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War, Water and Peace: A wake-up call for tourism and media

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Beautiful water in Bhutan – photo © Rita Payne

Water and climate change are factors of War and Peace. Tourism as an industry of peace has its role.  There are many reasons why countries go to war. The most common causes are territorial and ethnic disputes. There is, however, one key factor that does not attract the same attention – this is the potential for conflict over water.

The effects of climate change leading to fierce competition for dwindling supplies of freshwater across the world is making the threat of serious conflict alarmingly likely.

Frustrated by the lack of media coverage of the link between water and peace, an international think tank, the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG), brought together journalists and opinion formers from across the world to a workshop in Kathmandu in September to highlight the issue. Participants from Europe, Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia attended the International Media Workshop – Global Challenges of Water and Peace. Each speaker presented facts, figures, and examples of how their regions were directly affected and the dangers that lay ahead.

The President of the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG), Sundeep Waslekar, asserts that any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war. He says this is why SFG organized the Kathmandu meeting to make the international media aware of the linkages between water, peace, and security. “The biggest danger that we can see in the next few years is that if terrorists take control of some of the water resources and some of the water infrastructure. We saw how in the last three years, ISIS took control of the Tabqa Dam in Syria, and that was their main strength for the survival of ISIS; before that the Afghan Taliban had done this. We are seeing the possibility of a war in Ukraine, and there, too, the shelling of water treatment plants is at the core of it. So water is at the very, very core of the new terrorism and new conflicts,” Waslekar said.

Changing nature of media

The meeting examined how the coverage of environmental issues was being affected by the changing nature of the media today. Global financial pressures have led to many media houses shutting down their environmental desks. Newsrooms no longer have the resources to cover issues relating to the environment and water. Much of the news related to water tends to focus on sensational stories such as tsunamis and earthquakes and the devastation they cause. This has created a vacuum in environmental reporting which is gradually being filled by freelance journalists. These journalists have begun re-shaping the business model on reporting environmental issues and have countered the fatigue which comes with reporting on climate change by being more focused on specific topics. Working independently, these journalists are freer to visit places and meet people which it would have been difficult to do if they were reporting on more general issues.

Challenges faced by freelancers

One major problem which emerged at the workshop was that in order to discuss water as a standalone issue, most freelancers felt obliged to begin by focusing on broader environmental issues before homing in specifically on water-related news. From a media standpoint in the last couple of years, threats and disasters related to tropical forests and oceans were naturally given considerably more space compared to less attention-grabbing issues such as dwindling freshwater resources like rivers and lakes.

Funding remains a huge challenge with media houses cutting down on paying for work trips abroad. Using stringers to report on local stories from developing countries can also be problematic. Journalists, stringers, and those who help them such as fixers and interpreters reporting on water-related projects can find their lives are threatened by parties with vested interests such as narco-groups and non-state actors. Stringers can also come under political pressure and their lives put at risk if their identity is revealed. As a result, freelancers may not always be able to rely completely on the stories they obtain from stringers.

In many countries, water is an issue of nationalism, and this can cause added difficulties for freelance journalists who might not have a large media organization covering their backs. In some developing countries, there is active government interference in reporting on sensitive trans-boundary water issues; journalists are told what to ask and what to leave out. There is also the threat of lawsuits which can be imposed on journalists reporting on environment and water-related issues. For instance, when a journalist took pictures of the pollution in the Litani River in southern Lebanon, a lawsuit was filed against him because such images supposedly “threatened” tourism.

As news portals become increasingly web-based, vitriolic online comments on social media are another challenge faced by journalists. Citizen journalism poses its own set of pros and cons for freelancers and the media; it can be an irritant for regular freelancers who coordinate with stringers to report on issues while, at the same time, it can be a helpful tool for collaborating with local sources.

Effective storytelling

The participants unanimously agreed that the media can be an important instrument for change. The proliferation of new technology and multimedia portals has helped to generate stories with a stronger impact. Since water is a global issue, it is all the more imperative to tell stories related to water resources more imaginatively, and there was a call for a re-thinking on the conventional story-telling model. There was a recognition that the integration of audio, video, text, and graphics is what makes a story more comprehensive and compelling. Inevitably, with the concern over fake news, it was suggested that the most effective way to counter this would be through “accountable” journalism. Defining what makes journalism “accountable” or responsible can be a minefield raising questions about who decides what is accountable.

It was generally acknowledged that water will most certainly begin to dominate the news agenda, especially water quality and water availability. Journalists attending the workshop spoke of the need to bring out the human element in order to tell an engaging story. Stories narrated in local languages and dialects coupled with actual visits to the site leave a deep impression on the minds of readers. It is also crucial that the journalist is not a lone individual when it comes to reporting; the entire newsroom must be involved including editors, graphic artists, and others. It is also important for journalists to have a cross-fertilization of ideas and issues related to water by interacting with hydro-political experts, water engineers, policymakers, and scholars.

There was general agreement that when reporting on water, images can convey more than words. One example cited was the haunting and shocking image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. This picture appeared in the media worldwide graphically illustrating the reality of the risks faced by those seeking a better life. It was suggested that an effective way to collaborate could be by creating an online portal that would enable participants to post audio, video, and other multimedia tools to support and sustain the exercise undertaken by the workshop. Finding imaginative ways to report on the water is going to be the biggest challenge in spreading awareness of the dangers posed by ever-shrinking supplies.

Experiences from Different Regions

Water issues are diverse and there is a wide disparity across regions in access to water. Reporting on water and environmental issues can also pose dangers for journalists. In Nepal, for example, if journalists report on the effects of mining and other activities that destroy the environment, they are immediately labeled as being “anti-development.” Also discussed was China’s strategic interest in constructing infrastructure projects in various Southeast Asian countries including dams on the Indus, a hydro-power station in Bangladesh, and a port in Sri Lanka. Stories related to water in Africa are tied in headlines to land grabbing and land acquisition. For instance, a cause for controversy in Ethiopia is that companies acquire land close to Lake Tana and utilize its water for cultivation of flowers which are then shipped to Europe and other countries. This deprives local communities of a vital resource. Countries in Latin America have to deal with their own unique set of problems.

Another growing problem is the displacement of people as a result of water scarcity and the fallout from industrial activity. Mexico City sinks by 15 centimeters every year, and the resulting evacuation of local populations features regularly in the media. The migration will gain increasing significance in the dry corridor of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The principal economic activity in the trans-boundary Amazon River is mining which results in the leakage of mercury and other toxic chemicals into the waters of the Amazon. Indigenous people living close to these areas suffer the most. The harsh reality is that since air and water have no boundaries, these communities suffer from pollution even if they do not live directly inside the affected zones.

In the Middle East, the weaponization of water by armed non-state actors coupled with the complex geopolitical situation in the region only serves to reinforce the role of water as a multiplier of the conflict. In order to gain a strong foothold in the region, ISIS seized control of several dams in the region such as Tabqa, Mosul, and Hadida. In Lebanon, the Litani River Authority published a map in September 2019, which displays the number of people suffering from cancer who live along the banks of the Litani River in the Bekaa Valley. In one town, as many as 600 people have been detected with cancer.

The Euphrates basin is emerging as the theatre of war between rival Syrian forces, the US, and Turkish troops. Any solution to the crisis in Syria will have to take developments in the Euphrates basin into consideration. In the US, water is regarded simply as a humanitarian aid issue. Therefore, attacks by ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and other militant groups on water infrastructure are seen as isolated military incidents without looking at the deeper issue of how water sustains non-state actors.

Water and its Links to Security

In the Arctic region, the vast stores of minerals uncovered by melting ice has led to a scramble by different countries competing to claim these precious resources. Russia is already asserting its presence in the region by building ports and acquiring 6 nuclear-powered ice breakers. In comparison, the United States has only 2 ice breakers, out of which only one is capable of breaking through especially tough ice. The US and Russia have already begun facing off in the Arctic, and tensions are expected to increase as melting sea ice exposes more resources and opens up sea routes.

The role of water in relation to military bases and security establishments will become more critical as sea levels continue to rise. Countries like the United States will feel compelled to relocate or even shut down coastal bases. A case in point is the Norfolk Virginia military base, the largest naval base in the US, which may have to shut down in the next 25 years because of the rise in sea levels. The US does not appear to have given serious thought to the far-reaching consequences of rising sea waters and has been substituting strategic long-term plans with interim plans by building piers. It is important to note that the question of closure of such bases will also depend on political sentiment. For instance, in the US, President Trump has increased the budget for such military bases. A number of countries such as France, Japan, China, the US, and Italy have their military bases in Djibouti to counter piracy and secure maritime interests.

In 2017, the US State Department released a report which recognized water as a key component of national security. The report addressed the security angles related to water in broad and general terms but did not provide a comprehensive strategy to deal with them. The report draws heavily on one issued in 2014 on the same subject, and this does not address water as a potential source of conflict, focusing instead on examples of water as a humanitarian aid issue.

Examples were also discussed of how water which is used in military operations can be used as an instrument of peace. Firstly, water is used as a tool to meet logistical operations. In Mali, the French troops require 150 liters of water per day, per soldier. Sophisticated techniques and aircraft are required to transport large quantities of water across the Sahelian desert. The French army also builds wells in Mali so that water cannot be used as a bargaining tool by non-state actors. The challenge is how water can be used to manage the population on the ground in order to make people more autonomous and make them less susceptible to being controlled by non-state actors.

Secondly, submarines are a crucial part of military strategy, and there is a potential that rebels could exploit the vulnerability of submarines by threatening the surrounding sea.

Thirdly, water is used as a weapon by rebels who target and destroy water resources, control the flow of rivers, and poison wells to terrorize people. The question that arises in such situations is how to prevent water from being used as a weapon in conflicts – can it be done through diplomatic treaties or government policies?

Fourthly, water also poses a risk for the military and commandos working in the battlefield. The French military school has collaborated with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), also known as the World Wildlife Fund in the US and Canada, in order to ensure officers are given training on how to respond to water-related threats. Polluted water poses a serious danger. The difference between threat and risk is that a threat is deliberate whereas risk is incidental. Lastly, the threat of cyber-attacks is real, especially after the recent hacking of a database which had information about dams in the US.

Positive Impact of Civil Society and the Media

It was observed that cross-country exchanges on water-related issues need not be confrontational and that journalists can play a role in reducing possible tension. Media coverage of cooperation on the ground could encourage countries to further strengthen cooperation at a higher level. There were many positive examples of ground-level cooperation between cross-border communities. In a case in South Asia, there was a dispute over the flooding of the Pandai River which intersects the Chitwan National Park in Nepal and the Valmiki National Park in India. The water panchayats of the communities living across the river got together and built dikes in order to prevent flooding, and these now operate under the control of the local governments.

Another example of productive cooperation was the resolution of the tension between Assam in northeast India and Bhutan. Whenever a flood occurred in the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam, the blame was immediately placed on Bhutan. It was on the initiative of the local people that messages were passed on Whatsapp whenever water was due to be released upstream with the result that not only was livestock saved but people living downstream in India were also able to move to safety.

The cross-border residents of the Karnali River, which flows through Nepal and India, have initiated an early warning system through WhatsApp in order to mitigate the loss of agricultural crops. Another instance is that of the Koshi River which has had a long history of floods. Here women’s self-help groups get together to decide cropping patterns and pass on information when floods are imminent. Additionally, communities along the Indo-Bangladesh border have worked together on projects to re-populate the rivers with Hilsa fish, which is part of their traditional diet. Although these positive stories have been covered by local media, these tend not to be picked up by big publishing houses since they are not regarded as being of broader interest. Local media has played an important role in enabling local civil society groups to promote problem-solving interaction between populations living in the upper and lower reaches of rivers.

In the Middle East, the media played a significant role in supporting the Tigris Consensus – an initiative for cooperation and confidence building on the Tigris River between Iraq and Turkey. This began with exchanges between experts and eventually engaged political leaders and government representatives. This enterprise was steered by Strategic Foresight Group and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Lessons from Nepal

Since 2015, Nepal has adopted the federal structure of government and is already experiencing conflicts between the provinces over water. The main challenge for Nepal lies in containing its internal clashes related to water. Nepal is also among the first countries to launch a community radio station that reports on all local issues including water and is extremely popular. While trans-boundary water issues attract greater media interest, the more significant question of what happens with water at the micro-level tends to be comparatively overlooked.

The underlying reality is that natural resources, including water, are not limitless. Climate change alone cannot be blamed for the worldwide depletion of water; one must also take into account the part played by the misuse of technology, change in social mores, migration, and other factors which have led to inappropriate or plainly wrong policies being formulated to tackle the current environmental crisis. The Strategic Foresight Group maintains that we are at a point when journalism can play a vital role in engaging stakeholders and helping to prevent countries from going to war over water.

One can no longer take water for granted, and unless the world sits up and takes notice, there is a strong possibility that in the not-very-distant future, countries will find themselves at war as the competition for this precious resource becomes ever more intense and desperate. The media can play a vital part in alerting the world to the extent of the crisis we are facing over water.

Water and Peace: A wake-up call for media and tourism

Kathmandu Workshop – courtesy of SFG

Water and Peace: A wake-up call for media and tourism

Workshop – courtesy of SFG

Water and Peace: A wake-up call for media and tourism

Kathmandu Workshop Participants – courtesy of SFG

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About the author

Rita Payne - special to eTN