Leveraging water for peace: Is water the ultimate peacemaker?   

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Water is essential for all life on our planet. Explore how this precious resource can advance peace and prosperity across the globe.

Regardless of species, gender, or nationality, water is a universal necessity that is essential for sustaining life on our planet. Every year World Water Day celebrates the power of water. In 2024, the theme for World Water Day is ‘Water for Peace,’ a theme specially chosen to call attention to the essential role water plays in building resilience to global challenges, especially conflict. As a fundamental resource, water security is crucial to social, economic, and political harmony around the world and is therefore at the heart of international sustainable development.

In recent years, changing socio-political conditions across the globe have triggered a steady increase in the number of fragile and conflict-affected settings (FCASs). Simultaneously, climate change-induced loss and damage is rapidly increasing. Set against this backdrop of environmental degradation and fragility, threats to water security will increase the likelihood of, or prolong periods of conflict.

This World Water Day the United Nations have called us all to consider three key messages:

  • Water can create peace or spark conflict.
  • Prosperity and peace rely on water.
  • Water can lead us out of crisis.

CGIAR’s Fragility, Conflict and Migration (FCM) Initiative understands that water plays a central role in long-term adaptation planning in both FCASs and society at large. Given the transboundary importance of water to a myriad of global challenges, this World Water Day we are asking: What are the key water issues that impact peacebuilding? Why is water central to so many global challenges? And most importantly, how can we leverage water for peace?

UN WWD Water for Peace Social Card. Credit: UN Water

From tackling climate change to influencing international politics, why is water central to so many global challenges?

When water sources are unpredictable or of poor quality, crops fail, the generation of energy is impaired, ecosystem health is threatened, and cross-sector and transboundary cooperation is jeopardized. What this means is that food, energy, biodiversity, and politics all depend on water for stability. When one is compromised the others are unlikely to function effectively. The importance of water security to economic and social security is perfectly illustrated by the fact that global river systems are responsible for 25% of global food production. In other words, water is central to peace and prosperity because it is intersectional and integral to the security of the systems it supports.

The intersectionality of water also means that successful cooperation and water management can help safeguard climate adaptation and sustainable development solutions. Unfortunately, climate change restricts access to water sources and arable land, becoming a catalyst for local, national and international conflicts, which impede development. Intrastate conflict over water is particularly prevalent and occurs because of competition between local user groups, such as farmers and pastoralists. Forced internal displacement is rapidly becoming a major outcome of inter-group conflict. According to the World Bank’s Groundswell report, “climate change could force 216 million people to move within their countries by 2050.”  This mass movement of people has consequences for the planning and management of water systems in the communities hosting displaced people as their water sources come under increasing pressure.

Transcending international borders, water is also fundamental to transboundary cooperation. The United Nations recognizes that an estimated 58% of the world’s transboundary basin areas have an operational arrangement for water cooperation. While this does mean that over half of the world’s shared water sources have mechanisms in place to manage resources peacefully, there is much further to go in ensuring that the struggle for water access does not foster international conflict.

Farmer operating sprinklers in Kalpitiya Sri Lanka. Credit: IWMI/Hamish John Appleby

What are the key water issues that impact peace, peacebuilding and conflict?

As reflected above, mismanagement or poor control of water resources can be the cause of conflict, prolong pre-existing disputes, or intensify tension between groups. Water’s potent impact on conflict can be particularly problematic in already fragile regions that may be dealing with the implications of violence. For context, FCASs are environments in which there is often a low level of governance capacity in combination with acute insecurity when also characterized by violence. These factors significantly impede effective economic and social development. Unfortunately, water scarcity is on the rise in these precarious environments.

Defined as limited access to acceptable quality water, water scarcity is a massive hindrance to the maintenance of peace. According to the World Health Organization, in 2021, over 2 billion people lived in water-stressed countries, a figure that has continued to rise in the years since due to climate change and population growth. As climate change and population growth escalate so does competition for water resources between groups. Competition for water is competition for the economic profit, political influence, and social security, which water sources provide. Therefore, the intensification of competition increases the prospect of violence and conflict.

Increased population density places additional stress on water security with influential knock-on effects including the disruption of food systems. Across the globe, “75% of global crops are grown in water-stressed areas.” When the disruption of food systems is exacerbated by population growth, climate change, and scarce or variable water resources, the impact can be felt worldwide. The enduring war in Ukraine has seen a huge supply shock to the global food system due to the large proportion of international grain exports that Russia and Ukraine produced. In this example, as in many others, food prices skyrocketed with damaging repercussions for international trade and the global cost of living. It is this combination of stressors that can fuel conditions for conflict.

In countries and regions where conflict is already rife, water scarcity is made far worse by inevitable damage to infrastructure and the contamination of water sources, which can escalate public health risks. Communities that are forced to knowingly or unknowingly utilize contaminated water sources run the risk of increasing the incidence of water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio. Each of these diseases is severe and can result in serious illness and death, both of which are preventable when water sources are properly managed. Water-based crises in public health further destabilize peace and prosperity, leaving vulnerable populations weakened by the tandem effect of disease and conflict.

Aerial shot of village on banks of river Bagmati. Credit: IWMI/Metro Media.

How can we leverage water for peace?

Anticipatory Action

Like the United Nations, FCM believes that water has the capacity to lead us out of crisis. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is an essential part of the FCM’s work to safeguard vulnerable people in FCASs, including refugees, internally displaced people (IDP), and host communities. IWMI is currently exploring ways in which anticipatory action (AA), initiatives to mitigate potential disaster impacts before a shock is felt, can establish resilience to fragility. AA encourages the implementation of solutions that prioritize long-term adaptation planning, reducing the chance of compound crises triggering or escalating conflict. This includes the integration of nature-based solutions (NbS), disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies, and principles of the bio-circular economy to enhance ecosystem services and reduce dependency on fragile, often weakened, infrastructure and institutions in these settings.

The intersectional nature of water makes it a crucial part of AA. By involving communities that are particularly susceptible to the impacts of water and climate insecurity, AA research empowers informed decision-making that reduces the long-term impact of challenges like water scarcity. Integrating NbS and DRR measures within these communities promotes the restoration and sustainable management of natural resources, enhancing their resilience to climate impacts and conflict pressures. For example, NbS can be used to support floodplains and wetlands, naturally reducing water flows, through the storage of water, or for afforesting ecosystems such as grasslands and soils to improve groundwater recharge. What this means is that the advancement of peace and peacebuilding can also come from non-conventional water technologies and nature-based adaptation. Treating wastewater, reusing water, rejuvenating wetlands, and reforesting degraded land, amongst other innovative solutions to the climate crisis all have a role to play in deterring conflict and building long-term adaptation to climate change.

Humanitarian Response

With support from CGIAR’s FCM initiative, IWMI has been conducting research into water and climate-based vulnerabilities facing refugee and IDP-hosting communities in countries experiencing the impacts of conflict. One such country is Jordan, where IWMI is collaborating with Jordanian national and local government agencies to carry out a case study as part of the Anticipatory Approaches in Host Communities for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Mitigation (AHEAD) activity. This case study is an example of a project that is helping inform the humanitarian response to complex emergencies. Other benefits of AA research include the exposition of barriers to gender equality that leave women at a far greater risk of harm during disaster events than men. Thorough investigations into water- and climate-based vulnerabilities are critical to leading vulnerable and marginalized communities out of crisis and leveraging peace.

Coordinated anticipatory action is an example of investing in crisis preparation mechanisms to prevent conflict. Aligning with the principles of DRR and NbS within these investments can catalyze the transition to more resilient bio-circular economies in fragile and conflict-affected areas, promoting climate adaptation, sustainable development and peace. For example, permaculture and agroforestry in humanitarian settlements, provide livelihoods, and cyclic reuse of resources to manage tensions of scarce natural resources. To ensure climate resilience becomes a norm we must increase monetary investment in water and climate security. “Only 5% of global climate finance – roughly $30 billion per year – is currently allocated for adapting to climate change.”If this number is not increased, we are jeopardizing our ability to encourage social development and reduce the number of people living in poverty.

Promoting innovation

In December of 2023, the FCM Initiative, along with the World Food Programme (WFP) launched the CGIAR FCM Innovation Accelerator, to support private sector innovators scaling climate solutions across food, land, and water systems in fragile and conflict-affected areas. “The objective of the program will be to accelerate eight innovations that can deliver tangible impact to strengthen the resilience of communities in FCAS through the provision of financial, technical, business and investment readiness coaching, as well as marketing skills.” Noting the importance of water security as a lever for promoting resilience in FCASs, the Accelerator is targeting innovators promoting water resilience in refugee-host communities in Jordan and in conflict-affected areas of Yemen. Through the Innovation Accelerator, IWMI and WFP are demonstrating the power of water to promote integrated action and impact at the heart of the humanitarian-development-peace nexus.


Water for Peace

As we use World Water Day 2024 to celebrate the power of water, we recognize that it is the intersectional power of water that makes it the ultimate peacemaker. Climate adaptation and sustainable development is impossible without peace, and peace and prosperity rely on the effective management, and celebration, of water.

Written by Luisa Chantler Edmond, Princeton in Asia Fellow , IWMI. 

For more information on the work IWMI’s work on water, peace and conflict, and on CGIAR’S Fragility, Conflict and Migration initiative contact Sandra Ruckstuhl at s.ruckstuhl@cgiar.org

Top Photo: Hindus worship in the Ganges River. Photo: IWMI/Neil Palmer

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