Water as a Central Political Issue
20 October 2014
Photo: Marcus NüsserIndian troops at Zoji La, Kashmir
Water is an essential and, in many regions of the world, rare resource. Geographers Prof. Dr. Hans Gebhardt and Prof. Dr. Marcus Nüsser are exploring the potential for conflict underlying short water supplies using the Near East and South and Central Asia as examples. Their research at Heidelberg University shows that it is often scarce water resources that are at the root of ostensibly political and religious conflicts – whether the scant supply is physical, sometimes also due to global climate change, or structural due to the unequal distribution of water by the political powers that be.
“Scarce water resources can lead to conflict especially when large rivers or important aquifers cross borders,” explains Prof. Gebhardt. These transboundary waters are a global phenomenon: 263 lakes and rivers cross borders, 145 nations share areas of water and 13 international water resources are used by more than two nations. “In the case of transnational rivers, those upriver usually have the advantage because they can control the drainage,” say the researchers. Examples include the Euphrates, whose waters are being increasingly used by the Great Anatolian Project (GAP) in eastern Turkey – to the detriment of downstream Syria and Iraq – and China’s dam cascades on the upper Mekong that adversely impact water use in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
One subterranean water store under study at Heidelberg University is the Disi aquifer, which stretches approx. 320 kilometres from southern Jordan to northern Saudi Arabia. The Disi aquifer is a fossil aquifer, accessed by agricultural companies in Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia. Both countries are at odds over the usage rights of the aquifer, which according to international estimates will be depleted in 30 to 50 years. The researchers also analysed the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan from the perspective of water scarcity. Part of the conflict is the arduous and cost-intensive 30-year-long static war over the control of the Siachen Glacier in northern Kashmir. “The disputes are motivated by geostrategic considerations, national prestige mentality and the desire for resource access and are a legacy of India’s split from Britain in 1947,” explains Prof. Nüsser.
The different case examples show that water shortage and water conflict problems in developing and newly industrialising countries require an integrated research approach that combines the methods of both the natural and social sciences. The methodology spectrum being employed by the Heidelberg researchers therefore includes not only established empirical methods of social research, but ranges from satellite mapping to discourse analysis.
Hans Gebhardt has been at the Institute of Geography at Heidelberg University since 1996, working primarily in anthropogeography. His main research interests include political geography and cultural geography in the Near East as well as in South-east and East Asia. Prof. Gebhardt is a consulting editor for a number of standard works in geography and for The Geographical Journal.
Marcus Nüsser has been conducting research and teaching at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University since 2006. The geographer’s primary areas of research include human-environmental interaction, high mountain research, political ecology, and land use systems and resource management in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Prof. Nüsser is a co-editor of “Mountain Research and Development” and the “Journal of Mountain Science” as well as the editor of the “Advances in Asian Human-Environmental Research” book series.
Baghel, R. & Nüsser, M. (2010): Discussing Large Dams in Asia after the World Commission on Dams: Is a Political Ecology Approach the Way Forward? In: Water Alternatives 3 (2): 231-248
Bonn, T. (2013): Wasserpolitik in Jordanien. Das Spannungsfeld zwischen Behörden und Geberorganisationen im jordanischen Wassersektor. Berlin: LIT-Verlag (= Univ. Diss.)
Bonn, T. (2013): On the political sideline? The institutional isolation of donor organizations in Jordanian Hydropolitics. In: Water Policy 15, 728-737 (doi: 10.2166/wp.2013.007)
Gebhardt, Hans (2013): Ressourcenkonflikte und nachhaltige Entwicklung – Perspektiven im 21. Jahrhundert. In: Mitteilungen der Fränkischen Geographischen Gesellschaft, Bd. 59, S. 1-12
Gebhardt, Hans und Eva Ingenfeld (2011): Die Arktis im Fokus geoökonomischer und geopolitischer Interessen. In: Geographische Rundschau, Jg. 63, H. 11, S. 26-33
Nüsser, M. (2014): Technological Hydroscapes in Asia: The Large Dams Debate Reconsidered. In: Nüsser, M. (ed.): Large Dams in Asia: Contested Environments between Technological Hydroscapes and Social Resistance. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York (= Advances in Asian Human-Environmental Research): 1-14
Nüsser, M. & Baghel, R. (2014): The Emergence of the Cryoscape: Contested Narratives of Himalayan Glacier Dynamics and Climate Change. In B. Schuler (ed.), Environmental and Climate Change in South and Southeast Asia: How are Local Cultures Coping? Leiden, Boston (= Climate and Culture 2): 138-156
Nüsser, M., Schmidt, S. & Dame, J. (2012): Irrigation and Development in the Upper Indus Basin: Characteristics and Recent Changes of a Socio-Hydrological System in Central Ladakh, India. In: Mountain Research and Development 32 (1): 51-61