How Water Builds Peace and Resilience in an Increasingly Water-Scarce World

By Joanne Lu

Syrian refugee children drink from water taps

Syrian refugee children drink from water taps installed by World Vision at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.
© World Vision/ photo by Elias Abu Ata

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that something as ordinary as water can be so powerful. We know, for example, that access to clean water can transform the everyday lives of individuals, eliminating diseases, freeing up women to earn an income and allowing children to go to school. But more and more, water is also playing a crucial role in peace and conflicts, especially as water becomes more scarce with increasing populations, overuse, mismanagement, and climate change.

Throughout history, water has been a trigger or source of conflict, as nations wrestle for sovereignty over key waterways, groups fight for access to critical water sources, and populations are forced to leave their homes due to water scarcity.  It’s also been weaponized  to control populations and gain political leverage, and  water infrastructure is often a casualty of conflict, being intentionally or unintentionally damaged or destroyed. In 2017, water was identified by the United Nations as a major factor in conflicts in at least 45 countries, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. A chronology compiled by the Pacific Institute shows a striking increase in the number of water-related conflicts within the last few decades.

And climate change is exacerbating the situation.  Amid erratic rainfall, severe droughts and other extreme weather events, competition for a diminishing water supply is ramping up and leading to more water-related conflicts. According to the World Resources Institute, 17 countries are facing “extremely high” levels of water stress, while about a quarter of the global population (more than two billion people) is experiencing “high” water stress. These conditions are fueling conflict and social unrest. It’s also forcing people to migrate in search of water for themselves, their crops, and their livestock. In turn, this large-scale displacement is causing further instability and conflict.

But increasingly, humanitarian and development organizations are  seeing water emerge as more than just a basic human right – it’s also an instrument of peacebuilding. Not only can water security reduce conflict triggers in water-scarce areas, but water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects present an opportunity for communities to build social cohesion and social capital around a shared resource.

According to Jonathan Papoulidis, an executive advisor on fragile states for World Vision, managing complex risk – like water-related conflicts – and building resilience requires improving social capital along three components simultaneously: bonding, bridging, and linking.

Bonding brings people together within a community when they share assets and resources, provide psychosocial support to one another and respond to emergencies together. WASH projects in communities that previously didn’t have regular access to clean water often accomplish this. Organizations like Water1st International accomplish this by training  communities – including refugee communities who have been displaced by conflict – to independently build, operate and maintain their own water projects in perpetuity. Community members  elect their own water committee to govern their new water systems. The result is greater social cohesion and water projects that last.

Similarly, Friendly Water for the World empowers communities to take care of their own clean water needs, and does so partly through peacemaking efforts. And The Hunger Project has trained more than 20,000 local leaders since 2011 in building community skills and awareness around water and sanitation.

Bridging is the second component of increasing social capital. It involves connecting communities that are either disconnected or in conflict with each other. This is yet another function of water projects. For example, Water Mission found that in Mkinga, Tanzania, water scarcity exacerbated existing tensions and arguments between neighbors of different faiths. But when Water Mission installed a tap for clean water in the community, arguments over water stopped, and the tap became a source of unity in the community. It was not only a shared resource, but also a gathering place for residents to engage in friendly conversations everyday.

World Vision, too, has seen similar bridging happen through a Cash for Work Water (C4WW) program, implemented  by the German agency for international development (GIZ), in Jordan. Because of a massive influx of refugees, primarily from Syria, tensions were rising between Jordanian host communities and refugee communities, especially amid high unemployment rates. The country’s already scarce water resources were  under immense strain because of the influx of refugees. And  the country’s water dams were losing capacity because of soil erosion. To address these issues, the C4WW program offered both Jordanians and Syrian refugees temporary work building erosion-prevention structures. Since 2017, the program has provided more than 9,000 people with temporary employment – half of them Jordanian and half of them refugees, working alongside each other.

The last component to building social capital is linking, in which communities that are  bonded and bridged are also linked to formal institutions, such as governments, NGOs, multilateral organizations, and private companies. When it comes to water, Mercy Corps, for example, recognizes the importance of linking communities to formal institutions for sustainability. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, Mercy Corps will deliver water to communities without access. But in order to ensure that communities have continued access, Mercy Corps partners with companies and organizations like Walmart, the Miami Foundation and BlackRock in Puerto Rico to rebuild the island’s energy and water supply. In the Bahamas, Mercy Corps made sure that Freeport YMCA and Salvation Army had clean water by installing reverse osmosis purifiers to desalinate ocean water that had infiltrated aquifers.  Splash also understands the importance of linking, specifically through their partnerships with local governments. Splash believes that “in most cases, governments are the best entities to expand this work and carry it on for the long haul.” Splash’s influence on government practices acts as a “core building block towards sustainability and scale.”

Sustainable water projects that bond, bridge, and link communities are critical for building community resilience. They help prepare communities to not only confront increasing risks to water security, but also conflicts, water-related or otherwise. That’s why it’s important to continue progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 6 of clean water for all by 2030. Specifically, Target 6.A aims to expand water and sanitation support to developing countries, including through water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies.

But Target 6.B really gets at how WASH projects can build resilience and peace. It aims to support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management, because it’s only through their participation that they become stronger as a community to withstand the threats of water scarcity.

Global Washington members working on water:

Friendly Water for the World

Founded in 2010, Friendly Water for the World is a dynamic, rapidly growing, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Olympia, WA. Its mission is to expand global access to low-cost clean water technologies and information about health and sanitation through knowledge-sharing, training, applied research, community-building, peacemaking, and efforts at sustainability. The organization empowers communities abroad to take care of their own clean water needs, even as it empowers people in the U.S. to make a real difference. Friendly Water for the World currently works in 15 countries, and has assisted more than 160 marginalized and oppressed rural communities – including widows with HIV, people with albinism, survivors of war-time rape, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, indigenous tribes, and unemployed youth – ensure their own safe drinking water while becoming employed in the process.

The Hunger Project

The Hunger Project’s holistic approach in Africa, South Asia and Latin America empowers women and men living in rural villages to become the agents of their own development and sustainably overcome hunger and poverty. Through its WASH programs, The Hunger Project empowers rural communities to ensure they have access to clean water and improved sanitation, the capacity to develop new water sources, and the information to implement water conservation techniques. Since 2011, nearly 871,000 people have participated in The Hunger Project’s WASH skill or awareness building activities and the organization has trained over 20,000 local leaders in building community skills and awareness around water and sanitation.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps helps people around the world get clean water by providing water during emergencies, building wells to reduce long treks (often made by vulnerable girls and women), repairing damaged water infrastructure and helping construct reservoirs to ensure communities have access to clean water in the future. In Zimbabwe, Mercy Corps restored a community’s water infrastructure to provide clean and safe water for over 43,000 people. In turn, this also significantly reduced the distance girls had to travel to collect drinking water for their families from 2500m to 80m. During emergencies, access to clean water plays a vital role in preventing disease outbreaks and other water-borne illnesses. In response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo where three quarters of the population lack access to clean water, Mercy Corps has provided over 600,000 displaced people with safe drinking water to help keep their families healthy and prevent disease. In 2018, Mercy Corps connected more than 3 million people to clean water and hygiene and sanitation facilities during emergencies across the globe.

Path from Poverty

In Kenya, with unclean water sources often miles from villages, woman and girls are forced to spend hours each day simply finding and transporting water. It is not safe for women and girls to fetch water in the very early hours of the morning. The daily average for a Kenya woman is 4-6 hours of walking for clean water. The typical container used for water collection in Africa, the jerry can, weighs over 40 pounds when it’s completely full. With much of one’s day already consumed by meeting basic needs, there isn’t time for much else. The hours lost to gathering water are often the difference between the time to do a trade and earn a living and not. Path From Poverty works to end this daily hardship and is putting a stop to girls lives being at risk by providing clean, safe water at the homes of women and their families. Empowering women, teaching them to work together, start a micro enterprise, and pool resources, Path From Poverty is changing lives and giving back the time lost fetching water so girls can go to school, women can earn much-needed income, and they can be safe from rape and abduction.


Splash is a nonprofit organization focused on clean water, clean hands and clean toilets for children living in urban poverty across Asia and Africa. Splash implements water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs in child-serving institutions, including schools, hospitals, shelters and orphanages, in order to reach the greatest number of children cost-effectively and to bring about generational change. The nonprofit’s holistic approach to WASH includes high-quality water filtration systems, durable drinking and hand washing stations, toilet renovations, and hygiene clubs to ensure that kids learn healthy habits like handwashing.  To date, Splash has completed over 1,600 international projects and serves safe drinking water to over 400,000 children a day in eight countries (China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam). Splash’s goal is to reach one million children per day by 2023.

Water1st International

Water1st prides itself on funding sustainable water projects that involve local communities, local women, as well as a consistent funding stream. Since its founding in 2005, Water1st has provided clean water to over 188,000 people. While its projects focus on providing easy access to clean water, the organization also ensures that projects integrate toilets and hygiene education. Water1st’s success centers on robust program evaluation of each of its funded projects to ensure that deliverables are effective and community needs are met.


WaterAid is the #1 ranked international nonprofit dedicated to transforming lives through access to clean water, toilets and hygiene education. WaterAid has been helping communities around the globe become more resilient to extreme weather, natural hazards and changing environmental conditions for more than 30 years. From rainwater harvesting and gravity-fed water systems, to spring water protection, environmentally-friendly sanitation solutions, improved rainwater monitoring and dedicated climate advocacy, WaterAid works with local communities throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific region to proactively identify the kinds of problems they face right now, and the ones they may face in the future. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 24.9 million people with clean water and, since 2004, 24 million people with toilets and sanitation.

Water Mission

When COVID-19 began making its way around the world, Water Mission’s global staff quickly scaled up program efforts to provide handwashing stations, sanitation supplies, hygiene training, and COVID-19 awareness education. Water Mission provided critical hygiene supplies, such as safe water and soap, to more than 800,000 people around the world. Water Mission installed more than 8,550 handwashing stations in key locations, including healthcare facilities, schools, and existing safe water collection points in Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Peru, Malawi, Mexico, and the Bahamas. To date, this program has equipped nearly 1,000 healthcare facilities with handwashing stations and training materials, ensuring that frontline workers are better equipped and protected as they carry out their critical work.

World Vision

World Vision is committed to accelerating universal and equitable access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services to contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 6. This will only be achieved through collaboration. Between 2016-2021 World Vision reached 20 million people with clean water. The organization has more than 1,200 designated WASH staff members in 41 prioritized countries that provide localized expertise. In its business plan for 2021-2025, World Vision aims to impact 15 million people with safe water, 14 million people with improved sanitation, and 18 million with improved hygiene through access to household hand-washing stations. The organization is also ramping up area-wide approaches to support WASH universal coverage plans for more than 150 subnational districts. World Vision is expanding WASH investments in healthcare facilities and schools. These plans will demonstrate sustainable impact and keep the organization on track to reach everyone World Vision works with everywhere with basic clean water access by 2030 —approximately 50 million people between 2016 to 2030. World Vision is deepening its focus on the most vulnerable, especially in fragile and extremely fragile contexts. It will continue to provide WASH during emergencies, and when combined with the provision of sustained water service, World Vision will continue to reach one new person with clean water every 10 seconds.