Using GIS to Model International Water Disputes

From another student in Intro to GIS

GIS offers powerful tools for compiling, visualizing and analyzing potential indicators of international water resource conflict, because it has the capability to incorporate biological, physical and socioeconomic data. (Yoffe & al, 2004: 5)

Since its invention and particularly in the two last decades, GIS usages have increasingly turned toward social applications, examples being the use of GIS for census and market analysis. One very interesting social application has been the recent use of GIS to model current and possible future conflicts around transboundary waters. The scale of the issue is such that concrete empirical data over international water conflicts have been totally absent until very lately; the area of conflicts is usually perceived as pertaining to political/human sciences more than to applicable sciences. Fortunately, Yoffe & al. (2004) were able to combine both topics intelligently. Integrating temporality by looking at past conflicts over time, they joined physical data (climatology/precipitations and local versus international basins delineation by overlaying them to nations) to sociological ones (institutional capacity, internal disputes, international treaties ratified). These data were gathered in the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database (TFDD) and its Transboundary Freshwater Spatial Database. From there, the scholars were able to analyze and model probable conflicts around international watersheds.

However, some challenges remain for such modeling to be truly representative. The first challenge is very common to new GIS topics; it is the lack of hydropolitical and watershed data. As Yoffe & al. mentions, the only available hydropolitical data – provided by the Data Development International Research (DDIR) and other databases – only concern past conflicts, not past cooperative situations. Moreover, available data on conflicts are not specific to water but rather refer to general military issues (Yoffe & al., 2004: 3). Therefore, many data used to build the TFDD and draw conclusions regarding water conflicts are not primary; instead, they are derived from primary and even from secondary data. Indeed, while they were compiled with care, this kind of data leads to a lot of uncertainty regarding analysis. This uncertainty could be problematic in the eventuality that such modeling is used in institutional decision-making and interventions to prevent conflicts.

A second problem lies in the technical limitations of the TFDD website, which does not allow interactive consultation of the data. For instance, it is impossible to overlay spatial data to the tabular ones and to the hydropolitical data on the website. Therefore, for the TFDD to be used at its full potential, it would be pertinent to develop a user-friendly interactive tool that would let users to enter some spatial and attribute data, and would allow them to interpret and use data.

Still, the biggest problem probably lies in the little interest around the issue of international waters. However, this will be corrected most likely within the next 25 years as water scarcity is expected to increase and so are conflicts around the resource.

In sum, from this article, it appears obvious that GIS has large potential to help finding locally adapted solutions to global problems of water scarcity. Other possible areas of GIS research relating to water scarcity could be the modeling of virtual water (water traded through food importations) or of soil water (water available to plant through soils). Virtual and soil waters are also recent concerns and, again, data are almost nonexistent. For instance, in addition to knowing soils type in different regions, determining soil water at a global scale would more importantly require knowing soils volume, and modeling erosion and soils displacements over time, among other things. Obviously, these issues are complex. However, if challenges can be overcome, a geospatial analysis and modeling of virtual or soil waters could help determining which areas are the most sustainable ones for agricultural purposes from a water scarcity perspective. Once again, it would probably allow avoiding some conflicts over water.

For more information on GIS and international water conflicts:
Yoffe, S., G. Fiske, M. Giordano, M. Giordano, K. Larson, K. Stahl, and A. T. Wolf (2004), Geography of International Water Conflict and Cooperation: Data Sets and Applications, Water Resources Research, 40.

Wolf, A. T., S. B. Yoffe and M. Giordano. (2003) International waters: identifying basins at risk. Water Policy 5: 29–60.

For more information on virtual water and soil water:
Allan, J.A. (2007). Beyond the Watershed: Avoiding the Dangers of Hydro-Centricity and Informing Water Policy. In Hillel Shuval & Hassan Dweik (Eds.), Water Resources in the Middle East:Israel-Palestinian Water Issues – From Conflict to Cooperation. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer, pp. 33-39.

For more information about the use of GIS for water resources:
David R. Maidment (2002). ArcHydro: GIS for Water Resources, available as a Google Book.

One Response to “Using GIS to Model International Water Disputes”

  1. The issues about modeling current and possible future conflicts around transboundary waters is common for all kinds of projection project. My master project (Projecting the future ecological niche of trees species in Quebec in 2100) has to deal with these issues as well. The problem of uncertainty will most likely have bad social and ecological consequences such as “no decision making” and therefore “Business as usual” (No social and ecological change). However, modeling the current and future with tools that we have so far are good starts (much better than doing nothing)! Things are getting better and better and by the help of technology, uncertainty should decreases.
    Other problems or Challenges should I say is the fact that data should be available to everyone and their quality should increase as we in time. These issues have to be shared to everybody and international agreement must be done accordingly. However, issues will remain existent as long as GIS software is not getting cheaper.