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Q&A: Harriette Okal on water’s role in fostering peace

In this exclusive Q&A for World Water Day, Harriette Okal, SEI Africa Research Fellow speaking to the communication team of Lawrence Nzuve and Pauline Macharia discusses the critical issues of water scarcity, the prevention of resource-related conflicts, and the advancement of gender equality in water management.

Harriette Okal, Lawrence Nzuve / Published on 21 March 2024
African women carrying water to their village in Kenya

African women carrying water to their village in Kenya.

Celebrated on 22 March, World Water Day underscores the urgency of addressing the global water and sanitation crisis and promotes the 2024 theme of ‘Leveraging water for peace’. Join us as Okal shares her insights on sustainable solutions and the role of water management in mitigating the impact of climate change and fostering peace.


Harriette Okal
Harriette Okal

Research Fellow

SEI Africa

Can you introduce yourself and describe your role at SEI?

At SEI, I serve as an Associate Scientist/Research Fellow specializing in water systems. My role involves spearheading research initiatives on integrated water planning, water-energy-food nexus, and water and sanitation. While I’m relatively new to this position, I’m eager to leverage SEI’s WEAP tool for water modelling and actively participate in key water and oceans policy processes at various levels. Additionally, I’m committed to contributing to capacity building initiatives. My passion stems from a simple belief: water is life, and ensuring its sustainability is crucial for our future.

Have you encountered cases where water scarcity led to conflicts or tensions between communities or countries in your research?

Absolutely. In my research, I’ve witnessed numerous instances where water scarcity acts as a silent instigator of conflicts, sparking tensions particularly over shared resources like rivers and lakes. One common scenario is tensions between upstream and downstream water users, a recurring narrative exacerbated by dwindling water supplies. When water runs scarce, so does peace. Living in a water-scarce town during my PhD, where water was rationed on alternate days (water-on and water-off days), I experienced firsthand how water scarcity heightens tensions. It’s almost comical how people expected a hydrologist to conjure water out of thin air! The reality is: water scarcity can turn the tide from cooperation to conflict.

What strategies can be employed to prevent water scarcity and avert conflicts over water?

We need to rewrite the narrative around water. By embracing integrated water management, ensuring equitable allocation, and fostering dialogue among stakeholders, we can turn water scarcity into an opportunity for cooperation rather than conflict. We can unlock solutions that benefit all parties involved. It’s about turning the faucet of cooperation to quench the fires of conflict.

How does water scarcity disproportionately impact women and girls, especially in conflict zones or areas facing water scarcity?

Unequal access to water hits women the hardest. As primary water collectors, women bear the brunt of this burden, often sacrificing educational and health opportunities. In conflict zones, water scarcity amplifies gender inequalities, further marginalizing women and girls, and leaving them parched for vital resources. In water wars, women are the unsung heroes as they carry the weight of their communities’ survival on their shoulders.

What innovative practices can advance gender equality in water management and access?

Empowerment is key. By involving women in decision-making, providing and expanding access to education and technology, and implementing gender-responsive policies, we can break the cycle of inequality and ensure that every drop counts. In water management, gender equality isn’t just a drop in the bucket; it’s the ripple effect that transforms societies.

With climate change affecting water resources, what research and development initiatives are in place to ensure sustainable water management and prevent future water-related conflicts?

Adaptation is our lifeline. Embracing nature-based solutions, leveraging technology for data-driven decisions, and fostering resilience in our infrastructure can help us weather the storm of climate change and secure our water future. In the face of climate uncertainty, innovation isn’t an option; it’s a necessity to keep our waters flowing and our peace intact.

Topics and subtopics
Water : Water resources, Sanitation
Related centres
SEI Africa

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