The UN Security Council’s first debate on Water, Peace and Security

The United Nations Security Council held an open debate on Water, Peace and Security on Tuesday this week (November 22). The debate, open to non-members of the Security Council was called by Senegal, this month’s Council President. It was the first such debate the Security Council has held on this topic, and according to the concept note given by Senegal disputes over water could lead to confrontations in future in the same way that disputes over oil and land have led to conflicts in the past. The debate was intended to provide an opportunity to showcase successful experiences and mechanisms for cooperation and mediation with a view to strengthening one of the UN’s admitted weaknesses, conflict prevention.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Danilo Turk, Chair of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, Ms. Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the ICRC and Sundeep Waslekar, President of the Strategic Foresight Group provided briefings on the subject. The UN Secretary-General underlined the value of water resources as a reason for cooperation, not conflict. He pointed out that the need for coordination in water management was compelling. There were more than 260 international rivers and at least that many trans-boundary aquifers, he said, adding that access to water could exacerbate communal tensions. Equally, shared water resources could also bring adversaries together and offer crucial confidence-building measures in both inter-state and intra-state conflicts. He pointed out that in the second half of the 20th century, more than 200 water treaties had been successfully negotiated. International river agreements could provide enhanced security and stability in river basins. As examples, he quoted the 1960 Indus Waters Agreement between India and Pakistan, and the long history of benefit-sharing between Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, the Senegal River Basin riparian states. He also mentioned last year’s signing of a Declaration of Principles by the Governments of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The Secretary-General said that with at least one in four people likely to live in a country affected by shortages of fresh water by 2050, the UN was actively promoting the potential for cooperation. He noted the work of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia on “hydro-diplomacy”; and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) Water Convention. These, he said, offered the opportunity to create a global framework for dealing with trans-boundary water issues. The Department of Political Affairs and the UN Environment Program, he said, had published a useful guide containing examples of best practices. He concluded by noting that although there might be serious challenges, there was also the potential for cooperation around shared water resources, adding, “let us commit to invest in water security as a means to ensure long-term international peace and security.”

Ethiopia’s Minister Counselor at the UN Mission in New York, Lulseged Tadesse, told the debate that although the discussion had been in terms of the threats posed by water scarcity, and the premise that “water has always been considered as a driver of conflict” this was certainly not inevitable. History underlined that water could indeed be a source of cooperation rather than of conflict. Trans-boundary water resources, he said, provide an opportunity for cooperation in ensuring effective water management at national and regional levels. He said it was a matter of record that “no states have gone to war specifically over water resources”. Ethiopia, he said, strongly believed that cooperation on water was indeed possible and was the only rational way forward for ensuring sustained development benefits for all states based on the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of trans-boundary water resources.

It is in this context, he pointed out, that Ethiopia had been participating in the Nile River Basin Initiative and the Cooperative Framework Agreement negotiated over a decade. This had now been signed by six riparian States and ratified by three. Once the remaining three riparian states ratified it, he said, a permanent River Basin Commission would be established. This was exactly the kind of regional mechanism that was critical to reduce the risk for potential conflict but would also ensure that trans-boundary water resources were equitably shared among the riparian States on the basis of win-win cooperation.

Mr. Lulseged noted that the 2030 Agenda recognized the critical role of water for inclusive and sustainable development as laid out in the `Sustainable Development Goal 6. The Agenda emphasized the importance of water resource management at all levels, including trans-boundary cooperation. The 2016 World Water Development Report demonstrated that sustainable water management, water infrastructure and access to a safe, reliable and affordable supply of water were among the fundamentals to eradicate poverty and ensure sustainable peace and development for all countries.

Adopting universal goals was a step in the right direction, he said, but their implementation required sustained political commitment, determination, long-term vision and efforts from all governments and stakeholders. He added that the promotion of cooperation demanded frank and constructive discussions among states and effective regional cooperation frameworks. He noted that discourse on water security was often dominated by inflammatory rhetoric, tending to politicize issues unnecessarily: more important was to foster constructive dialogue and cooperation in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation.

U.S. Representative to the UN for UN Management and Reform, Ambassador Isobel Coleman, welcomed the focus on the important linkages between water, international peace, and security.  She emphasized two points: the example of the Lake Chad Basin as an area struggling with water insecurity; and second, the role that the international community can play in helping prevent water disputes from becoming armed conflicts. She described the Lake Chad Basin, bordering Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon, as an example of what happens when water scarcities contribute to conflict. Poor management practices and expanding desertification had meant Lake Chad had lost nearly approximately 90% of its water. This, the basis of survival for millions of people, had led to territorial disputes and helped encourage the rise of Boko Haram. There was, however, a` glimmer of hope in the Lake Chad Basin Commission established by regional governments and civil society to try to peacefully resolve disputes. The commission had also formed a Multinational Joint Task Force to fight Boko Haram. Equally, the international community should urgently bolster its support to the Task Force. Support to local governments to help build capacity for rehabilitation and reconstruction, she said, would go a long way in helping to ensure lasting peace and stability. Ambassador Coleman also mentioned the way ISIL in Iraq had manipulated strategic dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as part of its strategy.

Ambassador Coleman said the United States, with 50 states sharing 21 large rivers and more than 20,000 watersheds, had learnt to cooperate. It had a close relationship with Mexico allowing Mexico to store water in the United States for drought protection and U.S. entities to invest in water conservation projects in Mexico and then share in the water saved. She suggested some best practices including international community support for regional resolution of water disputes by building the capacity of states and stakeholders. This should include technical skills as well as the means to address challenges and opportunities. In addition, the establishment of regional organizations, bilateral agreements, and information-sharing platforms can all play a role in institutionalizing and maintaining cooperation, “locking-in” progress. The United States, she said, has been working with several other donors to develop the Shared Waters Partnership that supports cooperative efforts on trans-boundary waters in regions where water is, or may become, a source of conflict. She also underlined the importance of sound data and impartial analysis to develop a common view of the challenges and opportunities, quoting the example of a project in the Okavango River Basin, involving Angola, Namibia, and Botswana, which provided early warning of resource conflict, allowing the parties to proactively resolve issues before they could become serious.


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