Water shortages a major factor for refugee flows

Posted 19 September 2016

Water challenges are a contributing push factor to refugee flows Water challenges are a contributing “push factor” to refugee flows from Syria, which the global community should take seriously far beyond the Middle East.

That's one of the key messages from the Stockholm International Water Institute’s Water Report 2016.

“While conflict and protection concerns are the primary drivers for the current displacement trends, a lack of access to essential services such as water is cited as a major reason among both Syrian refugees and internally displaced people within Syria for fleeing their communities,” the report states.

“A combination of damaged infrastructure, a lack of maintenance, manipulation and limited power-supply has resulted in a 50% reduction in access to safe water relative to pre-crisis levels.

“The lack of water is directly responsible for reduced dignity, for both displaced and host populations, with many desperate and willing to make significant life decisions based on the availability of supply.”

In an increasingly globalised world, conflict in Syria does not only contribute to international refugee movements; it impacts global water and food security too, warned one of the report authors, Uppsala University Sweden Professor and Director of the Research School for International Water Cooperation Ashok Swain.

“The global food security chain makes it important for all countries to be careful of how the water resources are playing out in different regions,” Swain said. 

Swain was one of many researchers warning, since the turn of the century, that water insecurity in Syria could exacerbate conflict.

“Syria had been hosting more people than what it can afford to. It was also in poverty, there was the Arab Spring, and the divide between different ethnic groups then combined with the water factor to make it much worse,” he said.

“Syria was hosting two million refugees and now Syria has produced up to 10 million displaced people.

“If the international community, particularly Europe, had been careful of this situation it wouldn't have reached this kind of intensity.”

Now he's calling on water professionals to help avoid the escalation of future crises by improving water security in three potential hotspots – the Nile Basin, the Indus Basin and the Zambezi Basin.

“These are the areas where there are ethnic fault lines, there are political fractures already there and water scarcity is coming up in a big way,” he said.

“And it's not only [water] scarcity, it's availability – some countries have been using the water for a long time but now they're selling it.

“The amount of resources we are using to protect our borders from so-called 'migration threats' should be invested wisely in these hotspots [now] to try and alleviate the situation so we won't have protect our border so much.”

However, the Water Report stressed that overly simplistic and causal links between water scarcity and migration were not helpful.

“They should be considered as push factor multipliers,” the report states.

“Social, economic, and political factors will also affect the vulnerability or resilience of communities.

“In regions, the ability to cope with climate change and water scarcity decreases, and the likelihood of migration increases, as a result of factors that include poverty, low levels of education, lack of skills, weak institutions, limited infrastructure, lack of technology and information, limited access to health care, poor access to resources, and the overexploitation of resources, etc.”