Water, Peace and Conflict: Recommendations from Civil Society

By Marie Lena Groenewald and Lorenzo Angelini

In recent years, the European Union (EU) has made clear that it is committed to addressing the linkages between the climate crisis, water resources, and peace and conflict dynamics. The EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy (2016), the Climate Change and Defence Roadmap (2020), the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change (2021) and the Concept for an Integrated Approach on Climate Change and Security (2021) all underline the importance of responding to how the climate crisis may affect conflict, including with respect to issues around access to (and control over) water resources. Similarly, the European Green Deal characterises climate change as ‘a significant threat multiplier and a source of instability’, and the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – Global Europe (NDICI-GE) includes several provisions relating to these linkages, including with respect to addressing ‘threats having a potentially destabilising impact on peace and security, deriving from climate change impacts’ and to ‘promoting […] conflict sensitive management of water resources and transboundary water cooperation.

In the framework of the Civil Society Dialogue Network (CSDN) [1], EPLO organised a Geographic Meeting on Water, Peace and Conflict: Exchanging on Opportunities and Best Practices in October 2022. The aim of the meeting was to exchange and to gather input on how the EU should enhance the way it addresses the linkages between the climate crisis, water resources, and peace and conflict dynamics, particularly in relation to mediation and issues of governance. The geographic focus of the discussions was the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and the Horn of Africa.

The following are four of the core points that were raised during the exchange, accompanied by short interview videos with some of the civil society experts that took part in the meeting. The report from the discussions, with detailed information and additional recommendations, is available to download here.

Analyse the connections between water, peace and conflict

Firstly, participants highlighted the need for the EU to ensure that it analyses and understands the connections between water, peace and conflict in the areas where it is engaging. These connections are often complex, multi-faceted and specific to individual contexts. Also, political and environmental crises are frequently intertwined in fragile contexts.

  • These relationships should be analysed in-depth to determine how to respond to them, including by carrying out conflict analysis, water systems analysis and environmental impact assessments.
  • The EU should also ensure that its engagements and the efforts it supports are gender, climate and conflict-sensitive, and based on input and consultations with local communities and civil society actors from affected areas, who often have a more detailed understanding of the dynamics around water and peace/conflict in the areas where they live than external actors.
  • The use of water resources by certain groups can harm the livelihoods of other groups, and certain actors and groups may actively use water to harm or to pressure other groups. The EU should analyse communities’ diverse resilience and coping strategies when facing water stresses, as well as the linkages between violent conflict and access to water resources.

Support peacebuilding, particularly dialogue and mediation efforts

The EU should strengthen its support to peacebuilding efforts relating to access to water, to water management, and to the protection of water ecosystems. It should place particular emphasis on supporting inclusive dialogue between multiple affected stakeholders and on mediation efforts at the local, national and regional levels around the shared use of water resources.

This should include fostering dialogues involving community leaders, elders, and diverse women, youth, and marginalised groups, with the aim of reaching shared understandings of the causes of conflict and water stresses, and shared views about the solutions to pursue. Gender inclusivity is especially important in negotiations around water, as women are often disproportionally affected by challenges relating to water accessibility (for example due to persisting gender roles around the fetching of water).

Civil society experts discuss the role of dialogue and mediation efforts at the CSDN Policy Meeting on Water, Peace and Conflict.

Promote inclusive governance, co-operation and capacity building

The EU should further promote and support inclusive governance and co-operation structures for the management of water resources, and it should help strengthen the capacity of governance institutions to ensure that populations have access to water and that water ecosystems are protected and used sustainably. It should also support connections between local, national and regional structures.

  • It is often the case that governance institutions are patriarchal and characterized by an underrepresentation of women and young people. Government institutions that lack legitimacy and accountability, and/or that exclude and discriminate against certain groups, are often less able or willing to prevent tensions around water and to respond to water-related crises – particularly if marginalised groups are affected. Corruption and cronyism often accompany and exacerbate problematic governance, and they may weaken the capacity of authorities to deliver public services. Similarly, problematic governance may fuel grievances and contribute to conflict, and consequently increase pressure on water resources.
  • The EU should support and provide incentives for the development of inclusive governance institutions. This may include expanding the participation of diverse groups in political processes in conjunction with helping build the capacities of institutions to deliver public services around water in a fair manner (e.g. by training civil servants and developing fairer frameworks), it may involve facilitating agreements between authorities and populations around raising taxes to fund services and to develop mechanisms to ensure increased accountability, etc.

Civil society experts discuss the importance of inclusivity for governance and co-operation structures at the CSDN Policy Meeting on Water, Peace and Conflict.

Support local communities and civil society actors

The EU should expand its support to local communities and local civil society actors in their efforts to maintain and increase access to water, to build peace around the use of water, and to protect water ecosystems. This should include providing them with the required resources, infrastructure and data; helping them to build their capacities, and amplifying their voices in their exchanges with national authorities. The EU should also deepen its support to co-operation efforts across the peacebuilding, water management, environmental protection and climate adaptation fields. In particular, the EU should ensure that it supports these efforts on the long term and maximises the local ownership of responses to water-related risks.

  • There are multiple ways in which the EU may support and help build the capacities of local communities and civil society actors to address water-related risks. This may include (a) providing them with financial and material resources as directly as possible (including pipelines, pumps, water filtration systems and basic infrastructure, but also, where relevant, tools for unexploded ordnance removal around water sources); (b) sharing data and analysis with them; and (c) building their expertise and research capacities on the interplay between climate change, water resources, and peace and conflict dynamics (including through trainings).
  • Also, the EU should deepen its support to co-operation across the peacebuilding, water management, environmental protection and climate adaptation sectors. This should include building the capacities of actors to co-operate across sectors, promoting the sharing of data, and supporting cross-sectoral, integrated engagements.

Civil society experts discuss how the EU should support (local) civil society at the CSDN Policy Meeting on Water, Peace and Conflict.

These recommendations and others are explored in more detail in the report from the meeting, which is available here, along with a longer video with interviews with civil society experts.

[1] The Civil Society Dialogue Network (CSDN) is a mechanism for dialogue between civil society and EU policy-makers on issues related to peace and conflict. It is co-financed by the European Union (Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace and managed by the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO), a civil society network, in co-operation with the European Commission (EC) and the European External Action Service (EEAS). The fourth phase of the CSDN will last from 2020 to 2023. For more information, please visit the EPLO website.

Marie Lena Groenewald is the Policy Assistant responsible for supporting EPLO’s work relating to the climate crisis, gender, peace and security (GPS), and conflict sensitivity.

Lorenzo Angelini is the Senior Policy Officer responsible for coordinating EPLO’s work relating to peace, development and security, the climate crisis, and EU-Africa relations.

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