There are 286 international transboundary river basins that are shared by 151 countries. These basins are the source for water as well as livelihoods to 2.8 billion people. In many of these places the already vulnerable and marginalised are at great risk due to problems managing water.
Sudden, sharp changes in these basins are not like that of water wars between states seeking military control over shared waters. Rather, such armed conflict does not happen. Instead, it is floods, droughts or the breakdown of dams that cause sharp changes and grab headlines. Water conflicts evolve around the management of the river to secure water, to install infrastructure, and to harness the economic possibilities of the river.
What does not grab headlines at the time of these sudden changes are the underlying conditions of inequality. In other words, the vulnerable and marginalised are those who feel the impacts of these changes more intensely than others. Moreover, they are faced with everyday struggles to access water and to manage the river for their livelihoods. Weathering any variability to flows or water quality is done by those most dependant on the river, at the cost of their health, safety and livelihoods. They are also the first ones to notice the impact of degraded river ecosystems and the ones with no choice but to somehow mitigate them.
An example is the Mekong River in Southeast Asia which has seen rapid development of dams. In 2018, the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in Laos collapsed, releasing 500 million cubic metres of water and causing fatalities and a reported displacement of over 6000 people. This dam was under construction in the tributary of the Mekong in Lao territory but its proximity to the Cambodian border also meant that downstream communities faced the effects of unexpected water level rise. This dam is one of the many being built to provide hydropower for an increasingly urbanising region, notably to supply demand in Thailand. While the urban dwellers and industries far from dam locations may benefit from hydropower, the rural communities close to these sites observe the changes to the river on a daily basis. Some have been relocated due to the construction, others have attempted to make do with the changing ecosystems and river flows. It is against this context that through the dam collapse villagers have been made homeless or lost possessions without warning. On top of any concerns they may have had about the changing river environment, they will have to deal with the long-term consequences of this incident to their families and livelihoods.
Diplomatic flare ups over water quality control or mounting international tension over the building of dams that prevent water flowing to downstream states may be soothed through handshakes over basin management agreements or the launch of new technical reports.
What might seem like cooperation between states may in fact conceal harms to the vulnerable and marginalised communities. Cooperation done in centres of power far flung from the banks of the river may be touted as sharing water-related benefits between countries. For example, an agreement over the building of a hydropower dam to provide green energy for the region. Or enabling water withdrawal for agricultural projects for high-value goods for export that makes for efficient water use. However, as the Mekong example showed, these projects may bring about a real, qualitative change to efforts at using and accessing water for subsistence farming or river resources such as fish for food. Being blind-sighted by benefits would only normalise the harms the vulnerable and marginalised experience to make these dams and agricultural projects materialise.
Rather than getting caught up with avoiding water conflict, we need to think about the ways to address these harms. We need to ask how water used, when and by whom, and what are the implications of changing them when decisions to develop a river is made. These questions need to be answered with a variety of inputs and knowledge, crucially incorporating those marginalised voices usually left out of mainstream decision-making. Only by posing these questions, can we begin to ask ourselves what alternative ways of managing the river may be possible—an alternative that does not cause fallouts to the already vulnerable and marginalised.
Featured image taken from the cover of Water Conflicts: Analysis for Transformation.