Water Politics at the Wilson Center

On March 1 the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars sponsored a panel discussion, “From West Africa to the Middle East: Water and the Rise of Insurgencies in the ‘Arc of Instability’.” The event featured three panelists, David Michel, a Nonresident Rellow at the Stimson Center; Julia McQuaid, a Senior Researcher and Project Director at CNA Corporation; and Marcus King, the John O. Rankin Associate Professor and Direct of International Affairs Program at The George Washington University. The issues discussed ranged from drought and water insecurity in Syria and Iraq to Iran’s impending water crisis to the reasons global water stress matters to U.S. national security. In addition Prof. King explored the specific questions of national water stress, insecurity, and conflict in Nigeria. This blog post will further elaborate on the specifics of that piece of the conversation.

King’s research moves beyond the commonly accepted notion of the correlation between water stress and conflict to examine precisely how water stress leads to conflict. In Nigeria, King explained, water challenges vary regionally, and weak central and local governance exacerbates existing challenges. For the sake of his research, King divided Nigeria into three “eco-regions,” or partitions based on distinctive geography and ecosystems present in each part of the country; they are Northern Nigeria, the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta. While there are certain regional issues that are only present in local areas, King noted that there are also overarching issues that impact the country as a whole, such as the onset of climate change, economic water scarcity, the lack of resources available to tap into existing water resources, drought and rising water levels, just to name a few.

For each region, King provided a graphic of a continuum of water stress pathways and influences. In Northern Nigeria, for example, King identified geophysical factors such as groundwater dehydration and lower precipitation levels and connected them along the continuum to the issue of extremist violence and the lack of water infrastructure deployment and policy implementation. As for the whole of Nigeria, King again identified various factors along the continuum from ecological change and effects on human systems to human responses and feedback mechanisms. In the end he related the issue of water stress back to U.S. national security, arguing that eruptions of violence impact global production and cause uncertainty in markets; also present is the potential for the spread of extremist violence and ideologies. In terms of human responses, King noted that there has been a decrease African nations’ security while an increased demand for U.S. humanitarian assistance has occurred simultaneously. In terms of problem mitigation and suggestions for the future, King proposed increasing eco-regional conflict mapping, leveraging the military cooperation that already exists between the U.S. and Nigeria and researching and developing better intelligence capabilities.

For more information, check out the following report, written by Wilson Center scholars and produced for review by the United States Agency for International Development: “Navigating Complexity: Climate, Migration, and Conflict in a Changing World.” In addition, the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program blog NewSecurityBeat posts about issues ranging from development and conflict to the environment and health, and how all these topics are related.

Abby Pioch is the primary blogger for Remembering Biafra. She is a senior in the Elliott School studying International Affairs concentrating in international development with a second major in French Language, Literature and Culture and a minor in Political Science. She is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority and currently tutors ESL students at the Washington English Center.