Diving Deep: a look at water conflict and policy

8 July 2022

No matter who you are or where in the world you come from, there is one thing that unites us all and makes us uniquely human: our need for clean water. Jahan Taganova is the recipient of a global grant scholarship from District 5340 to pursue a master’s degree in the Water Cooperation and Diplomacy program. Organized by the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, the UN Mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, and Oregon State University in the United States, it trains future water managers and other professionals to address competition over water. Writer, journalist, and natural resource advocate Ella Rachel Kerr spoke with Taganova about the dangers of conflict and how we can advocate for our number one resource, clean water.

Q: What got you interested in water and resource management in general?

Taganova:
My reverence for water started in my childhood. Having spent my formative years in the arid Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, where water is scarce, I have memories of traveling long distances to find and fetch water due to frequent water shortages, shutoffs, and limited access to water. It was ingrained in me early on that “a drop of water is a grain of gold” and I seemed to naturally be drawn to explore the role of water in our collective experience.

This curiosity led me to participate in conversations around clean water and sanitation through the development of the UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development Goals and later on, to pursue a unique joint-degree graduate program in Water Cooperation and Diplomacy (WCD), which equipped me with a deeper understanding and tools for mitigating water conflict and working towards transforming water resource management.

Q: What makes the WCD program unique and how does it support Rotary’s commitment to peace? 

Taganova: Water and peace are two important areas for Rotary. For the past decade, The Rotary Foundation has been providing financial support for students from Central Asia and beyond to pursue masters level studies in water management and diplomacy at institutions like the IHE Delft and through programs like WCD. Through this commitment, Rotary is taking action to equip future leaders who can play a catalyzing role in creating a more peaceful world around one of the world’s most critical resources – water.

The WCD program is one of a very few programs that train future water managers and water diplomats. The curriculum explores conflict from a theoretical perspective, engages in multi-level conflict dimensions, and strengthens skills through highly experiential learning opportunities. Students also receive instruction from three world-renowned universities where they are exposed to an intercultural environment characterized by plurality and diversity of ideas, experiences, and disciplines. This fosters intellectual, professional, and personal growth.

Q: There has been a lot of talk about water conflict and its role in politics. Do you think it is possible for everyone to have access to clean water without conflict?

Taganova: Optimistically, yes! Water diplomacy can help prevent and resolve current and potential conflicts over water resources, allowing every individual on our planet access to clean, drinkable water. But it won’t be easy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that for each degree of global warming, a significant portion of our global population is to be exposed to a decrease in renewable water resources of at least 20%. Climate change, future population growth, competing needs of industry and agriculture, and aging infrastructure can exacerbate the growing global water crisis by putting pressure on scarce water supply.

Water insecurity is highly likely to threaten lives and livelihoods and can quickly become a touchstone for a range of tensions, but these disputes are not likely to lead to ‘water wars.’ With the right policies, and the right decision-makers, our world can have access to clean water. That is why I am so passionate about water diplomacy! 

Q: What is the role of a water diplomat?

Taganova: I would sum it up in two words: peace and stability. People envision my job as a water diplomat as dealing exclusively with water, but the truth is, a water diplomat’s job is to deal with people. They mediate disputes and facilitate cooperation around conflict zones and contested issues. It’s a very people-centric job!

One of the biggest challenges currently, however, is a lack of skilled water diplomats across the world. Technical solutions alone rarely solve political problems – otherwise, the Nile dispute, which arose from the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, would have been solved long ago. That’s why we need water diplomats who are a skilled combination of policymakers and technical water specialists to resolve water conflicts.

Q: In your publication on the Deschutes River Basin, you’ve highlighted the importance of the role of women in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). Why is achieving gender equality in water governance important?

Taganova: The role of women in water resources management, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding has been recognized on paper for decades. Numerous studies have shown that gender-inclusive peace processes are 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years, than processes that are not gender-inclusive. This shows that peace agreements signed by women are positively associated with more durable peace and that higher levels of gender equity are associated with a lower instance of conflict. Yet, the practice shows that when it comes to the inclusion of women in water resources management, a large portion of the population is left behind.

When visiting the Deschutes River Basin (DRB) – a tributary of the Columbia River Basin in central Oregon – in the summer of 2019, I could not help but notice that in each water-related organization, women often occupied secretarial positions, and the managers or directors that we interacted with were primarily men. So, I saw this as an opportunity to find out more about the role women play in water resource management and governance in the DRB.

In the entire basin, I and my co-author Jaclyn Best found that women held 31% of all positions and 29% of all decision-making roles. In irrigation districts – small organizations that physically manage water and secure water rights for irrigation purposes – women held only 10% of positions with decision-making power. In administrative/secretarial jobs, women made up 74% of those roles. 

The ultimate way to achieve good governance of water resources is to include people of all genders and bring different stakeholders together.

Q:  What are some recent developments in addressing water issues globally?

Taganova: The US has been instrumental in building effective Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) projects in low-income countries. Yet, in the United States, at least 2.2 million people do not have access to clean drinking water. Up to 1.7 million Americans lack access to basic plumbing facilities such as a toilet, tub, shower, or basic running water. Flint still lacks clean water six years after the start of its water crisis. There is little differentiation between the global water crisis and the one here in the U.S!

In this regard, the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security that advances water security in the USA and abroad is timely! This action plan together with Biden-Harris Lead Pipe Action Plan is historic because it is an important step taken to improve water security at home, including investments through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to increase drought resilience, replace lead pipes, and invest in water infrastructure to deliver safe drinking water to families.

I believe this plan is vital for increasing equity and economic growth; decreasing the risk of vulnerability to shocks, conflict, and instability; building inclusive and resilient societies; bolstering the health and food security; advancing gender equity and equality; and tackling climate change.

Q: What are things anyone can do to improve access to water resources?

Taganova: There is a simple online tool you can use to calculate your water footprint and determine where it can be  reduced. For example, fill up the sink to do dishes instead of flushing gallons of water down the drain; shower smart; fix household leaks, and be conscious about how much water you use to water your yard and plants. Other small changes that make a big difference include installing home water treatment through the use of filters, solar disinfection, or flocculants, to make drinking water safe.

You can also support the The Rotary Foundation which provides scholarships to young water diplomats from water-stressed countries. And you can support the work of organizations like Generosity.org, an organization committed to ending the clean water crisis in developing countries, and WaterAid, an organization that transforms lives by providing clean water, hygiene, and sanitation hardware in the world’s most vulnerable and remote communities.

Education is key. The more we know about water, conflict resolution, and supporting each other’s humanity – the better our world becomes.

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