Thursday, June 20, 2024
CommentaryThe need for clarity: securitization of water vs. water security

The need for clarity: securitization of water vs. water security

Nature is a perfect system. The four elements, earth, air, fire and water come together to form life and all that is necessary to sustain it. They work together to create the impeccable balance of nature and the abundance therein. Nature also has an incredible system of replenishing itself and of limiting the capacity it can sustain – it is a perfect system. If only we could live in harmony with each other and with nature, we would experience that the abundance of nature is more than enough for our needs. However, typical human greed and conflicting interests coupled with the politicization of humanitarian demands often paint nature in shades of scarcity rather than abundance. Unfortunately, it is this doom and gloom, though unfounded, which is loudly reported. Transboundary waters serve as an apt example to illustrate this challenge.

Management of transboundary water resources is not an easy task. States that are bound by these transboundary resources inherently share common basic human needs which motivates them to secure water for their citizens. As water security is a shared humanitarian challenge it could potentially be a starting point for collaboration. Nonetheless, because transboundary waters are subject to multiple political orientations, ideologies, policies and demands of sovereign states, the issue of transboundary rivers might fall exceedingly on the political plate and miss its goal. Instead of the point being securing water for people, it becomes politicized to become a matter of “national security”. In recent years we have seen these two concepts, water security and securitization of water, being confused and/or deliberately used to mean one and the same thing. This could not be farther from the roots of the concepts, which brings me to the point of this article: the difference between water security and securitization of water.

Water security: what does it mean?

According to the UN report (2013), water security is defined as:

 “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

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At the centre of it all, water security is all about ensuring the availability of sufficient quantity and good quality of water for basic human needs and social development and environmental demands. Note these three aspects of the definition: human needs, social needs and environmental needs. These three aspects deserve priority and are, hence, in the UN Security Council agenda and in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Water scarcity is ubiquitous; the whole world is struggling with this challenge. The following numbers make my point: one-fifth (20 percent) of the global population currently lives under physical water scarcity and a similar number suffers because of “economic water scarcity”- which means affordable and clean water is not available to people because of lack of necessary infrastructure i.e. economic incapacity. In the near future, by 2030, it is estimated that more than half the global population will live in water stressed areas. This prediction is true for the Nile basin as well, which will indeed be one of the most water stressed regions in the world with demand expected to outstrip supply by 2030. That is 10 years earlier than the global average, with projections showing that global water demand will outstrip supply by 2040 if serious water management is not in place.

Then there is climate change, which is making rainfalls unpredictable and unreliable. This unpredictability coupled with increasing demands has made the world to turn its eyes to something that is more stable; ground water. But in typical human consumption mode we have and are over exploiting our ground water resources, worldwide, to a point where they are now in danger of running out and not replenishing.

With climate change, population growth, environmental degradation and the rise in demand for water while having only a limited supply of fresh water it seems like we are running against a steep incline. The current population is expected to increase by two billion by 2050. What is more is that demand for water has been growing at twice the rate of population growth. This means not only will we have more people in the future, but more people with higher water needs. This is the case everywhere.

Water scarcity is a universal challenge we are all facing as humanity-together. Ensuring there is a sustainable supply and consumption of this precious resource for all human beings is high on the priority list of the global agenda. Therefore, the world has to look into a common solution to this common challenge and which is in fact in the bound of our knowledge and ability. However, in some rare in stances, but with huge ramifications, we have observed a narrow and misguided concept, securitization of water, hijack water security.

Securitization of water

Securitizing water, making water into a military commodity which should be defended at the cost of human lives, is a completely different matter than water security.

“Securitization in international relations is the process of state actors transforming subjects into matters of “security“: an extreme version of politicization that enables extraordinary means to be used in the name of security. Issues that become securitized do not necessarily represent issues that are essential to the objective survival of a state, but rather represent issues where someone was successful in constructing an issue into an existential problem.” Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, (1998) Security: A New Framework for Analysis (emphasis added)

When water is securitized, the discussion runs off-course from being about human needs and water security. Rather it becomes about constructing a social and political narrative to make water into an existential problem. When water is securitized, it is dehumanized, made it into a military commodity that should be claimed, owned and defended at all cost. When water is securitized then states start thinking of the resource as their own property and only theirs; something which they must defend at all cost and not a civil resource open for all, shared by all leading to zero-sum politics. Securitization of water issues leaves no room for negotiation or compromises because water then becomes a matter of national security and you do not negotiate or compromise on national security.

When water is securitized statements like “one drop of water or our blood” make “complete sense” to those making them. When water becomes a military commodity which is claimed, and not a human resource which is available to all, then states become blind to the misery of fellow states, become oblivious to scarcity devouring other states- the same scarcity they are trying to avoid. When water is securitized it becomes necessary that the military and the intelligence have the upper hand over water resource professionals. When water is securitized intellectuals will not be the decision makers, the military will be. When water is securitized war becomes a reasonable, plausible option alongside science and diplomacy. When water is securitized the approach is not knowledge and science-based solution but a Machiavellian way of “the end justifies the means” resonating with statements like “all options are on the table, we will defend our interest by all available means, etc.”  Does this seem like a paradigm which makes sense in the 21st century?

The way out

Water is a human right, not something the one with a stronger military can claim. While securing water for people is a noble and genuine thing to do, securitizing water is the most inhumane thing anyone can do. How can you hope to militarily defend your claim, the same claim you share with your fellow brothers and sisters, the claim that sustains your life, by taking other lives? How does that make sense? How is that reasonable? If scarcity is the issue, it is the issue for everyone. So how does militarily securing one party’s interest even make the slightest rational sense?

It is insanity to hope to protect the giver of life, water, by taking lives. It is senseless to think our needs trumps over others and demands precedence. Fear, negligence, and undeservedly claimed historical privileges “status quo” might well be the reasons behind such ideas as securitizing water. These reasons might be understandable as a result of years of construction, but they most definitely are not justifiable.

Let us make a distinction between water security and securitizing water. They are not the same, they are not related, nor are they compatible. If what we want is to secure water for our people, then welcome, we are all in the same boat and I trust that we can and will overcome this challenge together. But wanting to securitize water, making it into a political construct, construing ones need into a seemingly existential requirement which trumps the needs of others, so much so that we would go as far as defending it with blood, however, is unreasonable and unjustifiable.

So, let us make a distinction; water security does not equate to securitizing water. If we agree on this, I am sure we can come up with a common solution to overcome the challenge. After all, to overcome challenges is the trademark of the human race. Focusing on the issue at hand, which is water security, and capitalizing on the scientific and technological innovations we have is instrumental in solving the challenge the entire world is facing. Genuine political will to come to a mutually beneficial and sustainable use of the limited resources we have is indispensable in resolving the issues of scarcity and disagreements over water. Given the current state of affairs in the world, this might feel like a tall order. However, we do not have to start from scratch, we already have inspirations to look to.  


We can site the lesson from the Senegal River Basin, where genuine political will and respect for each other’s needs allowed countries to come to an arrangement which the world applauds. The Senegal River basin is a transboundary river basin in west Africa shared by 4 riparian countries; Senegal, Guinea, Mali and Mauritania. A severe drought between 1968-1973, the great Sahel Drought, was a turning point for these countries to take the steps forward towards a collaborative use of the river basin. They established the Senegal River Basin Development organization (OMVS)  as a significant authority in the basin and commissioned a co-owned multi-purpose dam in the basin called the Manantali dam, located in Mali and owned by Mali, Senegal and Mauritania. Like any transboundary riparian states, these three west African states had conflicting interests in water use; Mali wanted to use the river for navigation and energy production while Senegal and Mauritania wanted to use the river for irrigation and power production. However, by capitalizing on their shared interests rather than individual demands, these three countries were able to reconcile the needs of each country. By starting from a place of understanding and cooperation these countries were able to reach at a symbiotic and amicable arrangement, an exemplary practice of transboundary water governance throughout the world.

We can also look to Israel to see how a traditionally water scarce, drought prone, desert country managed to transform itself into a water surplus nation, a desert oasis while its rainfall decreased by half since 1948 due to climate change while its population increased ten-fold. Relying on “home-grown” technologies such as increasingly energy efficient desalination and drip irrigation added to smart water agriculture, efficient water use and reuse in domestic and industrial sectors, judicious use of ground-water resources and water conservation has turned Israel into a water surplus country.

There a lot more examples of transboundary water cooperation throughout the world such as another co-owned dam between Brazil and Paraguay in South America, the Indus water treaty between India and Pakistan which survived two severe wars between these countries as well as the practices from the Mekong river basin and Aral sea basin in central Asia where basin states engaged in regional energy and virtual water trade as possible mechanisms of transboundary water management.

The Nile basin, sadly, is an excellent example of how wrong things can go when the distinction between water security and securitization is blurred. The insistence to keep extremely skewed historical injustices in the name of national security is utterly indefensible when the whole basin is expected to be one of the most water scarce areas in the near future. Clinging to outdated and biased nations while the rest of the world is moving in the direction of equitable and reasonable use is like sailing against the wind. Article 2 of The Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) defines water security as the right of all Nile Basin States to reliable access to and use of the Nile River system for health, agriculture, livelihoods, production and environment. All the basin states have agreed on this article, so now it is time to put our money where our mouth is.

Water security is and will continue to be a pressing issue in the Nile Basin and we need to collectively move forward in solving this challenge. But for that to happen egocentric policies such as securitizing water need to be eliminated first. There is a lot we can learn from practices across the world, including the good practices mentioned above on how to jointly move towards water security in the Nile basin. It is necessary that we revolutionize our way of thinking, utilization and management of water. No amount of conversation is going to move us forward on the issue of water security if we are stuck on the notion of securitizing water. It is time to let go of self-centred notions implying “my needs trumps yours” and embrace the common challenge and work together for the good of the human race.

Ed.’s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected].

Contributed by Mekdelawit Messay

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