Can collaboration prevent increasing tension over water conflict?

We explore political water tensions over cross cultural borders and how collaborative action in business practices can address this.

Water is one of the most valuable resources on earth, but only 2.5% is fresh, and just one third of that is accessible.[1] Tensions continue to rise due to competing demands for water, particularly between countries that share a water source. Global population growth, water degradation, inefficient water management and climate change create major pressure on our precious water resources.

Tensions due to competing demands for water are evident in countries where conflicts already exist, and management of water is insufficient. This can impact business and farming practices all over the world.

Water tensions in North Africa  

The Nile River has long been a contentious water source for the countries that surround it. The Nile holds great importance – flowing through 10 of the most arid countries in Northern Africa and providing water to 40% of the continent’s population.[2]  In the past, Egypt and Sudan have staked the majority of power over the Nile. This has caused tension with upstream countries that also depend on the river, who have started to argue over the biased use of water and are trying to secure greater access.

In 2011, Ethiopia began construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, using water from the Nile to provide an opportunity for hydroelectric power and widen the country’s sustainable energy sources.[3] This has led Egypt to fear the repercussions the dam will have on their water source, and Egypt will lose about 200,000 acres of land if water is reduced by 2%.[4] Egyptian and other Northern African farmers are concerned for their future and livelihoods, with one farmer, whose soils have dried stating that “if they really finish the dam, it will definitely be our death”.[5]

The water tension in Northern Africa highlights a problem that is prominent worldwide: 261 of the world's rivers are shared by two or more countries – which may ultimately lead to conflicts over water 'rights’ and have repercussions on people and business practices globally.[6]

Other contributing factors

Changes in global weather patterns are likely to aggravate this issue by further restricting the supply and reducing reliability of sources, particularly in areas that are not equipped to deal with these changes. For example, more frequent and intense precipitation in rapidly expanding poorer urban areas not only affects infrastructure and settlements, but also contributes to an increased risk of pollution and disease, exacerbating social and environmental tension.

Why collaboration is key

Collaborative action that minimises these conflicts is crucial. This can be seen in the water deficit that occurs in the Jordan basin, which supports Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian demands. Despite the significant violence in the region, the states have retained cooperation, notably helped by the 1995 Palestinian-Israeli Water Agreement that regulates the use and protection of water.[7] Even in the last few years, where religious and social conflict has intensified, the agreement’s established water committee continues to regularly meet and discuss how to share this resource.

Management of water resources

Cross-boundary management within joint river basins is enabling synergy across different areas and sectors, whilst achieving other goals to help improve economies. Integrated water resource management can also be achieved on a national scale – for example, the formation of the Mekong River Commission in Asia. This group uses representatives from all levels of society to ensure a greater perspective of water issues is included in management schemes. These approaches offer an opportunity to convert a resource surrounded by tensions into a solution filled with mutual trust and support.

As the agricultural sector is the largest user of freshwater (at over 70%), we need to ensure this market is operating at maximum efficiency, to ensure correct water management.[8] In many areas of the world, irrigation is hindered by evaporation and seeping – unnecessarily depleting the source. Poor draining systems and excess run-off may also lead to unnecessary water wastage.

Ways to reduce water mismanagement in agriculture

Governments, businesses, and farmers alike can maximise efficiency to reduce excess water waste:

  1. Reviewing water irrigation systems every year to ensure they meet specific standards
  2. Reducing run-off through improved land composition via projects like contour bands that create breaks, which gives water more time to be absorbed.[9]
  3. The use of drip systems during the irrigation process to reduce evaporation. This equipment slowly ‘drips’ water to the roots of crops through special pipes or small tubes. This avoids the unnecessary wetting of the crops’ leaves. The drip systems are also simple in design and are 90% efficient or more.[10]

It is important increasing the efficiency enables continuous improvement and management to ensure long-term success.

Water recycling

As demand for water increases worldwide, water recycling is imperative, particularly in the agricultural sector. Implementing efficient farming systems and processes can reduce the overall quantity of water used, but water recycling can help manage water use for this industry’s particularly large water consumption.

Water recycling can also be used in a variety of industrial processes, mainly for cooling purposes which then also eliminates the need for alternative energy sources to carry out such tasks.[11]

How your business can help

Understanding the importance of water conflict is key for businesses. Companies should ensure they are doing everything in their power to play their role in water preservation. Firstly, they need to monitor and understand their current use, and then implement ways to manage their use responsibly. Sedex’s Self-Assessment Questionnaires and SMETA audits allow companies to highlight potential water risks in their business.

It is important to consider timescales related to global water tensions and water management. In one way, what we define as a tension can develop into a synergy, and what begins with collaboration, such as the agreement between Egypt and Sudan, may eventually become a conflict. As populations increase, economic expansion continues, and industries grow, the demand for water may create and exacerbate existing conflict. Therefore, understanding and ensuring collaboration has never been more crucial.

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