‘Recognising water as a powerful tool for peace is crucial for our future’

Yemenis collect clean water from a donated water pipe on the roadside in Sana'a, Yemen, 04 July 2021.(Keystone/EPA/Yahya Arhab)

The full potential of water as an instrument for peace and cooperation remains untapped, writes Christian Brethaut, scientific director of the Geneva Water Hub and co-director of the UNESCO Chair in Hydropolitics at the University of Geneva, in this introduction to our water series.

Water is a vital and irreplaceable resource, and ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access lies at the heart of the organisation of our societies. It enables life itself, it fulfills our basic human needs and allows for the development of most of our socio-economic activities. Water shapes landscapes and defines boundaries. It also supersedes them.

By doing so, it establishes relationships between different communities, between various economic sectors, and between countries sharing a river, lake or groundwater resources.

Over the last century, as a result of demographic change and the shift towards more water-intensive consumption patterns, world water use has quadrupled, increasing pollution, competition and tensions around competing uses of the resource.

Moreover, as recalled by the recently released 2021 IPCC report, global warming will lead to more frequent and severe droughts and floods events.

Water security is defined by UN-Water as the “capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water” for our livelihoods, for economic and political stability, and for the health of our planet.

Sadly, this may no longer be a given for a growing portion of mankind. In fact, competition and uncertainty over access to water is expected to increasingly be a source of tension or, in the worst cases, conflict.

However, water can also be a powerful vehicle for peace and cooperation. River basins located both within and across national borders provide a socio-ecological space within which stakeholders may participate in dialogues, agree on its management and define institutional arrangements allowing to maximise the benefits derived from water resources.

We have seen this in various regions of the world. One can cite for instance the management of the Senegal river and the sharing of benefits between its four host countries, or closer to home, the management of the Rhine river and its consensus-based decision-making process.

It is with this vision of water as an instrument for peace and cooperation that the Geneva Water Hub was created in 2015 with the support of the Swiss government and the University of Geneva.

In this same year, the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace was launched by 15 co-convening countries with the aim to study the link between water, peace and security, with the Geneva Water Hub serving as its secretariat.

The work of the panel triggered several key milestones. Thanks to the initiative of Senegal, vice-chair of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, the UN Security Council held its first-ever discussion on water, peace and security in November 2016.

This session opened up a new path for the UN approach on water, as water security was as yet not an accepted theme at the UNSC heading the policies of the peace and security agenda. In September 2017, the panel published its report entitled A Matter of Survival, which outlined strategic recommendations to prevent water conflicts and to develop new forms of hydro diplomacy. This report, presented to the UN General Assembly in 2017, calls for a new institutional framework to meet water challenges of this century.

These events marked two major turning points.  Since then, water has played an ever-more prominent and strategic role in connecting the three UN agendas: sustainable development, peace and security, and humanitarian action. As the UN seeks to foster more synergies between its three agendas, water cooperation should be addressed as a highly relevant leverage point with which to pursue this goal.

Addressing challenges related to water, peace and security requires working at multiple levels and across a wide range of stakeholders. The media has a crucial role to play in putting this topic on the agenda, in contributing to enlightening the issues at multiple scales, and in bridging different communities of practice.

For these different reasons, the Geneva Water Hub warmly welcomes this opportunity to collaborate with Geneva Solutions for the production of this series of articles on Water Security. Through this partnership, we are glad to connect further with actors of the International Geneva, which play a key role in shaping policies at the global level.

As the reader of this series will learn, no relevant discussion on our shared future can neglect the issue of water. Water challenges force us to move away from thinking in “silos”, to question the impact of institutional fragmentation, and to embrace and innovate towards holistic views. This requires building new visions of our societies where water management and governance become a central pillar.

Through the articles published by Geneva Solutions, we invite the reader to take a deep dive into the complexity and diversity that characterise challenges of water sharing and allocation. Addressing the security dimension of water entails multiple types of perspectives and entry points.

Through the different contributions you will learn about critical contemporary and future challenges of the sector such as sharing water between economic sectors while securing human rights for all; sharing decision-making power between men and women; sharing water between various political entities to ensure long-term stability and cohesion; preserving human dignity and protecting critical water infrastructures in armed conflict contexts; using water as a driver for peace through community-inclusive political dialogue; framing the role that finance could take to serve water governance in the interest of all; and addressing the ecological burden that our water-intensive consumption and pollution patterns place on the next generations of inhabitants of the Blue Planet.

The full potential of water as an instrument for peace and cooperation remains untapped. The 9th World Water Forum, organised in Dakar in March 2022, is a key global event to take critical steps in that direction.  We are looking forward to engaging the dialogue with you all to harness the potential and opportunities of water as an instrument for peace and cooperation.

This article was realised with the support of the city of Geneva as part of its media support program.