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Effective Water Management Can Prevent Conflict, USAID Says

By Kathryn McConnell | Staff Writer | 25 February 2014
Woman looking at child drinking glass of water (USAID)

A mother in Jordan gives her daughter a glass of clean drinking water.

Washington — Countries with unreliable supplies of water are more vulnerable to conflict, according to a new report from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The report, called the Water and Conflict Toolkit, was released February 24 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. It says that conflict is often generated by competition over water and other natural resources. Effective water management can bring disputing parties together to prevent conflict and foster reconciliation, it says.

The Water and Conflict Toolkit is meant to be a resource for aid and development workers in fragile and conflict-affected areas, says Melissa Brown, director of USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation. In the introduction, Brown says that the report can guide workers in evaluating the risk of conflict in an area and the potential for negotiating peace and building resilience.

The report says that population growth and movement to urban areas pose significant challenges to governing water infrastructure. As demand for water grows, competition will likely increase if per capita freshwater availability is not effectively and fairly managed, it says.

Effective water management also should take into account factors like intense agricultural and industrial demands and needs to share water supply fluctuation and water safety data, the report says.

“Effectively sharing water information during emergencies such as floods or severe contamination is crucial for protecting human and environmental health and managing perceptions of insecurity in tense and tenuous circumstances,” the report says.

Also affecting water management is the issue of the lack of transparency about water rights and private sector contracts that can mask preferential treatment or corrupt governance, the report says. “Corruption can increase marginalization and exploitation of disadvantaged and vulnerable populations,” it notes.

Other factors that affect water availability, quality and access are traditional practices, water politics, upstream and downstream flows, pollution, climate change and natural disasters, the report says. It says that low resilience to environmental disruptions can lower economic productivity, trigger unemployment and damage public perceptions of the competence of government institutions.

“Water is a shared interest even in deeply divided communities and regions,” Chris Kosnik, acting director of USAID’s Office of Water, said at the Wilson Center. As well, “water can be a powerful connector encouraging cooperation and negotiation in lieu of competition or violence,” he said.

He said that for the first time, beginning in 2014, USAID has had a water strategy. The five-year effort aims to ensure that 10 million more people will have improved access to drinking water, 6 million people will gain improved access to sanitation, and another 3 million people will get access to improved agricultural productivity.

The report urges countries to build formal and informal institutional relationships of collaboration on water monitoring, management and investment. It says that they should make access to clean water more affordable and equitable, enhance citizen knowledge about water as a resource and water use, improve citizens’ communications with policymakers, and take into account the potential for conflict around access.

“Fair and effective water resource management is a concern of everyone,” Brown said.

Water and Conflict: A Toolkit for Programming (PDF, 6.4MB) is available on USAID’s website.

Woman tipping bucket to water plants (USAID)

A farmer waters her crops. Agriculture is the largest source of water consumption.