Water, conflict and cooperation

Back to Home

+ Add case study

    Water, conflict and cooperation

    Both within and between states, access to water and control over its allocation can become a source of conflict. This naturally becomes most evident in regions were water is scarce and the demands from different users are high. A well-known example is the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. As a result of the construction of dams, hydro-electric power plants and large-scale irrigation works upstream in Turkey, the flow of water to the downstream countries of Iraq and Syria is reduced considerably. This obviously causes tensions between these countries, as water in the region is already short in supply.

    Water conflict in the Marib area, Yemen

    Conflicts between upstream and downstream users are well known. Often these disputes arise at a local level, such as with small scale farmers downstream who are dependent on the upstream settlements for their water. In the Marib area in Yemen water users had a water dispute after a change in water distribution and irrigation, which was induced by the construction of a newly built dam. A new irrigation system, which was technically appropriate but socially a disaster almost led to war: the new design had changed the former water distribution system. As a result, the once rich sheiks were facing poverty. From an egalitarian point of view, a more equally spread income distribution could have been a development goal. The problem was that nobody had taken the social-economic and cultural consequences into account, with violence and aggression the result.

    If we look at it from the positive side, shared water resources between countries that share the same river basins can also provide opportunities to promote (international) cooperation -as opposed to interstate conflict. As such, water can be a source of cooperation.

    The Dutch Polder Model: Water, culture and cooperation

    Water can be a source of cooperation. Famous are the Dutch polders which required different stakeholders to work to gather in order to build dikes, dams and polders. By 1200 AD landowning farmers had organised themselves and started sharing tasks and responsibilities to protect their polders from flooding. And the system of decentralised communal cooperation worked well. In the last few centuries the Water Boards withstood the test of time, including the turbulent period of industrialisation, when new technologies made it possible to create even more and deeper polders.


    Tips for professionals

    • Know the context and you will know what questions to ask.
    • See if you can turn water into a source of cooperation rather than let it become a source of conflict.
    • What is perceived as a conflict might not be the same as what western professionals will perceive as the conflict.
    • Likewise, the solutions you offer may not be the solutions that will be accepted (and thus, these will not solve the conflict).
    • Often local conflict resolution mechanisms are in place. Acknowledge these when necessary.
    • Use Intercultural communication techniques (see chapter 6).
    • Investigate cultural factors such as:
      • Who may decide? (power relation)
      • Collectivistic or individual issue?
      • Social relationships
      • Cultural values, norms and behaviour regarding water
      • Distributive or integrative negotiation

    Water dispute: The Three Gorges Dam

    Water, conflict and cooperation