From troubled waters to ‘Blue Peace’

Water and security are increasingly interlinked. Without good governance and cross-border cooperation water will become a source of conflict

By Sundeep Waslekar
President of the Strategic Foresight Group

  • This article was originally published as part of the 2017 edition of Bled Strategic Times, the official gazzette of the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) international conference. You can access the full version of this and other BSF publications by visiting our official website.

Last November, for the first time in the history of the United Nations, the UN Security Council convened a session on water, peace and security. As it was a historic discussion, it was open to all member states of the United Nations. 69 countries intervened. A follow up meeting of the UN Security Council was held in June this year.

There is a growing recognition of the strategic value of water. Since 1991, every Secretary General of the United Nations has called for examination of the linkages between water and security. It took 25 years for the Security Council to respond. This discourse will gather momentum in the fall of 2017 once the Global High Level Panel on Water and Security releases its report. Convened by 15 countries from all parts of the world, the panel is chaired by Dr. Danilo Turk, former President of Slovenia. It will make unprecedented recommendations on protecting water in conflict zones, designing new financial instruments and institutions of hydro-diplomacy for trans-boundary water cooperation, and preventing conflicts over water quality.

Sceptics might ask why there should be any attention at all to the security dimension of water management. There is a plenty of water on the earth and no reason for conflict. This may appear to be true when we are looking at the pictures of our planet transmitted by astronauts and seeing the blue oceans covering 70% of Earth. In reality, only 0.007% of all water on the earth can be used for human or biological consumption. Only a tenth of it is actually feasible to abstract and almost 70% of this is used for irrigation. In developing countries, water used for agriculture, particularly irrigation, accounts for 90% of its total use.

With increase in population, economic growth, urbanisation and energy needs, the demand for water is bound to rise in the next few decades. At the same time, the supply of clean and fresh water is bound to decrease due to global warming, increasing rate of evapotranspiration and pollution caused by industrial and agricultural activities. It is not possible to find solutions within the confines of a national border. If one country over uses or pollutes water, its riparian neighbours will be affected even if they are disciplined themselves. As demand for water grows and reaches the limit of finite supply potential conflicts are brewing between countries that share freshwater reserves.

Strategic Foresight Group has constructed the Water Cooperation Quotient, analysing trans-boundary water relations in all of the 286 shared river basins in 146 countries of the world. It shows that the countries engaged in politically driven and substantive water cooperation do not go to war for any reason at all. The Water Cooperation Quotient can therefore function as a barometer to assess risk of war and prospects of peace by looking at water relations. It reveals that currently there are 84 cooperative river basin arrangements governing 153 rivers. Out of this total, 49 institutions governing 90 trans-boundary rivers promote active water cooperation. There are only eight mechanisms facilitating full-fledged active water cooperation in 19 trans-boundary river basins. They are all in West Africa and Europe.

The Senegal River Basin Organisation (known as OMVS by its French initials) between Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal goes the farthest in promoting trans-boundary water cooperation. All dams, navigation lines, hydro-electric plants and other infrastructure are jointly owned by the four countries, superseding national sovereignty. The institution also prevents conflicts on matters not related to water through its lines of communication between government leaders. The Gambia River Basin Organisation, in its neighbourhood, has recently amended its constitution to follow the OMVS example of subjugating national decision making to the spirit of regional commons. The river basin organisations of Niger and Congo rivers do not go as far as jointly owning the infrastructure. But the member countries have veto over other riparian countries in decisions to build infrastructure. Each country is allowed to construct a dam or an irrigation line only if other riparian countries do not have objections. Thus, Africa is leading the way in using water as an instrument of peace, friendship and cooperation despite economic difficulties.

Europe also has a long track record of trans-boundary river cooperation. The institutions such as Rhine and Danube river commissions are supported by the EU Water Framework Directive, which demands the harmonisation of national laws. The United States has a long history of cooperation with Canada and Mexico. Unfortunately, in recent years it is shying away from some of the provisions of the treaties to resolve differences and promote common approaches.

An interesting example of trans-boundary cooperation in Europe is the Sava River in the Balkans. Following the end of violent wars and the signing of the Dayton Agreement, the agreement to cooperate on the Sava River was the first major development between the post-Yugoslav states. What began as a small technical exchange project has now bloomed into fullfledged active cooperation, managed by the Sava River Commission and supported by the EU institutions. The Water Cooperation Quotient reveals that several different models of trans-boundary cooperation exist, depending on political and economic realities. While OMVS is the most far-reaching, and could be the long term ideal for the countries seeking peace, many other models can help countries build cooperation in a phased manner, and climb gradually up on the Water Cooperation Quotient.

Water is not the oil of the twenty first century as some observers say. Oil has alternatives like natural gas, solar, wind, and other forms of energy. Water has no alternative. It is also erroneous to believe that we can desalinate our seas to solve the problem. A large desalination plant can process 150–200 million cubic matters of water every year, which is helpful for small countries with a few million people living on the coast. The needs of most countries are measured in billions of cubic meters per annum. Therefore, the Sustainable Development Goal on Water has a special sub-goal (6.5.2) on water cooperation. The Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace, the UN Security Council, and the Interaction Council, a body of former Heads of States and Governments, among others, are promoting the use of water as a force for peace at a time when new research shows a strong correlation between water cooperation and comprehensive peace.

The greatest need of the hour is to have tools to measure effectiveness of cooperation, models of trans-boundary dialogue and risk reduction, and institutions of collaborative and sustainable management of water. If we fail in this path, conflicts are inevitable. Therefore, SDG Goal 6 on Water and Goal 16 on peace, justice and institution-building are interdependent.

The real solution for securing our water is good governance at home and good cooperation with neighbours. If most of the 286 trans-boundary basins foster sustainable, institutionalized and collaborative water cooperation we will gradually see a new era of “Blue Peace” in the world.

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