Carefully Managing Water Resources to Build Sustainable Peace

Carefully planned interventions in the water sector can be an integral part to all stages of a successful post-conflict process, from the end of conflict, through recovery and rebuilding, to long-term sustainable development.

Does the better post-war water resource management contribute to peacebuilding by generating legitimacy within a society and for the state? Research has become increasingly interested in the potential role of natural resources, especially freshwater resources in war affected societies, because the misuse of natural resources is increasingly being seen as one of the key challenges for sustaining and promoting peace. This link has of late received serious traction in research and policy circles as the international community stresses the significance of environment for the peaceful societies by including both in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Water Management after War

Post-war countries are among the most difficult policy arenas for international agencies and domestic stakeholders. The challenge is not only to bring an end to the war and prevent violence from reoccurring, but also to help countries reset the dynamic among their internal actors on a peaceful path. The long-term adverse effects of wars further amplify this policy challenge.

Many of these challenges for post-war countries relate to political and social aspects. Lasting impressions of human rights abuses committed during wars continue to shape the relations among members of societies for decades to come. Both socio-economic crunch and political churning can challenge the stability of post-war countries for many years if not decades. The public health crisis has been found to be especially severe and affect disproportionately the civilian population in post-war countries. Environmental and climate change exposes war affected people further to new risks, exaggerating the human costs of war long after active combat has ceased.

In order to address public health crisis and to reduce further human costs of war, it is critical for a post-war country to be able to provide access to clean water and sanitation for its population. Often in war times, water storage facilities and installations for water delivery are damaged and sometimes even targeted. Thus, after the end of the war it often needed for the focus to be placed on the rapid restoration of water infrastructure.

When a war affected country fails to swiftly and smartly manage its water resources it amplifies the vulnerability of post-war communities on water and inevitably exacerbates and prolongs the human costs of war. Increasing demand for freshwater and climate change induced variability of its availability are further adversely affecting the agricultural production and the provision of sustainable livelihood for post-war communities. Thus, addressing the war related damages to the water infrastructure are often key to rebuilding a state after war. Then, it is necessary to develop the increasingly scarce water resources in a sustainable manner, which will bring inclusive development and promote peace in the society.

Yet, even though the international community is aware of these tasks, — recent research indicates that while addressing water management in post-war period — the emphasis is usually placed on expert-oriented solutions, which bypass the complex and critical political aspects of it. Ignoring political factors might expedite the implementation process in short run, however, it can possibly create worrying challenges not only for the smooth operation of the water projects, but also for the peace itself.

Lessons from Kosovo and Nepal

Asian development Bank

The Kali Gandaki “A” Hydroelectric Project in Nepal. Image by Asian devlopment bank via Flickr.

A recent analysis of the post-war water resource management in Kosovo shows how the international community, choosing a highly expert driven technocratic approach to rebuild Kosovo’s water sector after the violent conflict came to an end, frequently clashed with political realities in this landlocked and conflict affected territory. The United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), which assumed trusteeship of the territory in 1999 until a European Union mission replaced it in 2008, favored technical solutions and bypassed the political realities. Especially the case of the divided city of Mitrovica exemplifies that UNMIK sought to avoid confrontation. As the central political authority in Kosovo, UNMIK rather paid outstanding water bills for Kosovo Serbs, than facilitating the collection of fees for supplied water. Overall, the empirical analysis shows that UNMIK’s technocrat driven management of the water sector in fact impeded the peace process rather than aided it.

Other recent findings on the water resource development in conflict affected Nepal, show the positive potential of ecologically sensitive service provision as these can yield tremendous socio-economic benefits for rural communities. The provision of energy in Nepal remains a pivotal challenge. In 2010, almost a quarter of the country did not have access to electricity, and even those households that were connected did not receive continuous power. The capital, Kathmandu, experiences scheduled power cuts up to 14 hours a day during the drier winter season, when hydropower ebbs, and two to three hours a day in the water-rich monsoon months. The study of two localities in rural Nepal, shows that micro-hydropower development has had many positive effects for rural communities, especially in regard to socio-economic development. This improved socioeconomic status of households reflects a clear reduction in vulnerability to poverty and even food security as the improved cannels diverting water to the micro-hydropower station have improved irrigation of nearby fields. Though it does not immediately translate into improving the legitimacy of the Nepali state, by helping to bring over all sustainable development of its citizens, the state is most likely going to reap the benefit in the future. The experiences from the study of micro-hydropower development in Nepal show that the state needs to actively pursue and project the ownership of the water sector development process in a post-war period in order to legitimize itself.


There is certainly a need to acknowledge the long-term interplay of social, political, and ecological processes in post-war countries and to understand the potential and dynamics of natural resources and environmental issues in this context. The interactions of these processes decisively shape the post-war landscape. It is therefore prudent to help building a peace that is ecologically sensitive and socially and politically relevant and desirable.

Thus, the carefully planned interventions in the water sector become an integral part to all stages of the post-conflict process, from the end of conflict, through recovery and rebuilding, to long-term sustainable development. A recently published article in the Hydrological Sciences Journal argues that for the best possible use of water resources in the peacebuilding process, there is a need for a comprehensive approach. Both the Nepal and Kosovo cases show the unintended consequences that result from narrow focused interventions in the post-conflict landscape. It is pivotal that the international community engaged in peacebuilding must plan, think and execute with a long-term perspective that sets the conditions for sustainable peace. Drawing on an extensive reading of the current literature, such a comprehensive approach includes a series of measures to be taken in a post-conflict setting: legal reforms and building of sound water institutions; careful planning of water use to achieve sustainable food security; and cooperative involvement of international, national and local stakeholders in the planning and managing of water resources.

Further reading:

Swain, A., & Jägerskog, A. 2016. “Emerging Security Threats in the Middle East.” Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Krampe, Florian. 2016. “Empowering Peace: Service Provision and State legitimacy in Peacebuilding in Nepal.” Conflict, Security, and Development 16 (1), pp. 53-73.

 Krampe, Florian. 2016. “Water for Peace? Post-Conflict Water Resource Management in Kosovo,” Cooperation and Conflict. DOI: 10.1177/0010836716652428.

 Ashok Swain. 2016. “Water and post-conflict peacebuilding.” Hydrological Sciences Journal  61 (7), pp. 1313-1322.

Florian Krampe is a political scientist specializing in peace and conflict research, international relations, and political ecology at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University.

 Ashok Swain is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research and Director of the Research School for International Water Cooperation at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University. He is also Professor at the Department of Earth Sciences of Uppsala University.