The changing of the guard on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York, with António Guterres taking over from Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary general, has taken place at a time when notions about peace and conflict are undergoing a subtle change. In particular, the role of resources—and especially water—is getting the recognition it deserves.
This has been a long time coming. Both Ban and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, have argued for some two decades that protecting and sharing natural resources, particularly water, is critical to peace and security. But it was not until last November that the issue gained widespread acknowledgement, with Senegal—that month’s UN security council president—holding the UN’s first-ever official debate on water, peace and security.
Open to all UN member states, the debate brought together representatives of 69 governments, which together called for water to be transformed from a potential source of crisis into an instrument of peace and cooperation. A few weeks later, Guterres appointed Amina Mohammed, a former Nigerian environment minister, as his deputy secretary general.
The growing recognition of water’s strategic relevance reflects global developments. In the last three years, the Islamic State (IS) captured the Tabqa, Tishrin, Mosul, and Fallujah dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. IS subsequently lost control of all of them, but not before using them to flood or starve downstream populations, to pressure them to surrender.
Many analysts hope that IS will finally be eliminated from Iraq and Syria in the next few months. But that does not mean that the group will disband; on the contrary, it may well relocate to the border areas between Libya and Chad, putting West African cities and water installations at risk.
This tactic is not exclusive to IS. Extremist groups in South Asia have also threatened to attack water infrastructure. And of course state actors, too, can use water resources to gain a strategic advantage.
The importance of water in the 21st century—comparable to that of oil in the 20th—can hardly be overstated. Yet some strategic experts continue to underestimate it. The reality is that oil has alternatives like natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear energy. By contrast, for industry and agriculture as much as for drinking and sanitation, the only alternative to water, as former Slovenian president Danilo Türk once put it, is water.
The same is true for trade. Consider the Rio Chagres. While it may not be widely known, it is vitally important, as it feeds the Panama Canal, through which 50% of the trade between Asia and the Americas flows. There is no risk of the natural depletion of the river flow for the next 100 years, but in the event of a security crisis in Central America, it could be taken over by rogue forces. The impact on the global economy would be enormous.
The consensus on the need to protect water resources and installations in conflict zones is clear. What is less clear is how to do it. Unlike medicines and food packets, water cannot be airdropped into conflict zones. And UN peacekeeping forces are badly overstretched.
The International Committee of the Red Cross does negotiate safe passage for technicians to inspect and repair damage to water pipes and storage systems in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine; but each passage needs to be negotiated with governments in conflict and rebel commanders—a long and cumbersome process. A better approach would be for great powers, with their considerable influence, to negotiate short-term ceasefires in areas experiencing protracted conflict, specifically to repair and restore water systems.
To pave the way for such an approach, however, the UN Security Council will have to declare water a “strategic resource of humanity” and adopt a resolution to protect water resources and installations, similar to Resolution 2286, adopted last May to protect medical facilities in armed conflicts.
In the longer term, countries that share riparian systems will need to establish regional security arrangements to preserve and protect their resources. With collaborative management underpinning collective protection, water, often a source of competition and conflict, could become a facilitator of peace and cooperation.
Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo, is at the forefront of this movement, leading a group of eight governments towards the establishment of the Blue Fund for the Congo Basin. If successful, the Fund will help to mitigate climate change, create new avenues of river-based employment, and promote collective security in an unstable region. The Africa Action Summit in Marrakech two months ago described the fund as one of the four key ideas that can transform the continent.
Last March, on World Water Day, Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal and I called for the establishment of a Marshall Fund for the world’s shared river basins. The Blue Fund for the Congo basin is a step in that direction. Now, we need similar funds to emerge to protect all of the world’s 263 shared river basins and lakes. It is a huge challenge; but, given the power of water to sow conflict and support peace, we must confront it head on.
Sundeep Waslekar is president of strategic foresight group.