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Is water a blessing or a curse? How to address water conflicts in West Africa

Kohnert, Dirk (2023): Is water a blessing or a curse? How to address water conflicts in West Africa.

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For many Africans, water is not only the source of life, but also a means of purification and a centre of regeneration. Water rituals and cults, such as 'Mami Wata', lead their followers to liberation of body and spirit. But customary rites can also cause harm. For example, the ancestral use of irrigation reduces contemporary female labour participation and female property rights. It is crucial to consider gender in resource management in the context of climate change, environmental degradation and population growth, which will exacerbate conflicts over scarce resources such as arable land, water, fishing and hunting. Poor governance leads to the alienation and exploitation of the majority and growing inequality, especially when water is scarce and people's livelihoods are threatened. Sub-Saharan Africa is the continent most affected by climate change, population growth and food insecurity. Yet African states, where water ecosystems are strategic resources, are more inclined to regional conflict than cooperation. In the past, climaterelated shocks have fuelled violent conflict in West Africa. Land pressure and water scarcity are causing increasingly acute crises. Traditional institutions of water and land management are often destabilised by modern irrigation techniques and massive inflows of foreign capital. Modernisation is driven by a Western-centred utilitarianism that cannot be universalised. The intensification of conflicts over water has revealed a general crisis that is likely to worsen, given the dynamics at work. Environmental degradation is one of the undesirable by-products of agricultural productivity growth, but customary institutions cannot provide adequate regulation to mitigate its effects. But even in West African regions where water is plentiful, the resource curse links the abundance of natural resources to higher levels of conflict. The commercialisation of water, including land and water grabbing, can even lead to interstate conflict through the effects of greed or grievances. Ultimately, however, conflicts are often not so much about access to scarce resources such as water, food or land, but rather about changing the political institutions through which resources are distributed. Water scarcity puts pressure on people, resulting in migration, displacement, food insecurity and impoverishment, which can lead to further conflict.

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