Unidentified gunmen on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, February 28, 2014. (Elizabeth Arrott/VOA)

A few months ago, no one seemed to predict Russia’s grab of Crimea and the fast-moving events that are now threatening to further destabilize the political, social, and economic situation in Ukraine. As events unfold, it seems clear that Russia is intent on changing Ukraine’s governance system by forcing it to implement a new constitution that would devolve power to the eastern parts of the country. 

The Kremlin’s ideal outcome is a loose federation, which, unlike American federalism, would allow for far greater independence of Ukraine’s provinces. This independence would allow Russia to cooperate with the eastern provinces without having to go through Kyiv, which could be beneficial to various sectors of the Russian and local eastern Ukrainian economies—especially their arms industries.

This is why, in my opinion, Russia is trying to inspire a revolutionary mindset in eastern Ukraine and use pro-Russian inhabitants and forces as a way to destabilize the situation in the whole country and provoke the Ukrainian government into using force against the separatists instead of concentrating on societal reforms. The unrest is certainly proving to be a test for the Ukrainian government, and could allow Russia to determine if Kyiv is really able to control all of the country’s territory, while also providing a possible pretext for Russian armed intervention, ostensibly to protect the separatists, especially if some kind of civil war starts. Nevertheless, the cost of an intervention would be very high, which is probably why Russia is pressing for the federalization of Ukraine by using other tools of influence, most of them economic. 

The first such tool is the price of Russian natural gas on which most of Ukraine is dependent. After the new government came to power in Kyiv, the giant Russian monopoly Gazprom terminated an existing gas contract with Ukraine and imposed an increase in gas prices from about $268 to $485 per thousand cubic meters. This dramatic increase not only will hurt the Ukrainian economy but also the pocketbooks of ordinary people who will suffer large increases in heat bills; food and household costs will also increase to reflect associated fuel costs. Moreover, Gazprom is pressuring Ukraine to pay back its outstanding gas debt of $2.2 billion, accrued over recent years, knowing full well that Ukraine doesn’t have the money to repay it. These two issues are being used by Gazprom to conjure a threat that it will turn off the tap. With summer coming, this threat does not hold as much power, but come autumn, it could find traction, translating (the Kremlin may be hoping) into people protesting against the government in Kyiv. 


Syrian children wait with slips of paper entitling them to collect bread for their families, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, September 4, 2013. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Three years into the Syrian conflict, one million Syrians have officially sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon, a country of 4.2 million people. Lebanon's hospitality is steadily being stretched to the limit. Syrian refugees have self-settled all over Lebanon, but mainly in the north and the Bekaa valley. The Lebanese authorities have so far refused to let the United Nations set up separate camps to house the refugees. They fear that the refugee camps could turn into permanent settlements and increase the likelihood that the Syrians may decide to stay. 

The absence of refugee camps means that Syrian families are settling in local communities ill prepared to accommodate the mass influx. After the presence of Syrians in Lebanon has reached one quarter of Lebanon’s population, the pressure on limited resources is felt in every community. How can Lebanon cope with this challenge? Are refugee camps the solution?

More than two thirds (70%) of Lebanese expressed a wish that the UN establish refugee camps for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The finding derives from a 2013 study of a representative sample of 900 Lebanese respondents by the Fafo Foundation, an independent research organization. A case study I conducted in the northern Lebanese village of Bebnine, part of the same Fafo study, indicates that finding shelter is increasingly challenging for refugees. In the beginning, people believed the crisis would be short-lived, and local residents showed generous hospitality towards the refugees. When the first refugees arrived in Bebnine, apartments were available, and some refugees were even provided for by a benefactor who paid the rent. Later, refugees had to accommodate themselves by staying with relatives and friends or rent available shelters. As a result, the monthly rent for an apartment in Bebnine increased from around $200 in 2011 to $450 in 2013. 

Refugees we met expressed anguish about their inability to pay the rent after their savings had been exhausted. Those who cannot afford the open rental market live in makeshift shelters designed for other uses than accommodations, usually without adequate water, electricity, and sanitation. Refugees in Bebnine have turned shops, garages, store rooms, hallways, and even a slaughterhouse into makeshift shelters. The latest arrivals to the village were often only offered improvised tents constructed with wooden poles wrapped in plastic. These shelters had only rudimentary water and sanitation facilities and are not weather-proof. A local charity organization in Bebnine was in the process of renting some land to accommodate 100 more plastic shelters for refugees. Clusters of such informal living arrangements have popped up several places in Bebnine, and more than 400 informal tent camps are registered around Lebanon to accommodate Syrian refugees. 


A few weeks ago, Taiwan sent a team of geologists to explore for oil and gas on the Spratly Islands, a group of islands, reefs, and islets in the South China Sea that is one of the most delicate territorial disputes in the region, not least due to the sheer number of claimants. Earlier this year, Manila made a move to take Beijing to a UN tribunal over them; Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also claim them to various degrees. If the Taiwanese team–part of the state run petrochemical giant CPC Corporation–confirms the existence of large reserves of oil and natural gas, then we may expect the stakes to rise and the dispute over ownership to intensify.

China's Geology and Mineral Resources Ministry puts the oil and natural gas reserves at an estimated 17.7 billion tons. If this is accurate, the Spratly Islands would have the fourth largest reserve bed in the world. The islands also have strategic significance, as they are located along the main shipping lane that links the Pacific and Indian Oceans. According to a study by Jorn Dosch for the Harvard International Review, this crucial sea passage is witness to 50% of all global marine traffic, and 80% of all crude oil transport headed to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. 

The history of this dispute isn't helping unravel the complexity of the situation. When Japan signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, it renounced its claim to sovereignty over the Spratly and the Paracel Islands. Given the thorny nature of the issue, they were not reassigned to any other country. Today, these islands remain legally under the collective custody of the treaty’s 48 other parties, which include modern-day claimants to the islands such as the Philippines and Vietnam. China, who does not recognize the San Francisco Peace treaty, is also claiming sovereignty over the islands. All claimants— except for Brunei—occupy some part of the archipelago. 

Tensions have risen recently following the claim made by the Philippines to the International Tribunal of the United Nations Law of the Sea. It was the first time for China to be taken to a UN tribunal, and they were rather unhappy about it. China blasted the Philippines for its legal recourse, and accused Manila of deviating from the agreed upon dispute settlement guidelines. China refused to participate in the case, and, as the Wall Street Journal points out, even if the tribunal does decide it has jurisdiction over the case and finds in the Philippines favor, China would very likely simply ignore the verdict.



Because of a broadening of actors involved in water security, and decreases in irrigation demand in some areas, so-called 'water wars' will likely be avoided, though the failure of governments to provide basic municipal services in cities could be a source of conflict, said Ben Crow, professor and department chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“It's quite possible that the failure of governments to provide access to water and sanitation, and, more broadly, to the rights of city living, could be a cause of instability and lack of government legitimacy,” he said. 

Water use and access is shifting, Mr. Crow said; for instance, some countries now need more water for hydroelectric power, and less for irrigation. And climate change is proving to be a wild card in predicting problems. “Climate change is certainly melting glaciers in the Himalayas,” he said. “They are major source of water, so the seasonal distribution of water is changing, and possibly the amount of water that's available. It's not really clear how that's going to change, but there's a chance that it will cause a reduction in the dry season flows, which are what are crucial for irrigation. So, climate change will have a number of consequences, and it's not clear that the adaptation responses have emerged very well.”

“I think we need to have adaptation to recognize the big challenges of climate change coming in the future,” he said. “But, more generally, I think there are issues of water justice where injustices are built in to existing allocations of water and the way that various infrastructure works—pipe networks or dams or roads and irrigation facilities. There are substantial injustices between the rich and the poor, and movements to open questions about water justice, I think stand a chance to improve people's lives very substantially.”

Mr. Crow favors a multitrack and multilateral diplomacy framework for international river negotiations and management, and though countries like India tend to negotiate bilaterally, he said, “I think in an age of new media, and in an age of growing democratic representation, it's possible that the aims of multilateralism can be achieved even when governments want to negotiate only two at a time.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I'm here today with Ben Crow, professor and department chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He specializes in development and global inequalities. Ben has written extensively on water security, including international river management in South Asia and water access in Kenya's urban settlements. Ben, thank you for speaking with me today on the Global Observatory.

According to some experts, disputes over water are set to become the defining crisis of the 21st century, from the islands of the Asia-Pacific to the urban centers of Africa. In your view, will access to water be a dominant source of conflict in the decades to come?

Ben Crow: Well, I think there are two different questions here. Frequently, people have talked about water wars over international rivers. I think that's unlikely for essentially three reasons. That virtual water, the trade in cereals which consume a lot of water, can take away the need for very large quantities of water—so food trade, food imports can prevent a lot of the battles over waters.

Secondly, increasingly, there are growing pressures towards what we've called multitrack diplomacy, meaning that different elements of civil society and business interact around issues over rivers. I think that broadening of the actors and the issues makes war unlikely. So, those are the two reasons why I think it's unlikely on international rivers.

The question of access to domestic water, particularly in big cities—it's not clear if that will lead to conflict. It's quite possible that the failure of governments to provide access to water and sanitation and more broadly, to the rights of city living, could be a cause of instability and lack of government legitimacy. I think it's hard to predict how far that will lead to conflict, but it's certainly a question of justice—that there are large injustices which are most easily seen through this absence of basic necessities like water and sanitation.

AOS: To go back to the international rivers issue—you've researched negotiations over the Himalayan rivers in South Asia, and countries in the region have been discussing cooperation for five decades, but today they face new pressures and uncertainty. Why are tensions over these rivers increasing?

BC: Well, it's not clear yet that tensions are increasing. There are new players, particularly China, because China is beginning to develop the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which becomes the Brahmaputra as it moves from Tibet into India. Certainly, China is building some hydroelectric dams on this Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. That could improve the situation for flats and hydropower in parts of India and Bangladesh, but there is a longer-term uncertainty that significant groups within the Chinese governments have been interested in the diversion of water. That could be a cause of conflict, particularly with India and Bangladesh—and there are a lot of uncertainties over the border there where China claims part of the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh.

But, there are a couple of other things that are happening that I think are particularly interesting. Climate change is certainly melting glaciers in the Himalayas. They are major source of water, so the seasonal distribution of water is changing, and possibly the amount of water that's available. It's not really clear how that's going to change, but there's a chance that it will cause a reduction in the dry season flows, which are what are crucial for irrigation. So, climate change will have a number of consequences, and it's not clear that the adaptation responses have emerged very well.


In Central Asia, water has been more a source of tension than cooperation. While there have been joint efforts to save the Aral Sea, as well as a flood of internationally introduced technical projects, states in the region have spent most of the past two decades squabbling over the use of water. The region is muddling on with outdated allocation quotas from Soviet times, and the creation of new infrastructure projects like the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan has led to diplomatic saber rattling.

During the Soviet period, central planning created a “cotton belt” in the lowlands of what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, irrigated through a complex system of dams, pumps, and channels using water coming from mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, the break up of the Soviet Union left the emerging republics of Central Asia without a regional water management strategy.

The inclusion of Afghanistan in transboundary water agreements (as recently discussed at a seminar organized by the OSCE) is long overdue, yet is not making the situation easier. Nonetheless, initiatives like the launch of the international year of water cooperation 2013 in Paris on February 11 can give badly needed attention to the problem. Can water help unite the countries of Central Asia, or will it increase tensions between them?

Key Conclusions

    • Water is in fact not so scarce as commonly perceived, and much can be done from the demand side, i.e., by improving unsustainable irrigation practices.
    • Attempts to reach an integrated solution to Central Asia’s water problems are doomed if there is no political will.
    • Afghanistan borders the region’s largest river, and, with rising demand for water, it must be part of the solution.
    • Central Asia is still a long way from an open “water clash,” but the course is being set and the ship needs to be turned in time.


Most of Central Asia is embedded in the Aral Sea basin, stretching from what is left of the Aral Sea in the west to the melting glacial “water towers” in the east. The two main rivers of the region, which flow from east to west, are the Syr Darya to the north and the Amu Darya to the south. The former runs from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan through Uzbekistan to the northern Aral Sea in Kazakhstan; the latter flows from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, along the latter’s border with Afghanistan, through Turkmenistan and finally into the southern Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. These two rivers provide the main source for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower in the region.

A major legacy of the Soviet era in Central Asia was the creation of an electricity-water nexus, whereby the generation of electricity from hydropower in upstream countries was linked to the water needs of those downstream. This system operated in the context of a common management system and shared energy arrangements through regional energy grids and networks. However, this system ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overnight emergence of international borders. Water was increasingly seen as a national asset rather than a common resource, and the transition to commercial prices for the supply of hydrocarbons to upstream countries (formerly delivered freely as compensation for irrigation water) presented major difficulties for their economies.


At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.




  • December 12: Meeting of the Friends of Syria, Morocco
    The “Friends of Syria” core group includes the US and like-minded European and Middle Eastern partners–such as France, Germany, the UK–as well as Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE. At the 4th meeting in Marrakesh, assuming it goes ahead, participants might be able to induce as many as 100 countries, including the US, to recognize the new coalition of Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The coalition would then set up an interim government largely made up of technocrats, as well as a military council and a judicial authority. Should the regime collapse, the interim government would become a transitional one, which would in turn be dissolved once elections could be arranged.
  • December 12: Southeastern Asian Countries Hold Maritime Talks, Manila, Philippines
    The deputy foreign ministers of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are to meet in Manila as part of Philippine efforts at pushing for a multilateral solution to their rival claims to South China Sea territories. The talks exclude China, which has warned that the move will further complicate the regional situation.
  • December 13: Iran and IAEA in New Round of Talks, Tehran, Iran
    Representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iranian officials have scheduled a meeting in Tehran on December 13th to discuss the ongoing issues regarding the country’s nuclear program. The last round of talks took place in Vienna on August 24th. The latest IAEA report stated that Iran had installed all of the nearly 2,800 centrifuges it will use to enrich uranium at the Fordow plant while also increasing its stockpile of both 5% and 20% enriched uranium.  
  • December 15-17: The Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan
    Following the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations in March 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been leading a process of learning, and acting upon lessons from the accident in order to strengthen nuclear safety. The upcoming Ministerial Conference is part of the Action Plan to provide an opportunity for learning further lessons and for enhancing transparency. The working sessions are envisaged to cover the following major topics: lessons learned from the accident at Fukushima; strengthening nuclear safety, including emergency preparedness and response; and protection of people and the environment from ionizing radiation.

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.




  • November 5: FARC and Colombia resume peace talks, Havana, Cuba
    The government of Colombia resumes peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The negotiations between the two sides started in October in Oslo, Norway, ten years after the last attempt of solving the conflict peacefully failed. During the talks in Oslo, the FARC called for an immediate ceasefire, which the Colombian government rejected, saying that a ceasefire at this stage would enable the rebels to rearm. The meeting in Havana is expected to focus on five key issues, including the end of armed conflict, land reform, drug trafficking, guarantees for the rights of political opposition, and of the victims of the conflict. 
  • November 15/29: UN likely to discuss upgrade of Palestinian status
    The UN General Assembly will discuss the upgrade of the Palestinian status at the world body to “nonmember” observer state. Given the number of member states sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the General Assembly is expected to approve the application.
  • November 18-20: 21st ASEAN Summit, Phnom Penh Cambodia
    Leaders of the member states of the Southeast Asian group of states will gather in Phnom Penh to discuss (primarily) the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea and a code of conduct aimed at resolving the issue.

    The last meeting, also under Cambodian chairmanship, failed to reach an outcome agreement for the first time in the history of ASEAN. While agreement on the code of conduct might not be reached at the summit, there is hope that the negotiating atmosphere will be more open and that an outcome document can be adopted.

The inaugural issue of Stability, a new academic journal on international security and development, has launched, and its aim is to draw attention to new and emerging forms of instability and innovative responses. It also aims to tackle some of the major failures of contemporary academic publishing, including low real-world impact, unnecessary barriers to access, narrow marketing and distribution and, lastly, painfully slow publishing procedures that delay the dissemination of good ideas.

The journal challenges the tendency to view conflict, crime, and other forms of violence through separate lenses. Indeed, these artificial distinctions have in some cases masked the interconnections between contexts. The fact is that many ostensibly “post-conflict” and even "peaceful" settings register levels of insecurity that are on par with today's war zones. These conceptual boundaries have unnecessarily constrained learning and cross-fertilization among scholars, policy makers, and practitioners.

The case of Mali highlights how multiple forms of insecurity are converging and forcing us to rethink how best to engage. There, al Qaeda-linked rebels in the north are financed in part by the transit of Latin American narcotics, mostly cocaine, into western Europe. Malian rebels are using drug wealth to recruit fighters, win local support with free services and delay an anticipated mission from the Economic Cooperation Organisation of West African States (ECOWAS). In Mali, we see European drug demand and Latin American narco-traffickers fueling an Islamist rebel movement, which is partly backed by Middle Eastern financiers and bolstered by Libyan and Sudanese fighters hardened through a succession of wars. International organizations, along with West African forces, are attempting to resolve the situation with mediation by Algeria.

The journal is endorsing a new approach to academic publishing. Part of its mission is to bring research to intended audiences in a faster and more accessible format. It hopes to chart a new path that is now referred to as “gold open access.” This means that articles are published online as soon as they are available (rather than waiting for the next opening in a future issue). Readers do not pay anything to access articles. And contributions are encouraged not only from professional researchers and academics but also from experienced policymakers and practitioners; authors from developing and violence-affected countries are pro-actively encouraged to contribute. Articles are then actively “marketed” to relevant policymakers and practitioners, both by the journal itself and by providing authors with information to guide them in disseminating their content.


At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.




  • October 1: FOSS Conference on Small States, New York
    Representatives of more than 100 small states will gather in New York for the Forum on Small States (FOSS) Conference. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the forum, which was established by the government of Singapore to provide small states with a platform to discuss issues of common concern in the context of the United Nations.

    This year’s gathering on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly will feature a distinguished list of speakers including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, newly-elected President of the General Assembly Vuk Jeremic, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore K Shanmugam, and several others. A keynote address will be delivered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The conference will address the contribution and the role of small states in three core areas: international relations, mediation, and development.
  • October 15 (postponed from October 5): FARC Peace Talks, Oslo, Norway
    The FARC guerillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the rebel group which has fought successive governments in Colombia since the 1960s, postponed their scheduled peace talks with the Colombian government in Oslo, Norway to October 15. The Oslo talks will be followed by successive rounds of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, before (supposedly) wrapping up in Colombia next year.

    The key issues on the agenda for the talks include: rural development, political participation, the end of armed conflict, drug trafficking, victims of violence, and implementation and verification. Both sides had signaled their openness to peace talks during recent months. President Juan Manuel Santos’ decision to enter into talks with the FARC represents a departure from his predecessor’s policy on the FARC, which more narrowly emphasized military means.

    A previous attempt at coming to a negotiated solution in the late 1990s resulted in FARC regrouping and rearming as a result of the reprieve it was afforded by the talks. This is a mistake the Santos government is eager to avoid, emphasizing that there will be no cease fire and that a comprehensive military presence will remain in all parts of Colombia as peace talks are taking place. Indeed, it was President Santos in his former role as defense minister under President Uribe who led a tough, successful military campaign against the rebels, which was instrumental in weakening the FARC.

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.




  • September 10 – 28: Human Rights Council, 21st Session, Geneva, Switzerland
    During this 21st session of the Human Rights Council Syria will once again dominate the Council’s agenda as a key priority. At this session the commission of inquiry lead by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and Karen AbuZayd will report on their findings over the last six months. This will be the final Human Rights Council session with the current membership. Elections are set to take place on November 12th at the UN General Assembly to elect new members to a three year term. Most groups have a clean slate except for WEOG where Germany, Sweden, Ireland, the United States, and Greece are competing for three slots.
  • September 11-12: Commemorative Session and 4th Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Astana, Kazakhstan
    The commemorative session will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), which was founded on the initiative of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1992. CICA has 24 members, covering approximately three-quarters of the population and territory of Asia. Earlier this year, President Nazarbayev has called for a strengthening of the conference, transforming it into an international organization. These issues, including the question of succession in chairmanship, will certainly be discussed in Astana.
  • September 17: Security Council meeting on Peace and Security in Africa (Sahel), New York 
    Council Members will discuss a proposed integrated strategy for security, governance, development, human rights, and humanitarian issues in the Sahel region. Council members had requested the Secretary-General to develop such a strategy in Security Council resolution 2056 on 5 July 2012. 

    The integrated strategy will need to consider the spillover risks of the Malian crisis in the region, and how to harmonize the seemingly diverse positions of the Malian authorities, core countries such as Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger, as well as the Economic Community of West African States. The leaders of the regional bloc are still considering a military intervention to ensure the effective return to constitutional order in Mali and to eradicate the terrorist threat in the northern part of the country.

  • September 24: General Assembly High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, New York
    In line with General Assembly Resolution A/RES/66/102 of January 2012, there will be a high-level meeting debating the “rule of law at national and international levels.” Beyond member states delegations, expected speakers include the Secretary-General and senior representatives of relevant UN bodies as well as some NGO representative s from the rule of law field. 

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What to Watch in 2014

Key Global Events in February
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2013-multilateral-602014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena
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