By Meg Kramer

February 28, 2019

Scott Moore, Senior Fellow at The Water Center at Penn and Penn Global China Program Director, gave a talk on his latest book, Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflicts, Cooperation and Institution Building in Shared River Basins, at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore on Tuesday, March 26th to a group of interested faculty, students and West Philadelphia community members.

Moore first became interested in understanding the potential for increased conflict over water due climate change during his time at The World Bank. Moore says there are three primary challenges to the current global water crisis. These challenges are not new. Populations around the world have been dealing with these challenges throughout millennia. However, each challenge has become more formidable due to the impact of climate change.

Challenge #1 – There is not enough fresh water available where it is needed. The amount of water on the planet is fixed and only .5% of the world’s total water is usable, primarily in the form of groundwater. The world’s growing population is putting pressure on that small percentage of usable water. First, the world’s largest user of water is agriculture, which uses 70% of the .5% of available fresh water. A growing population requires greater agricultural output and therefore more water, but agricultural production is not necessarily located in areas with sufficient water resources to support increased output. Second, the growing global population is becoming more urbanized, requiring more water on a daily basis in urbanized areas, which are not necessarily in water rich locations.

Challenge #2 – There is not enough fresh water available when it is needed. Water cycles are becoming more unpredictable and extreme. Weather events such as droughts and floods are becoming more common due to climate change, disrupting the natural seasonal cycles necessary for food production and creating challenges to securing the water necessary for energy production and other demands of modern living.

Challenge #3 – Water quality is not reliable. In addition to traditional water quality threats from non-point source pollution such as agricultural and urban run off, exotic chemicals from endocrine disrupting chemicals found in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals such as birth control are degrading water quality. While the full impact of these chemicals is not yet fully understood, evidence of their impact such as declining fish populations and species malformation indicates that threats to human health are likely.

So what do these multi-faceted challenges mean?  Should we expect these water issues to lead to forms of violent conflict as some past and present thought leaders suggest?

According to Moore’s research, there isn’t a strong correlation between these challenges and violent conflict. During the modern era, out of 6,500 incidents between multiple countries regarding water issues, only 27 resulted in any type of violence and none resulted in warfare. Instead, there were approximately 200 cases where countries came together to agree on how to share and manage water.

However, within countries there are appears to be more conflict and even some cases of violence over water issues.  Moore’s book examines the commonalities in these situations and attempts to identify the causes of water conflicts as well as ways those conflicts can be resolved. Using examples from the US, China, Israel and France, Moore reveals that the cause of water conflict is often emotional. People get upset when they perceive that water is being distributed and used unfairly or if water quality is threatened, particularly in areas where water is scarce.  Unfortunately, politicians have tapped into this emotional trigger and sometimes use it as an issue to polarize population segments for political gain.

Despite this tension, the good news is that water conflicts often lead to cooperation and mutually beneficial solutions to managing and using water resources. The most successful instances of cooperation are when governments involve civil society and third parties in finding the solutions. When water solutions are confined to the political sphere, polarization continues, but taking an inclusive approach that brings together multiple voices from multiple sectors transforms conflict into cooperation.

An example of this is the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), established in 1961 after President Kennedy approved legislation that allowed the federal government to participate in the compact under which the DRBC was formed. The DRBC includes the governors and state leaders of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware as well as federal government leaders.  Including both state and federal representation helps ensure that disputes between states over water issues can be resolved and that no one state has more of an advantage than another.

Beyond inclusive problem solving, Moore stressed the growing need to value water appropriately through monetary measures. “When it comes to resources, especially a resource as valuable as water, its hard to use something well that we don’t value monetarily” Moore said.  Moore used gasoline pricing as an example. If the price of gas goes up, people tend to change their behavior, driving less in order to use less gas. Water, like gas, must have an appropriate economic value. It will be difficult to make water use sustainable around the world if there isn’t a way to charge people more for the water they use, especially as water becomes scarcer. This is especially true when it comes to water quality.  It’s expensive to treat water and wastewater to ensure its quality. Higher water pricing will be necessary, particularly in urban areas where treatment is essential.

In closing, Moore stressed the need to consider equity when it comes to water pricing. “Water, as the most essential commodity of all, is not something you can deny people.  Its not the case that you can just put a price on it and let the market take its course.  You have to ensure that everyone has access to water.” Avoiding conflict around water issues will require solutions that are both sustainable and equitable.