities related to community protection or predation.

Therefore, some promising avenues for water-conflict research should focus on new spaces where conflict may emanate from environmental pressures. Yet, perhaps most important, conflict researchers should be cognizant of the high rates of cooperation involved in local, domestic, and national water use (Wolf 1998, 2000). Indeed, what are the local social and political scenarios that lead to cooperation over conflict (for a discussion on national level determinants, see Koubi et al. 2014)? How do customary authorities and local administrations mitigate conflict potential around resource access and use? Finally, how might the politics around water adaptation, urban water access, and rural livelihood changes increase competition?

This chapter has argued that developing-state conflict research and water research are often focused on different aspects of water stress. While conflict studies use blunt, physical measures to capture whether weather patterns are stable or aberrant over long periods of time, water research often concerns the lack of infrastructure, technologies, and political will to change patterns of water use across developing states. This disjuncture between literatures is critical to expand upon, as the environmental security literature often presumes that greater levels of water-related disasters, including longer and more severe droughts, will lead to more frequent and intense conflict.

Links between climate and conflict has often explicitly focused on how short-term weather anomalies affect conflict occurrence directly, or indirectly through economic growth, migration, and food security, any conflict relationship is contingent upon political and economic characteristics of states (see Adano et al. 2012; Nordås and Gleditsch 2007; Raleigh 2010; Raleigh and Urdal 2007; Theisen 2008; Witsenburg and Adano 2007). Several strands of research suffer from a lack of theoretical connections between the posited driver (water) and its possible consequence (conflict), and largely rely on neo-Malthusian scarcity frameworks. Critiques suggest that much of the available literature continues to exaggerate the impact of environmental factors in causing or exacerbating conflict, over-predicts violence, and elevates possibly spurious correlations into causes (Barnett 2000; Barnett and Adger 2007; Gleditsch 1998; Hartmann 2010; Levy 1995). In short, the scarcity frame depoliticizes conflict occurring in the developing world by associating it directly with a physical cause. In contrast, research that observes the role of the environment as one of many correlates to violence, often suggests that the political maneuvering within states and the marginalization of the most vulnerable by the governing powers rarely lead to conflict (Hartmann 1998; Raleigh 2010). These works suggest that, in terms of likely future insecurity, “the nature of the state” is far more critical to understand than the “state of nature.”8


Research for this project was carried out with financial support from the Research Council of Norway, grant no. 240315/F10.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                    (1) A “conflict actor” refers to the individual organizations or groups involved in conflict. Because the type of groups involved in conflict varies across context and time, we use “conflict actor” in this guide to cover a wide range of groups such as rebels, militias, militaries, and organizations responsible for terrorist attacks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (2) There are more consistent indicators of water levels and other environmental risks in data sets including the “Environmental Indicators and Warning—EIW” set of the US government; this is not publically available.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (4) Including topography, proximity to a body of water, forest cover, urban heat island effects, etc.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (5) The CMI indicator ranges from −1 to +1, with wet climates showing positive CMI, and dry climates displaying a negative CMI.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (6) See World Bank data 2016 on “Improved Water Access.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (7) “Water stress” can depend on how the baseline rate and the additional stresses or risks are interpreted. A naturally dry area may not be considered physically “water stressed” if it continues to be dry, but that area may be interpreted from a social standpoint as “water stressed” if the dry area does not adequately provide for those living therein, even at typical rates of CMI.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (8) This insight is from Tobias Hagmann.