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International water cooperation and environmental peacemaking

Ide, T.ORCID: 0000-0001-8401-2372 and Detges, A. (2018) International water cooperation and environmental peacemaking. Global Environmental Politics, 18 (4). pp. 63-84.

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Proponents of the environmental peacemaking approach argue that environmental cooperation has the potential to improve relations between states. This is because such cooperation facilitates common problem solving, cultivates interdependence, and helps to build trust and understanding. But as of now, very few cross-case studies on environmental peacemaking exist. Furthermore, much of the available literature understands peace in negative terms as the mere absence of acute conflict. This article addresses both shortcomings by studying the impact of international water cooperation on transitions toward more peaceful interstate relations. To do so, we combine information on positive water-related interactions between states with the peace scale, a recent data set measuring the degree of positive and negative peace between states. For the period 1956–2006, we find that a higher number of positive, water-related interactions in the previous ten years makes a shift toward more peaceful interstate relations more likely. This is particularly the case for state pairs that are not in acute conflict with each other.

Shortly after they gained independence in the first half of the nineteenth century, El Salvador and Honduras became involved in an intense, long-lasting conflict that involved several militarized disputes. The main reason for this conflict was disagreement about territory along their shared border and about some islands in the Gulf of Fonseca (Thompson and Dreyer 2010, 140–141). During the 1980s, both states intensified cooperation on environmental issues, among others, to preserve transboundary water resources. Notable expressions of these efforts were the Trifinio Plan (1986) and the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (1989). These cooperation efforts facilitated interactions and joint problem solving between high-ranking policy makers and citizens from both countries. During the 1990s, the conflict deescalated significantly (King et al. 2016; López 2004). Consequentially, analysts have argued that water and environmental cooperation between both states “acted as a catalyst for further cooperation” (Carius 2006, 13). Similarly, scholars have attributed a peacemaking effect to secret water negotiations between Israel and Jordan; to the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM) between Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, and South Africa; and to the water regime governing the Okavango (Abukhater 2013; Turton 2003).

Cases like these suggest that international environmental cooperation might not only tackle environmental problems and facilitate sustainable development but could also yield a peace dividend. This claim has been picked up by the literature on environmental peacemaking, which investigates whether environmental cooperation “can be an … effective catalyst for reducing tensions, broadening cooperation, fostering demilitarization, and promoting peace” (Conca 2001, 226). In this study, “environmental peacemaking refers to all forms of cooperation on environmental issues … which … achieve creating less violent and more peaceful relations” between states (Ide 2018b, 3). It is part of a broader effort—usually termed environmental peacebuilding—“of governing and managing natural resources and the environment to support durable peace” (UNEP 2018).

So far, limited consensual knowledge on environmental peacemaking between states exists (Ide 2018b). Case studies from South America (Kakabadse et al. 2016), East Africa (Martin et al. 2011), the Middle East (Ide 2017), and Cyprus (Zikos et al. 2015) find that cooperation on water and biodiversity have contributed to the improvement of tense interstate relations. But other scholars, often focusing on the same cases, find little effect of environmental cooperation on wider interstate relations (Akçalı and Antonsich 2009; Barquet 2015; Colakhodži et al. 2014; Reynolds 2017). Some even argue that such cooperation depoliticizes conflicts and gives rise to new tensions (Aggestam and Sundell 2016; Büscher and Schoon 2009).

We recognize two shortcomings of this literature. First, available research on environmental peacemaking pays little attention to positive peace. In recent years, the dominant conception of peace as the absence of violence (negative peace) has been criticized in international relations (Diehl 2016), political geography (Williams and McConnell 2011), and peace and conflict studies (Gleditsch et al. 2014). Such a focus on negative peace restrains our knowledge on transitions from the mere absence of violence toward more positive forms of interaction, such as economic integration or security community (Adler 1998). In a foundational text on environmental peacemaking, Conca (2002, 9) defines peace as “a continuum ranging from the absence of violent conflict to the inconceivability of violent conflict.” However, almost all scholars doing research in this tradition either focus explicitly on the absence of violence (Barquet et al. 2014) or study cases of very tense international relations in which the avoidance of physical violence is an immediate concern, such as the Korean Peninsula (Mjelde et al. 2017), Peru–Ecuador until 1998 (Ali 2007), and Israel–Palestine (Reynolds 2017).

The second shortcoming of the current environmental peacemaking literature is that most available publications draw evidence from either one or very few cases, while there is a notable lack of cross-case investigation. We agree with Krampe (2017, 8) that the dominant case study approach provides “a good basis, but … constrains comparison” and generalization as it is often based on rather different definitions and operationalizations of key variables (e.g., of environmental cooperation and peace). Recently, a few large-N studies on the issue have been published, but these focus solely on the avoidance of violent conflict (Dinar et al. 2015; Mitchell and Zawahri 2015) or utilize data on environmental treaties (Barquet et al. 2014; Ide 2018a), which might be weak proxies for actual environmental cooperation (see the next section).

This article addresses both shortcomings—the lack of cross-case studies and the dominant focus on negative peace—in the environmental peacemaking literature. To do so, we focus on water-related cooperation in the face of environmental stress for three reasons. First, the existing literature largely agrees that water cooperation is the form of environmental cooperation most likely to yield a peace dividend, due to its cross-border nature as well as its economic and political relevance in many regions (Brochmann and Hensel 2009; Feil et al. 2009). Second, there is an extensive literature on water cooperation and conflict, which allows for a better specification of our theoretical expectations. Third, and relatedly, sufficient data on water interaction are available to test our theoretical propositions (Link et al. 2016; Petersen-Perlman et al. 2017).

More specifically, this article investigates the impact of water cooperation on transitions toward more peaceful relations between states for the period 1956–2006. To do so, data on positive, water-related interactions are combined with the peace scale recently developed by Goertz and colleagues (2016). We find that a higher number of positive, water-related interactions during the previous ten years increases the likelihood of a transition toward more peaceful relations between two states. This is especially so if these states are not in acute conflict with each other.

Item Type: Journal Article
Publisher: MIT Press
Copyright: © 2018 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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