Water Scarcity and Internally Displaced Persons

By: Katherine Sentlinger (Guest Writer)

Water is an essential resource for life. If people do not have access to water, they must go to where there is a supply in order to survive. Thousands of people are displaced from their homes every year because of water scarcity. An internally displaced person or a IDP "is someone who is forced to flee their home but who, unlike a refugee, remains within their country's borders". The CIA's World Factbook estimates that more than 24.5 million people are internally displaced in the world.

There are many types of internally displaced persons, such as those displaced "as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters" ( UNCHR) etc. In the past century, there have been two major types of internally displaced people as a result of water scarcity. These included people who have conflicts over the control of water and people who must leave there homes due to extreme environmental conditions, such as drought.

Conflicts over water are a major reason for internally displaced persons. These conflicts, which are sometimes violent ones, are usually over which group of people will control the water source. Conflicts over water can "range from tribal tension over access to a water point, to entire communities being displaced by the construction of a dam, to a general population's response to the poor governance of their water services ( Water and Conflict)." Those groups who have lost control over the water must find new sources of water in other areas.

For example, in November 2010 thousands of people were internally displaced from villages in central Somalia. This conflict resulted from two sub-clans fighting over the right to control the area's grazing pasture and water. Many of the people who were displaced 'were nomads who were forced to flee their water sources. 'They are now in areas where there are no water points…The lucky ones have camped outside urban centres like Adado. They and their livestock are at risk' ( IRIN)". Having lost their main source of water, these people must travel to find a new supply of water and to make new homes for themselves in order to survive.

Drought is also a major reason for internally displaced persons. During a drought, the people are unable to have access to water for drinking, for agriculture or to provide for their livestock. Lack of water causes the crops to die and major food shortages. After going long periods of time without rain people begin to run out of water and are forced to relocate to different areas where they can find water and new sources of income in order to provide for their families until the drought has ended.

For example, in 2008, Yemen suffered from a drought that displaced thousands of people. The main areas that were affected were the mountainous regions. After waiting almost a year for water, "thousands of people had abandoned their homes and moved to the main cities". (IRIN) The people were dependent on springs and rain for drinking and for irrigation of their crops. In Yemen the main crops "include `khat' [a mild narcotic], corn, coffee, and fruit, which all

depended on rainfall". (IRIN) Because of the drought, farmers were unable to irrigate their crops and were forced to move from their homes to find new means of providing for themselves and their families.

Internally displaced persons are often confused with refugees. The two differ in that, refugees are people who are displaced to countries other than their own, while internally displaced persons "have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries. Even if they have fled for similar reasons as refugees (armed conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations), IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government". (UNHCR)

Many of these internally displaced people move into cities, move in with relatives or move to nearby villages that are not affected by the water scarcity that they had to flee from. For example, many pastoralists who have been displaced to urban areas due to water conflicts or drought "continue to face challenges of changing lifestyles and living under difficult economic conditions" (IRIN). Often times, once the conflicts or droughts have ended, many people return to their homes that they fled from.

Many organizations, such as the UNHCR and The Water Project, try to bring aid to those who have been displaced from their homes. Most of these organizations work to relieve some of the hardships of internally displaced persons by providing food, water and shelter to many who have been forced to leave their homes.

UNHCR or the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, supports the development of camps and other shelters to protect those who are displaced from their homes. The UNHCR has helped millions of people through what they call the 'cluster approach.' Under this approach, UNHCR has the lead role in overseeing the protection and shelter needs of IDPs as well as coordination and management of camps".

The Water Project works to prevent displacement from occurring by builds wells, dams and other water catchment systems to help collect as much water as possible. This method allows more people to have easy access to fresh water and can reduce the risk of water related conflicts. The water can also be stored for longer periods of time and can be rationed for used in times of drought.

The number of internally displaced persons continues to grow rapidly as droughts and conflicts over water continue every year. There are many reasons for internal displacement and water scarcity continues to be one of the major ones. Water Scarcity is responsible for the internal displacement of millions of people through water conflicts and environmental conditions such as drought.


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