The politics of water

Tom Mollenkopf IWA President
Tom Mollenkopf, President, IWA Tom Mollenkopf © IWA

I’m often asked ‘What are the biggest challenges in water – and how do we deal with them?’

As water professionals, we tend to respond with a list of environmental factors and demographic issues: climate change, water scarcity, eutrophication of water bodies, pollution and water quality. And our solutions centre on engineering and technical approaches – anything from dams, desalination and treatment plants, through to pipes, hand pumps and latrines.

But, in doing so, we miss the point that the intractable issues in water are often around economics and politics. This is because politics is the forum for making decisions in groups or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. And the politics of water can be highly emotional.

The clearest examples of politics in water can be seen in water-related conflicts. The Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology lists violence over water going back around 4,500 years, categorised in three areas.

First, water may be a trigger or root cause of conflict, where there is a dispute over the control of water or water systems, or where economic or physical access to water, or scarcity of water, triggers violence. Second, water may be used as a weapon of conflict, where water resources, or water systems, are used as a tool in a violent conflict. Finally, water resources or water systems may be intentional or incidental casualties or targets of violence.

“we must engage if we want to avoid the wrong remedies”

Conflict over access to water more often stops short of violence, but the social and economic disruption can still be serious and destabilising. In otherwise developed and harmonious settings, we can see highly charged debates or legal wrangling over water rights. In the Murray-Darling Basin (Australia’s largest interconnected system of rivers, spanning around one million square kilometres) conflict has reigned for decades over the allocation of scarce water resources. It is a complex contest between four states, among differing uses (such as irrigated agriculture, urban consumption and environmental needs), and even between farmers (upstream vs downstream.)

In the USA, around the end of the 1800s, Mark Twain is reputed to have said: ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.’ We are probably all familiar with the stresses in the Colorado basin between states, and internationally with Mexico. But water tensions also occur right across the southern USA. Indeed, since the 1990s, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have disputed use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

We can also see such disputes around the world, not least in the Middle East (the Euphrates, Tigris and Jordan rivers), in Africa (the Nile), in Central Asia (the Aral Sea), and even in South Asia and South East Asia.

This presents a daunting challenge, but as scientists, engineers, regulators, and managers, we have an important role to play. First, we can offer solutions that will at least mitigate the stress points, even if we cannot solve them. Further, we can inform public officials and elected representatives so that they can make better decisions. Our professional expertise also covers governance, where we can drive the adoption of effective institutions, regulatory structures, and pricing frameworks. Finally, we can adopt leadership roles in our communities and organisations.

It has been said that politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. Much as we may want to ignore politics, we are not powerless, and tackling the world’s water challenges means we must engage if we want to avoid the wrong remedies.

Tom Mollenkopf, President, IWA