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A new tool for predicting conflicts over water

The researchers of 6 organisations have grouped into a consortium* to develop an early warning system to help predict potential conflicts linked to water since violence caused by water scarcity is increasing around the world. A third of the world’s population currently lives in countries subject to high levels of water stress, with droughts that affect around 50 million people and cause more than $5 billion in damage every year.

This tool, called Water, Peace and Security (WPS), allows predicting the emergence and localisation of conflicts linked to access to drinking water and its supply. Funded by the Dutch government, it was presented to the UN Security Council before being launched officially in Geneva in December 2019.


The first tool of its kind

This tool is novel in that it combines historic variables such as precipitation and failed crops with political, economic and social factors to predict the risk of violent conflicts linked to water up to one year in advance. In all, it uses 80 indicators over a period of 20 years, and according to its developers, its reliability rate is higher than 85%. Available online, it can be used by everyone but it is above all aimed at making political decision-makers and other stakeholders aware of the lack of water in certain regions. Conflicts can be aggravated with the rarefaction of water resources, which will become a reality for many people. According to the United Nations, 5 billion people could be affected by water scarcity by 2050.

Map of baseline water stress showing that 17 countries face extremely high water stress.

Iraq and Mali, two countries at risk


The developers of this tool are at present focusing their analyses on areas at risk in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Two countries are very exposed: Iraq and Mali, due to the effect of reduced discharges in the rivers of these countries. Demonstrations were held in Iraq last year when 120,000 people were hospitalised after having drunk polluted water. In Mali, farmers, livestock breeders and fishermen are worried about the projects of their government and other countries to build dams and irrigation canals that could affect the availability of water in the Niger delta. Syria and Iran are also threatened by water shortages and the degradation of water services.

Problems linked to water do not generate conflicts or wars on their own according to Susanne Schmeier, an academic at the University of Delft, a partner of the WPS project. But they can increase the risk when combined with other scourges like poverty and inequalities.

Once conflicts escalate, they are hard to resolve and can have a negative impact on water security, creating vicious cycles of conflict. This is why timely action is critical

Local conflicts between communities or regions of the same country, aggravated by non-governmental actors are, for her, the most difficult to control and can rapidly become intensified, as opposed to cross-border conflicts.

* IHE Delft, World Resources Institute (WRI), Deltares, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), Wetlands International and International Alert in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands

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