Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts

Can Peace and Prosperity Flow from Water?

What happens when tensions over water reach their boiling point? In our final bonus episode of the summer season, we explore the causes of water conflicts and what we can do to stop them. We start with the Middle East, a water-scarce region where conflict brews over shared water resources. We then turn to Latin America, where migrants are spurred by climate change, and the lack of water rights in Chilé has created conflict between the government and its people. We revisit conversations with four renowned guests from our past episodes: EcoPeace Middle East Director Gidon Bromberg, economist Jeffrey Sachs, journalist Abrahm Lustgarten and activist Carolina Vilches. You can find their full episodes from our previous seasons here:

S1E3 & S1E4: Water, peace and the Middle East: Part 1 & Part 2: Water, Peace and the Middle East featuring Gidon Bromberg

S2E13: Towards a Better, Greener World with Jeffrey Sachs

S2E4: The Great Climate Migration with Abrahm Lustgarten

S3E11:  Water Pipes to Water Rights: Protecting Water with Newsha Ajami and Carolina Vilches 

We’d love to hear your thoughts about our show in our What About Water Listener Survey. As a thank you, we will plant a tree through One Tree Planted for each survey our podcast listeners complete.

Guest Bios

Gidon Bromberg

Gidon Bromberg is Co-Founder and Israeli Director of EcoPeace Middle East, a regional organization started in 1994 that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists to promote sustainable development and advance peace efforts in the troubled Middle East. He has spearheaded the advocacy campaigns of the organization both in Israel and internationally and developed the cross-border community peace building program “Good Water Neighbors” that is seen as a model for other programs in conflict areas. Gidon speaks regularly on water, peace, and security issues, including before the UN Security Council, Climate Summit, Munich Security Conference, at the UN Commission for Sustainable Development, the US House of Representatives, the European Parliament, and other high-level events. Gidon was named an ‘Environmental Hero’ by TIME Magazine, most recently received Stanford Law School Bright Award for the Environment and was, with his co-directors, awarded the prestigious Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

Jeffrey SachsJeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs is a world-renowned economist. He is a University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where he directed the Earth Institute from 2002 until 2016. He is also President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the UN Broadband Commission for Development. He has been advisor to three United Nations Secretaries-General, and currently serves as an SDG Advocate under Secretary General António Guterres. He spent over twenty years as a professor at Harvard University, where he received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. He has authored numerous bestseller books. His most recent book is The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions (2020). Sachs was twice named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential world leaders and was ranked by The Economist among the top three most influential living economists.

Abrahm LustgartenAbrahm Lustgarten

Abrahm Lustgarten is a senior environmental reporter, with a focus at the intersection of business, climate and energy. He is currently covering changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and working on a project about pollution at U.S. Defense sites. His 2015 series examining the causes of water scarcity in the American West, “Killing the Colorado,” was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and received the 2016 Keck Futures Initiative Communication Award from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Lustgarten co-produced the 2016 Discovery Channel film “Killing the Colorado,” and has previously worked with PBS Frontline, including on the 2010 documentary “The Spill,” about how BP’s corporate culture of recklessness and profiteering led to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. That film was nominated for an Emmy. His early investigation into the environmental and economic consequences of fracking was some of the first coverage of the issue, and received the George Polk award for environmental reporting, the National Press Foundation award for best energy writing, a Sigma Delta Chi award and was honored as finalist for the Goldsmith Prize. Before joining ProPublica in 2008, Lustgarten was a staff writer at Fortune. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Scientific American, Wired, Salon, and Esquire, among other publications. He is the author of two books; “Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster,” and also “China’s Great Train: Beijing’s Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet,” a project that was funded in part by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Lustgarten earned a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in 2003 and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Cornell.

Carolina Vilches

Carolina Vilches is a geographer by training, who has dedicated herself to water justice in Chilé. She founded the Office of Water Affairs of Petorca and belongs to a self-described hydro-feminist collective called La Gota Negra. A longtime community activist, she was elected to Chilé’s constitutional convention in May 2021. She’s one of 155 delegates elected to write a new constitution that may, among other things, redistribute water rights to Chilean citizens.

Photo Credit

Gidon Bromberg – Yale University
Jeffrey Sachs – Jeffrey’s Website; Gabriella C. Marino
Abrahm Lustgarten – KCRWLars Klove
Carolina Vilches – Periodista Furioso


Full Transcript

Gidon Bromberg: Where does my water come from? What’s happening to my sewage? Where does my neighbor’s water come from? We ask these basic questions, we understand that the environment of course knows no borders, that the only way to manage our resources sustainably for the interests of ourselves and for the mutual benefit of all communities is to find ways to work together.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
Gidon Bromberg works to bring water neighbors – on all sides of global conflicts – together.

He’s the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East. This is a regional organization bringing together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists. EcoPeace Middle East promotes sustainable development:

Gidon Bromberg:
We’re showing, uh, communities on both sides of the border that we have actually a lot more to gain by working together that in fact, the only way to solve our pertinent environmental issues and particularly our water issue. Is to work with the other side, despite the difficulties and despite the condemnation that they will receive for doing so, because in the midst of conflict, working with the other is working or is perceived as working with the enemy.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
Welcome to the summer edition of What About Water? I’m your host Jay Famiglietti.

Conflicts over water date back to Biblical times. And increasingly, people caught in the crosshairs face water insecurity, water scarcity and forced migration.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
In this summer episode of What About Water?

We look back at what happens when water becomes a source of conflict. At how conflicts affect the water itself — and the people who rely on it to wash, drink and bathe.

We look at what we can do to stop water conflicts in the first place. We begin in the Middle East – one of the most water scarce regions on the planet. A place where conflicts have brewed between cultural groups for what feels like an eternity.

Yet the people in these groups all have one thing in common: the same water resources.

Gidon Bromberg:
What we’ve found to be most effective is to make sure that we’re, uh, hiring Palestinian experts that can speak to the Palestinian government Israeli experts that can speak to the Israeli government Jordanian experts that can speak to the Jordanian government.

And no less importantly to have those three experts do the research together because the conflict is so deep here that basic facts and basic science are under terrible dispute. They’re heavily politicized.

We need to empower people to make sure that they’re able to respond and defend themselves, that they’re able to come and say to that small, but very vocal minority that condemns them that they’re acting in the best interests of their community. And in that way, we can solve, you know, very basic issues of increased water supply, or protecting an area that was designated to build the separation barrier by the Israeli military and, uh, leaving that area as a preserved area for the benefit of not only both peoples, but for humanity.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
Gidon Bromberg is the co-founder and Israeli Director of EcoPeace Middle East. We spoke to him in Season One in the two-part episode: Water, Peace, and the Middle East.

Around the world, water-related violence is on the rise. A growing human population, and development pressure puts the squeeze on the demand for water. Add climate extremes, to further strain freshwater resources

Figuring out how to share water is one thing, with rivers and lakes that flow across borders…But what about the water we can’t see as easily?

Jeffrey Sachs:
You’re talking about groundwater, something not seen, not understood. That is in crisis. That is depleting. We are just bad at even handling the things we see. Much less the things we don’t see. And so the governance of groundwater has to be one of the toughest policy problems and challenges in the world.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
Jeffrey Sachs is a globally-renowned economist. He says whether it’s above or below ground, humans don’t do a great job of regulating water. When we take for granted aquifers and water we don’t see, we get mismanagement, we risk complete depletion of fresh groundwater. And Sachs warns this could lead to dangerous security situations:

Jeffrey Sachs:
We need a new kind of governance for all of these challenges because political systems don’t address long-term problems. They don’t address science-based solutions. They don’t address regional problems that cross national boundaries or global problems. So the time dimension, the knowledge dimension, the co-operative dimension all fall very far short of what we need. When it comes to water, we have the river basin challenge that the great rivers need regional cooperation – the Mekong with China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so forth. Very complicated.

The upstream country in this case, China often builds dams without understanding or caring enough about the hydrology of what’s going to happen downstream. Uh, same with India and Bangladesh on the Ganges. One could go on and on around the world. So these are regional problems that reflect a combination of urgency, need, power…who’s upstream, who’s downstream?

Then you have shared groundwater in which case, sometimes just millions of farmers that put their wells down without any restraint because you pull up what you can. One of my wonderful hydrology colleagues, Upmanu Lall, told me the story of visiting an area of groundwater depletion in Northern India.

And he went to the local district water commissioner and he said, do you know, the water table is falling several meters a year actually, I think it was, but it was falling very fast. He said, “You’re going to have depletion very soon. It’s very serious.” The commissioner says, “I know.” Lall says, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” He said, “Well, what should we do about it?”

There was no plan. It was more or less fatalistic. The water is going to go down. We have no alternative, no plan, but we have a large number of people. Millions of people are depending on wells tapping this groundwater. That is the reality that we face.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
Jeffrey Sachs is considered one of the world’s greatest living economists. We spoke to him in Season Two.

Regions stripped of their water resources. Water quality compromised because of development. Climate change causing floods and droughts. Violent clashes. This creates a perfect storm. One that according to the World Bank affects not thousands of people – but millions.

Last year, the World Bank released its first-ever global assessment of the impact of water on migration. The findings were pretty grim. Between 1970 and the year 2000, the report shows water deficits accounted for 10 percent of the increase in total migration within countries.

The World Bank projects that by the end of this century, roughly 700 million people will be affected by droughts.

Abrahm Lustgarten:
What I found with the issue of climate change and migration is that one in three people on the planet in 2070 – a 9 billion people population – will have to make a difficult decision about whether they either persevere and continue to live outside of that habitability niche or move.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
That’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. He’s the senior environmental reporter at ProPublica. He writes about climate migration. I spoke to him back in Season Two:

Abrahm Lustgarten:
I mean, the first thing that I learned about human migration is that it’s unbelievably complex and, uh, it’s hard to get people to agree on who is a migrant and also who is an environmental migrant, um, whether environment or climate is the driving factor or a subtle factor. People move because they see economic opportunity or they face economic hardship or they face crime and violence or they can’t grow food or they don’t have enough water.

And sometimes all of these things combine and it’s a question of which factor is kind of the straw that broke their back and forced them to make that ultimate decision. In the end, I arrived at the opinion that it didn’t matter if the climate was a factor weighing in that big basket of burden, then people were a climate migrant of some sort.

And you see that in the data and some of the modeling that we did to try to predict movement on a general scale. But we also wanted to see it or wanted to understand it, you know, on the personal level.

Jay Famiglietti:
Yeah. I thought that was really enlightening because I think in the U.S., the current perspective is that these people want to be here because it’s a better place. And in the case of many migrants and especially people that are climate refugees, they don’t necessarily want to move. And I think your articles made it clear that they had to move.

Abrahm Lustgarten:
Obviously there’s enormous pressure from central America on the U.S. border. And we had the caravans of migrants coming, uh, towards the American border last year, um, thousands of people streaming walking through Mexico and up to the United States. And, um, mostly that movement was attributed to a lot of things, unrelated to climate.

It was attributed to the violence and gang warfare and El Salvador, uh, and instability and parts of Southern Mexico and all of those things. Um, but I suspected there was a climate component as well because that region has been suffering from extraordinary drought and just really unpredictable conditions and wild El Niño patterns that don’t really fit in the historical pattern.

So, uh, we went down to a number of small villages in rural parts of Guatemala and just spent time with, uh, small families, subsistence farmers, to try to understand what they’re dealing with. But in general I was just astounded to learn the degree to which they weren’t processing, you know, pros and cons to make a quote unquote decision.

By the time a migrant moved because of climate, they were really moving out of sheer desperation. There were no other options. It was life or death. Um, so I found these families that, uh, were starving or right on the verge of starving or feeding their kids, you know, one tortilla a day, maybe with a pinch of lime or salt, uh, on top of it. They hadn’t been able to pull off a productive crop of maize or beans in three or four seasons straight.

They had already borrowed or mortgaged whatever assets they had, if they had money to do that, they’d already used it and leveraged whatever opportunities they had. And by the time they moved, um, they – or made the decision to move or usually send the man, the head of the households in the United State – uh, it was just an act of sheer desperation and it gets at one of the other major points of migration, uh, which I think is really misunderstood, which is that most people don’t want to move or migrate. Um, by far, you know, the forces of inertia around the world are for people to stay home and then to stay as close to home as possible when they do ultimately decide to move.

And so it’s really, you know, a force of desperation for large numbers of people to move over large distances.

Jay Famiglietti:
It was clear to me what you talked about, especially in Central America and in particular in Guatemala and El Salvador, water driven. So flooding, drought to the point where subsistence farming was no longer possible. There were no other options.

Is that right? I mean, did water play that big a role?

Abrahm Lustgarten:
Yeah. I mean, it’s all about water. There’s either too much of it or too little of it. And, uh, either one of those are driving extraordinary food scarcity around the world and it’s that food scarcity that’s going to drive people from their homes.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
That was Abrahm Lustgarten, a senior environmental reporter with ProPublica. I spoke with him back in Season Two on the episode: The Great Climate Migration.

It becomes really clear that if we want to prevent the types of water shortages, water conflict, and mass migration we’ve been hearing about – we have to act and do more to protect water now.

In Chilé, Carolina Vilches is trying to do just that. She’s spearheading an effort to re-write her country’s constitution so that water gets official protection:

Carolina Vilches:
My name is Carolina Vilches Fuenzalida. I am a constituent of District Six in Chilé, a country which has been devastated by extractivism and neoliberalism. This model has led into an unprecedented climate and ecological crisis. And so-called “development” is leading to the destruction and degradation of territories affecting the health of communities and putting future generations at risk.

When we talk about extractivism and the neoliberal model, we are referring to economically productive activities that exploit ecosystems. Therefore, protecting water and all its forms is essential and urgent. In Chilé, there is a market based on water where a small group of people in power profit from a common good that belongs to everyone. This is the case with mining, forestry, hydroelectric dams, animal breeding for export, and also agri-industrial monocultures, and many other activities. And the main thing they have in common is the intensive use of water and soils.

From our perspective, it is urgent and vital to protect, restore and regenerate water cycles, to redistribute water according to the needs of the people who suffer from monopolization and privatization of its vital element. It is imperative to eradicate the current water code that allows water rights holders to be owners of mechanisms of water and to change its legal nature.

That is why as an eco-constituent and as part of MODATIMA, the movement for the defense of access to water, land and environmental protection, together with a group of eco-constituents, we presented a water statute which calls for the creation of a new institutional framework. It addresses the role of the state, its responsibility to ensure the human right to water and management through watershed councils, thus proposing community management of water and participatory water networks. This is our moment. This is our project, to protect access to water for the common good. To protect water for our communities and territories.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
That was Carolina Vilches. She’s a member of Chilé’s constitutional convention, where she is fighting to get water officially protected as a basic human right.

You can listen to the full conversations with all of the guests from today by visiting

Like what you hear? Want to tell us about water stories where you live? Take part in our What About Water listener survey. You can find it on social media and at what about water dot org.

For every completed survey, we’ll plant a tree! We’ve paired up with one tree planted, a non-profit restoring damaged ecosystems, stabilizing the soil, and supporting the water cycle — through tree planting.

Jay Famigilietti Voice Over:
That’s it for this episode. We record and produce What About Water? on Treaty Six territory, homeland of First Nations and Métis people.

It’s produced by the Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.