under the auspices of UNESCO

‘Good’ Conflict, ‘Bad’ Cooperation?
Opening Pandora’s Box on Water from the Local to the Global

ICWC Research Showcase at 2016 World Water Week in Stockholm

On Thursday September 1, 2016, the International Centre for Water Cooperation (ICWC) hosted an event that showcased the ongoing research projects of its Research School, along with an expert panel directed toward rethinking conventional understandings of water cooperation and conflict. The event took place during the 2016 World Water Week in Stockholm.

This showcase was delivered to a full audience of scholars and international policy experts. The ICWC is a UNESCO Category II Centre delivered in partnership with the Swedish Government, UNESCO IHP and the Stockholm International Water Institute. The Research School of the ICWC is implemented via the Department of Peace and Conflict Science, Uppsala University.

Research presented at the event spanned multiple levels of analysis, from global frameworks around water as a weapon and water diplomacy, to the intrastate rapport between rebels and civilians over dams and communal conflict around water scarcity. Each focal points are detailed below, in the order of presentation.
For the summary of panel discussion, please scroll all the way down:

A Taboo for Water?
The Use and Nonuse of Water as a Weapon

CG-Madin presentation

Charlotte Grech-Madin, PhD Candidate with the Research School, presented water as a weapon of armed conflict. She first outlined the historical trajectory of water weapon use and its different manifestations in military strategy. The historical record was then contrasted to the demise of water weapon use by nation-states in the contemporary period. Results were presented from merging two datasets together, the UCDP Armed Conflict Dataset and the Pacific Institute Water Conflict Chronology, that indicate that water weapon use by nation-states in armed conflict has been sparing for the period 1946 to 2015. In cases where water was used as a weapon, this has mostly been auxiliary or accidental, not a leading element of battle. To explain this empirical puzzle, focus was placed on the changing normative context of water use, and the growing unacceptability of implicating water in conflict. Final remarks were made on whether a nascent taboo around water would make water ‘special’, or rather see it embedded in a larger normative movement to condone inhumane warfare, as perceived by the international community.

Rebel and Civil Cooperation over Water

In Burma, the cases of Hatgyi Dam and Myitsone Dam in the north provide empirical evidence for the potential impact of hydropower dams on civil war. Comparing these cases can provide insights into the critical factors determining the impact of dams in civil conflict.

Kyungmee Kim, PhD Candidate with the Research School, delved into the ethnography of social movements against mega-dams in areas of civil war. A starting anecdote was an event on March 14, 2016, on the banks of the Salween River in southeastern Burma, when some 500 Karen villagers gathered in protest against the Hatgyi Dam, waiting for a Karen ethnic rebel commander to address their concerns. Who are these protestors? Why are they risking their safety to participate in a protest against a dam during civil war? Who do the organisers collaborate with, and how? These were some of the questions raised in the presentation.

Kyungmee’s current research project studies the relationship between the civilian population and rebel organisations in relation to mega-dams in conflict areas. This provides an illustration of the elusive link between water resources and armed conflict. By employing interviews and survey methods to collect data in the field, the research aims to identify and examine relevant variables that influence civilians’ perceptions and attitudes towards the contentious dams, and towards rebels.

Water Scarcity and Violent Communal Conflict

Stefan Döring, PhD Candidate with the Research School, probed into the relationship between water scarcity and non-state violence in Africa. Much of the quantitative literature on water and violent conflict has focused on incidents of interstate or intrastate conflict, while non-state level approaches have mostly been studied through case study research. Largely due to data constraints, more disaggregated quantitative analysis had been held back, but recent improvements in conflict data allow for more fine-grained scrutiny. This research also adds to more general analyses of communal conflicts that are subsumed under non-state conflicts. Stefan highlighted that although water scarcity has been partially addressed by literature on climate variability and non-state conflict, such studies rely heavily on rainfall data, which covers only one aspect of the hydrologic cycle. Employing precipitation data alone neglects both the distances to rivers and ground water storage, which constitutes half of global drinking water.

During the presentation, it was argued that measures on water scarcity ought to combine ground water storage, proximity to rivers, and precipitation. Taking a large-N approach, the research aims to attain more generalizable results that can give vital impetus to the work of policy makers within development and water management.

Stepping out of the ‘Water-Box’
-Rethinking Transboundary Water Cooperation

Dr. Yumiko Yasuda, Postdoctoral Researcher for the ICWC and the Hague Institute for Global Justice, presented her research within a multi-institutional water diplomacy project. The project aims to identify key factors that affect water cooperation, and includes field research in the Brahmaputra River and the Lower Jordan River basins. Yumiko presented a Multi-track Water Diplomacy Framework, which forms the analytical core of the project. This framework integrates various elements from the literature and theories pertaining to cooperation and political economy. Preliminary analysis from the Brahmaputra River case study was presented, applying the framework. A key finding was that future cooperation over the transboundary river can benefit from cooperation through integrated benefit sharing among different sectors. Diplomatic efforts around transboundary water cooperation often reach a deadlock with the upstream-downstream dichotomy if all parties focus solely on how to share water. If one steps outside of the sectoral approach, however, the region can embrace greater opportunities for transboundary economic cooperation that can share its benefits with benefits of the water sector, potentially bringing win-win solutions to all parties involved.

Following the research showcase, an expert panel convened to discuss the overarching theme of the event – ‘good’ conflict, ‘bad’ cooperation. The panel consisted of Professor Joakim Öjendal from the University of Gothenburg, Ms Natasha Carmi from the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, Dr Anders Jägerskog from the Swedish Embassy in Amman, and Dr Susanne Schmeier from the GIZ. A lively and multifaceted discussion ensued, with some key concluding messages:

Conflict and cooperation and their relative understandings as good or bad, should be seen as a cycling continuum; relations between parties within the same basin can shift between good and bad over time.

 Thinking about the degree and combinations of cooperation and conflict is another way to understand transboundary water cooperation. Cooperation and conflict may occur concurrently.

Important questions for future research are: Why do ‘good’ agreements sometimes fail to deliver outcomes (for instance, the Mekong)? Why do ‘bad’ conflicts deliver some good outcomes (for instance, the Indus)?

panel discussion

Ultimately there was consensus from the panel on the necessity of understanding the politics of water, and of communicating these important academic insights in a manner that policy-makers can comprehend and implement. Researchers have a lot of leverage to influence water cooperation on the ground. Ultimately it is important to work on transforming ‘bad’ cooperation. The political element of ‘bad’ cooperation warrants continued and further research, as political shortcomings are often the key impediment to water cooperation.

For further information on the Research School please visit the webpage:


Alternatively contact Professor Ashok Swain:

Email: Ashok.Swain@pcr.uu.se
Phone: +46 (0)18 471 76 53


For further information on the ICWC, contact Dr. Marian Neal (Patrick):

Email: Marian.Patrick@siwi.org
Phone: +46 720 50 60 90