Want to create political will? Try water

Women and kids at a water pump in Ethiopia. The U.S. Agency for International Development launched the Water & Conflict Toolkit for Programming on Feb. 24 at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

Laying pipes and building sewage treatment plants is normally how water resources are improved the developing world — but if not managed correctly, those improvements can also be missed opportunities in development.

While water is a key ingredient for human security, it can also play a hugely important role in bridging the gap between development and peacebuilding, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s new Water & Conflict Toolkit for Programming launched on Monday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

“Water can bring communities together,” Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East, a regional organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists to advance peace efforts, said at the toolkit launch. “It’s understanding interdependence by saying ‘whatever you do impacts your community, but whatever your neighbor does impacts you too.’”

So the laying of a pipeline can be far more meaningful if relationships are developed first between the communities those pipelines serve — especially when conflict is being used as a mask for transparency and furthering miscommunication.

The opportunity to create political will is a bottom-up process, Bromberg said, and must point to cross-boundary waters and the resulting interdependence on resources.

For instance, the Jordan River — a source of political tension between Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians — is a shared water source being depleted at an unsustainable rate.

This ecological disaster is what inspires FoEME to engage school children, religious groups and community leaders through environmental education. When school children are learning about their water reality, their neighbors’ water reality — and when their parents are signing forms that allow their kids to meet the so-called “enemy” — local mayors will be more likely to take a political step toward a solution, Bromberg said.

In 2013, for the first time in 49 years, fresh water was released from the Sea of Galilee into the lower Jordan River, and Israel and Jordan created a subcommittee to rehabilitate the river.

READ:WASH: A spearhead for development in fragile states

Water and local politics

The Water & Conflict Toolkit seeks to raise awareness about these links between water resource management and opportunities for peacebuilding by involving communities where public infrastructure is being constructed and developing mechanisms for dialogue and shared resource management.

“When you are managing water, there are so many political ramifications and questions,” said Aaron Wolf, professor and department chair of geosciences at Oregon State University.

Wolf described that there may be one map of water basin boundaries, but there will always be a separate map of political boundaries to consider.

The diversity of attendees at the toolkit launch panel on Monday showed that the answer may lie in the collaboration of the nonprofit, government and academic sectors, among others. But the question of which sectors and stakeholders to immediately involve in a water project can also be tricky.

“It’s important that we start from the local context — the local government context, the natural resources context — before we start thinking of what and who to bring together,” noted Chris Kosnik, acting director of the Office of Water for USAID.

USAID finalized its global Water and Development Strategy in May 2013, the first time the aid organization has indicated targets for its approach to water programming.

“I can see this [toolkit] being used much more frequently in our resilience and water programs moving forward,” Kosnik said.

The toolkit is intended to help USAID and its partners understand the opportunities and challenges inherent to development programming in conflicts where water is an important issue, but questions remain, especially about the use of data and measuring success.

“Too often we measure success based on engagement — did the two parties meet?” explained Sandra Ruckstuhl, a senior specialist at Group W Inc. who helped compile the toolkit. “But what was the quality of the engagement? How do we measure trust, things that come out of sustained engagement?”

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.