An ancient Chinese proverb says: “Not only can water float a boat, it can sink it also”. Indeed, water can be productive and destructive at the same time. It is the foundation of sustainable development and poverty eradication, but also a cause of disasters and a driver of conflicts. The 2015 Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum pointed out that water-related issues, such as drought or the pollution of water, are the biggest world threat for the next decade.
On 22 November, the Senegalese Presidency of the Security Council convened an open debate on “Water, Peace and Security”. It was a timely event devoted to rising awareness on the fact that water, rarefied by climate change and by mismanagement and subject of disputes between states, affects the peace and security at a global scale.
Water is a finite and irreplaceable resource. It is only renewable if well managed. Today, more than 1.7 billion people live in river basins where depletion through use exceeds natural recharge. If this trend continues, by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed countries. Water scarcity can be a trigger of instability, and a driver for migration and confrontation.
No other resource is more essential to human survival than fresh water, which represents only 3% of the total water on the Earth; the quantity available for human use is a hundred times smaller. Population growth, urbanization, industrialization and increases in production and consumption have generated ever increasing demands for water. To the scarcity of this resource adds the inequitable geographical distribution. For instance, Asia accounts for 60% of the world population but has 36% of available water resources, while Europe with 12% of the world’s population detains 8% of the water, and Latin America and the Caribbean regions have 9% of world’s population but 26% of the water resources.
While Africa has the same annual rainfall as Europe, the variability and unpredictability of its rainfall is much higher. Currently, 3.5 billion people suffer from water insecurity, with the poorest countries facing the greatest water vulnerability. By 2030, the world is projected to face a 40% global water deficit. For many small island developing states (SIDS), dealing with water threats is a matter of survival due to rising sea levels, whereas many least developed countries (LDCs) are affected by increasing droughts and extreme weather events.
These require to revisit the paradigm of water governance. Because water issues are linked to climate change, poverty, food, health and energy, water should be seen cross-sectoral and multi-disciplinary.
In some parts of the world there is a long history of mistrust related to the joint access to water resources, and the lack of institutional capacity to manage shared rivers enhances misperceptions and fears. The alternative to confrontation is to conclude water agreements. Good communication, strengthened relations between upstream and downstream states, strong institutions and sharing best practices are equally important for successful negotiations on water.
In this respect, the European cooperation in the Danube River Basin may be an inspiring model to follow. Initiated by Romania and Austria, the European Union Strategy for the Danube Region contributed to advance cooperation among Danube’s riparian countries in essential areas such as transport, energy security, information society, environment protection, education, culture, research, tourism, rural development and competitiveness.
Last but not least, protection of water in conflicts is essential. While the Geneva Conventions of 1949 mention water resources and water installations as key civilian infrastructure, and therefore immune from attacks, there are conflicts where water is used as a weapon. Placing limitations on the access to water supplies for civilian population in time of war is a grave breach of international humanitarian law and of human rights. Depending on the circumstances, such acts might constitute war crimes.
The UN Charter provides the solutions to resolve water disputes: bilateral cooperation, facilitation, good offices, dialogue and mediation. The UN deployed sustained diplomatic efforts in this respect. Additional focus is needed to addressing potential root causes of conflict related to water at an early stage. Water diplomacy has also a key role to play, as many opportunities can emerge from negotiations on energy, agriculture and infrastructure. But the issue is not only about water, it is about people. Therefore, education is important in order to prepare a next generation of leaders sensitive to climate and water issues.
Because economic development, environment protection, social sustainability, peace and security are interconnected, the 2030 Agenda is the framework to prevent conflicts caused by water. The Agenda devotes two of its 17 sustainable development goals to water: SDG 6 – Ensure access to water and sanitation for all, and SDG 14 – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources, and next June in New York Sweden and Fiji will organize a UN High Level Conference to Support the Implementation of SDG 14.
In 2011, the Security Council has discussed the link between conflict, natural resources and climate change, and expressed concern that climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security. The entering into force of the Paris Agreement, on 4 November 2016, has brought a silver line of optimism on this issue. It is now high time to focus on the nexus between water, development and security. Water knowledge has become a global public good and, because water ignores political boundaries, water itself has become a political matter. As the Action Plan released in September 2016 by the UN High Level Panel on Water remarks: “Technical solutions to many of the world’s water problems already exist, but strong and coordinated political leadership is required to make progress.”
*Ambassador Ion Jinga is the Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations, New York.