Water Management in Armed Conflict: Improving Collaboration and Joint Knowledge
May 13, 2022 By Juliane Schillinger
Speaking at a session at the 2nd International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding in February, Guillaume Pierrehumbert, head of the Water and Habitat Unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for “a comprehensive rethink of collective humanitarian action” to address the unprecedented civilian crises in protracted armed conflicts.
Water must be at the center of any such effort. And the February session was a chance for practitioners and policymakers from academia, humanitarian aid and civil society, to discuss how actors involved in water management during armed conflicts can improve collaboration through new partnerships and joint knowledge building.
As a panelist and co-organizer of the session, I was particularly pleased by the opportunity for key players to share their extensive experiences with both successful and unsuccessful cooperation, and to reflect upon how we might improve our ways of working to meet the challenges that conflict poses to water.
Rethinking Humanitarian Action in Protracted Conflicts
Given the increasingly protracted nature of armed conflicts, the humanitarian needs of local populations are changing. This is true not only for short-term access to basic needs, such as water, food and shelter, but also for the medium- to long-term provision of essential services. As a result, the boundaries between humanitarian and development interventions are increasingly blurred.
Pierrehumbert shared his lessons learned from a multi-year initiative by the World Bank, the ICRC, and UNICEF that explored how humanitarian and development actors can effectively support water service providers in protracted conflicts. Drawing from a 2021 joint report on the effort, one of his key recommendations was the creation of better coordination mechanisms between humanitarian and development interventions. He also called for partnerships with local water service providers to identify vulnerabilities in service provision and develop emergency preparedness plans ahead of acute crises.
A shared body of knowledge on water resources and service provision in times of crisis is also essential, and Pierrehumbert offered the example of the ICRC’s activities in Jordan at the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Based on local water resources data, the ICRC opted to implement demand-side interventions rather than increasing water supply, to limit overextraction of the scarce groundwater resources. “Unfortunately,” he added, “this information does not exist in all the countries where we operate.”
Collaborating with Local Civil Society Organizations
Salman Khairalla, director of Iraqi NGO Humat Dijlah, spoke about how local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be important partners for international organizations as well. He noted that NGOs work on social and environmental issues before the onset of current conflicts, and are familiar with local priorities beyond basic humanitarian needs. Khairalla also observed that NGOs are well-connected within their communities, offering important local, contextual knowledge— and that their size means that they can be more agile than large-scale, international NGOs helping to ensure the sustainability of external water interventions.
Collaboration with international organizations can help local NGOs build operational capacity, however. Such partnerships also can help smaller groups overcome some of the challenges they face in their work—including managerial difficulties dealing with bureaucratic hurdles and acquiring funds for projects. Nonetheless, the lack of willingness by governmental agencies to work with civil society on environmental topics remains a key challenge. Khairalla shared that even though Humat Dijlah has international support and a lot of information on environmental issues, local authorities are often unwilling to collaborate.
Civil society actors may also face significant personal risks. “Here in Iraq, to be an environmental activist is a little bit difficult if you work alone, without a group,” Khairalla said. and that it is “very risky” to talk about issues such as environmental pollution related to the Iraqi oil industry. (At a session on environmental defenders during the same conference, Khairalla pointed out that partnerships with international organizations also can provide some degree of safety for local NGOs and activists.)
Connecting Research and Praxis
My own contribution to the panel drew from my recent review of scientific literature to show that while practitioners have long worked to provide clean water and enable local water management in conflict-affected settings, academic research has been slow to pick up on the issue. Addressing this gap in the research could help to promote knowledge integration in the field. Research projects that compare insights and practical experiences from different places play an important role in this process, and the combination and synthesis of knowledge from different sources to build our shared understanding of managing water in conflict-affected settings.
Developing more robust scientific research on water management in conflict-affected settings also depends on collaboration between researchers and those doing the work on the ground. Alexandra Caplan, doctoral student and manager of the Transboundary Freshwater Disputes Database at Oregon State University, observed that researchers often depend on collaboration with local or international organizations to gain physical access to conflict-affected areas and to build trust with local communities.
The disconnected and potentially incompatible modes of operation is a central challenge to collaboration between researchers and practitioners in the humanitarian space. “We humanitarians are very impatient,” said Pierrehumbert. “We need to learn that that’s not how it works in the research field, you need to be patient.” He recommended developing long-term collaborations with research institutes that balance the urgency of short-term humanitarian action and the long timeframes of academic research.
Performance assessment criteria for practitioners and researchers also proceed differently. Assessments for international and local organizations are based on successful interventions aligned with to project-specific criteria. Publications that can take years to appear in journals remain the primary currency of the academic world. To start bridging this gap, academics must rethink how we judge our own performances, and give more value to the societal impact of our research.
The Central Role of Data Sharing
Data sharing also plays a central role in promoting better collaboration in water management and other endeavors. For example, international organizations collect voluminous data from field surveys. By sharing this information with other actors working in the same space, they can ensure that the same data does not need to be collected twice. This sharing will allow for a more efficient use of limited resources allocated to humanitarian and development interventions—and a greater impact for such efforts.
Access to governmental data on water use and management also remains a challenge in conflict-affected settings. Monitoring processes might be disrupted, or data collected by governments might be classified. Caplan’s presentation on power relations in transboundary water management in the Jordan and Euphrates/Tigris basins noted that government sharing is particularly problematic in settings where water data is used as an instrument of power in transboundary negotiations—and therefore is securitized—by national authorities.
Effective data sharing requires additional work. For example, datasets must include suitable metadata, and be anonymized to not include sensitive data. But such challenges can be overcome. Panelists cited cases where this has happened, including the Humanitarian Data Exchange hosted by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the REACH Resource Centre, which provides extensive quantitative and geospatial datasets to supplement the information provided in project reports.
Given the urgency of humanitarian needs in protracted conflicts, improving collaboration in water management and jointly working to fill data and knowledge gaps is important to ensuring that those affected by conflict continue to have access to safe and clean water. Enabling evidence-driven water management in conflict-affected settings is crucial to avoid further deterioration of local communities’ access to water services.
Juliane Schillinger is a PhD candidate at the Department of Technology, Policy and Society, University of Twente.
Sources: Environmental Peacebuilding Association; Humat Dijlah; International Committee of the Red Cross; Oregon State University; REACH; UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; University of Twente; WIREs Water; World Bank.
Photo Credit: A housekeeper from Northern Syria washes dishes with water from a tank installed by OXFAM, courtesy of Flickr user EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid.