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Water and the potential for social instability: Livelihoods, migration and the building of society

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In much of the Third World, access to secure water for irrigation, particularly groundwater, reduces vulnerability, stabilizes livelihoods,alleviates poverty and ‘entitles’ populations to education and other forms of capital accumulation. Water resource development can, as a result, be used as a key tool for addressing the social roots of instability. The reverse is also true — problems such as groundwater overdraft contribute to poverty and are often at the root of forced migration and the creation of underemployed and unstable displaced populations. Water is fundamental to regional as well as local security.

The benefits of water resource development and the risks associated with unsustainable use patterns are particularly critical in arid regions. Patterns of water use that are unsustainable can play a positive role in the transition of populations from nomadic or migratory to stable communities, where people have access to education and asset accumulation. The exit is, however, as important as the entry. In many regions, the majority of the population now need to make the transition from agriculture to non–agricultural livelihoods. Many people, particularly the wealthy, may already be doing this. Understanding and enabling transition represents one of the most important policy challenges for coming decades.

Using examples from India, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other countries, this article documents some of the connections between water and security and clarifies the importance of effective solutions to water problems and to social transition in arid regions.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Boulder, Colorado

Publication date: August 1, 2002


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