Boundaries of benefit sharing: water conflict, water cooperation

Mapping conflict and cooperation in the Lake Malawi/Niassa/Nyasa sub-basin of the Zambezi Basin

Philosophers have long puzzled over the idea of the ‘good society’. What is its character and composition? Aristotle believed that the ‘body’ politic was composed of people born to lead (the head), born to defend (the heart), and born to labour (the stomach), all in the interests of the greater good. The French theorist, Jean Jacques Rousseau was no supporter of the emergence of complex, modern society. In his view, rule, in the collective interest, could only be effective if communities were no larger than that number of people who could fit under the shade of a fully grown oak tree.

Throughout history there have been a plethora of social groupings – from tribes to empires – ruled in many different ways. Yet, today, we seem settled upon the sovereign state: an entity devised in 17th Century Europe and spread around the world. State boundaries rarely, if ever, perfectly reflect the symbiosis of people’s needs and desires and the resource base through which these will be realized. Indeed, history reflects the constant struggle over what the British historian, John Keegan, labels ‘zones of first choice’: well-watered lands where settled societies could thrive and evolve into robust civilizations.

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 13.24.28

Surface waters, particularly rivers and lakes, have served as both unifiers and dividers. For every Gambia today, there are dozens of states where rivers either cross or constitute political boundaries, sometimes both and often with two or more states sharing several rivers of these types. Given water’s central importance to all life, the facts of state sovereignty over fixed geographical territory often rubs up against the reality of fugitive water running along its hydraulic gradient.

The tension between fixity and fluidity has given rise to speculation that as populations grow and states demand more water for economic growth and development, shared waters will be the basis for future ‘water wars’. Much research has gone into trying to understand the drivers of conflict and the characteristics of cooperation on shared rivers. Until recently, much of this research has been framed in dualistic fashion, that is, there will either be conflict (of differing intensity) or cooperation (of equally differing intensity). The aim, therefore, was to push social relations (either inter-state or intra-state) along the scale from conflict toward cooperation.

Today, however, there is a strand of scholarship that recognises that cooperation and conflict are not dichotomous, but can in fact be simultaneously realised, changing over time and place depending on issues, pressures and contexts. Our research takes this one step further and shows how a shared portion of a river basin – the Lake Malawi/ Niassa/Nyasa sub-basin of the Zambezi river – can give rise to a wide variety of inter-state behaviours between and among riparian states.

In this particular case, there is simultaneous cooperation and conflict between Malawi and Tanzania and Malawi and Mozambique, on different parts of the basin, with relations rising and falling like a tide. These findings are important for decision-makers and for scholars who too often mischaracterise the complexity of inter-state relations based on a single event at a particular point in time.

We show that, in this particular case, conflict and cooperation are the normal course of events over a shared resource for which there is no substitute. As Mark Twain once said, ‘whisky is for drinking, but water is for fighting over’. But to complete his point, the fights are rarely if ever fatal because the resource is needed by all those who share it. In Huub Savenije’s observation, the bulkiness of water ensures that those who need it cluster around it, fight over it, but ultimately work out some sort of resource sharing agreements.

It is important for scholars and policy makers to see the broader picture, particularly, at a time when the discourse of climate change heightens anxieties and, thus, may drive either policy makers or particular sets of influential actors toward zero-sum positions, seeking to capture a resource better shared by all. The good society, in our view, is one that recognises the primacy of the resource base over and above the particular and often peculiar geography of the sovereign state. There are many millions in the Zambezi basin, all of whom share one characteristic: their need for water.



Joanna Fatch will present on

Boundaries Of Benefit Sharing: Mapping Conflict And Cooperation In The Lake Malawi/Niassa/Nyasa Sub-basin 

during the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition, Brisbane Australia (09-14 October 2016)


Joanna Fatch and Larry Swatuk

Joanna Fatch is a political scientist with research interest and experience in water and development – water resources governance, water supply and sanitation and capacity building. She is an Africa region representative to the End Water Povert... Read full biography