The lack of a settled definition for hydropolitics—a prismatic concept that acquires specific meanings according to both the disciplinary boundaries within which it is used and the theoretical perspectives of those employing it—is consistent with the disagreement over its nomenclature (hydro-politics vs. hydropolitics). The term has had many meanings and idiosyncratic usages over time, and there has been hardly any attempt to advance a clear definition for it. The strength of the concept of hydropolitics, its inter-disciplinary conceptual heterogeneity, is also its weakness. While the crystallization of some of the core features of hydropolitics in the literature—especially with regard to scale (namely, the focus on the inter-state level and the range of issues covered, that is, the politics of international water basins)—has anchored hydropolitics to “standard cases” of the concept, its theoretical underpinnings are still blurred. The study of hydropolitics has substantially delved into trans-boundary, not just any, waters. Yet, both the ontology and epistemology of the concept are debatable, so few eclectic definitions for hydropolitics have emerged. Hence, by addressing the relationships between knowledge, theory, and action of hydropolitics, the scientific community, in particular scholars of international relations, political geography, and critical geopolitics, has struggled for theoretical coherence as well as for conceptual clarity over the use of the term. This is not an easy task, though, because the fluid essence of hydropolitics escapes not only definition but also easy classification.
Claudia Sadoff, David Grey, and Edoardo Borgomeo
Water security has emerged in the 21st century as a powerful construct to frame the water objectives and goals of human society and to support and guide local to global water policy and management. Water security can be described as the fundamental societal goal of water policy and management. This article reviews the concept of water security, explaining the differences between water security and other approaches used to conceptualize the water-related challenges facing society and ecosystems and describing some of the actions needed to achieve water security. Achieving water security requires addressing two fundamental challenges at all scales: enhancing water’s productive contributions to human and ecosystems’ well-being, livelihoods and development, and minimizing water’s destructive impacts on societies, economies, and ecosystems resulting, for example, from too much (flood), too little (drought) or poor quality (polluted) water.
In an era of calamitous climate change, entrenched malnutrition, and the chronic exclusion of hundreds of millions of people from access to affordable energy, food, and water, evaluating the policy options of African states to address these challenges matters more than ever. In the Nile Basin especially, a region notorious for its poverty, violent instability and lack of industrialisation, states have invested their scarce resources and political capital in a “hydraulic mission” in the belief that they can engineer their way out of international marginalization. Incumbents have bet on large-scale hydro-infrastructure and capital-intensive agriculture to boost food production, strengthen energy security, and deal with water scarcity, despite the woeful track-record of such a supply-side approach to development. While ruling elites in the Nile Basin have portrayed the hydraulic mission as the natural way of developing the region’s resources—supposedly validated by the historical achievements of Pharaonic civilization and its mastery over its tough environment—this is a modern fiction, spun to justify politically expedient projects and the exclusion of broad layers of the population. In the last two hundred years, the hydraulic mission has made three major political contributions that underline its strategic usefulness to centralizing elites: it has enabled the building of modern states and a growing bureaucratic apparatus around a riverain political economy; it has generated new national narratives that have allowed unpopular regimes to rebrand themselves as protectors of the nation; and it has facilitated the forging of external alliances, linking the resources and elites of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to global markets and centers of influence. Mega-dams, huge canals and irrigation for export are fundamentally about power and the powerful—and the privileging of some interests and social formations over others. The one-sided focus on increasing supply—based on the false premise that this will allow ordinary people to access more food and water—transfers control over livelihoods from one (broad) group of people to (a much narrower) other one by legitimizing top-down interventionism and dislocation. What presents itself as a strategy of water resources and agricultural development is really about (re)constructing hierarchies between people. The mirage of supply-side development continues to seduce elites at the helm of the state because it keeps them in power and others out of it.
Scott M. Moore
It has long been accepted that non-renewable natural resources like oil and gas are often the subject of conflict between both nation-states and social groups. But since the end of the Cold War, the idea that renewable resources like water and timber might also be a cause of conflict has steadily gained credence. This is particularly true in the case of water: in the early 1990s, a senior World Bank official famously predicted that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water,” while two years ago Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney made a splash in North America by claiming that water would be “Asia’s New Battleground.” But it has not quite turned out that way. The world has, so far, avoided inter-state conflict over water in the 21st century, but it has witnessed many localized conflicts, some involving considerable violence. As population growth, economic development, and climate change place growing strains on the world’s fresh water supplies, the relationship between resource scarcity, institutions, and conflict has become a topic of vocal debate among social and environmental scientists. The idea that water scarcity leads to conflict is rooted in three common assertions. The first of these arguments is that, around the world, once-plentiful renewable resources like fresh water, timber, and even soils are under increasing pressure, and are therefore likely to stoke conflict among increasing numbers of people who seek to utilize dwindling supplies. A second, and often corollary, argument holds that water’s unique value to human life and well-being—namely that there are no substitutes for water, as there are for most other critical natural resources—makes it uniquely conductive to conflict. Finally, a third presumption behind the water wars hypothesis stems from the fact that many water bodies, and nearly all large river basins, are shared between multiple countries. When an upstream country can harm its downstream neighbor by diverting or controlling flows of water, the argument goes, conflict is likely to ensue. But each of these assertions depends on making assumptions about how people react to water scarcity, the means they have at their disposal to adapt to it, and the circumstances under which they are apt to cooperate rather than to engage in conflict. Untangling these complex relationships promises a more refined understanding of whether and how water scarcity might lead to conflict in the 21st century—and how cooperation can be encouraged instead.