Finding Water After War

Where does infrastructure fit into peace negotiations?
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Feb 15, 2011

A longer version of this discussion  appears at the Kenan Institute for Ethics as part of its "Good Question"  series.

After a regional conflict, the management of natural resources is often in disarray, and finding clean, plentiful water is a daily struggle for those left behind. "In war-ravaged countries, ranging from Sudan to Liberia to Afghanistan, the reestablishment of the water supply and its management has been vital for post-conflict peace-building and economic recovery," says Erika Weinthal, an associate professor of environmental policy in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Urban water supply and sanitation systems are often ill-equipped to accommodate a mass influx of refugees. And the risks of dying from exposure to infectious disease linger for years owing to the lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation.

One of Weinthal's current areas of research, conducted in cooperation with the United Nations Environmental Programme and the Environmental Law Institute, seeks to understand war’s impact on water resources and to determine how water management can serve as a platform for political reconciliation, the fostering of regional cooperation, and the building of trust and confidence among previously warring parties.

A project to facilitate dialogue on sharing water resources in the Middle East is one example. “I don’t study environmental resources just from the standpoint of pure preservation and conservation,” she says, “Everything I do is embedded within a social and political context. I can’t study the environment in isolation from the political economy in which decisions are made about its use.”

“Water is unique among resources in that it is essential for sustaining human life, and there are no substitutes,” Weinthal says. “But, as with other natural resources, water is shared, and so there is a sense of physical interdependence.”

Yet, it turns out that with few exceptions (most notably, the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty), water resources are rarely incorporated into peace agreements. Instead, the task of making sure that fresh water is not only available but can also be widely distributed is most often left to humanitarian organizations and international financial institutions.

Peace-building activities tend to follow a now-traditional post-war script of reducing arms, disbanding the military, and eventually holding elections. As a result, political concerns have taken precedence over basic environmental and natural resource management, Weinthal says.

The challenge then is in determining how to insert environmental recovery into the post-war peace-building mission. For war-torn communities, the management of the water supply and its distribution cannot wait for political or economic stability because that stability is dependent upon this vital resource.

But the reality of improving water supply and infrastructure in post-conflict settings is extremely complicated; even the best intended humanitarian efforts may end up undermining economic recovery in the absence of coordination with the local population.

For example, Soviet troops in Afghanistan had destroyed much of country’s traditional, community-based irrigation systems (the karez) as a means to decimate the economy. By the 2000s, the management of the water supply was in disarray, water experts had fled or been killed, and data regarding the quality of water resources was missing. Humanitarian efforts to provide an emergency water supply through deep well drilling undercut the karez system further, making the situation even worse.

Weithal says that for water management to effectively play a role in the rebuilding of states at war’s end, political efforts must be matched by efforts both to fully understand prior ways that water has been distributed and to incorporate the public in decisions regarding natural resources.

"Water management can serve as a platform for cooperation and the consolidation of peace by helping to build confidence and restore trust among previously warring parties," Weinthal says.


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