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Juba, South Sudan, February 2017 © Adriana Mahdalova / Shuterstock

Refining the UN’s Approach to the Water-Security Nexus

In many ongoing armed conflicts, water has been used as a weapon of war, but it can also be a strong instrument of peace.

Today, the world is increasingly aware of the dramatic meaning of water. Water stress and water-related disasters are among the main consequences of global warming and have severe humanitarian consequences. They often cause population movements and tensions resulting in violent conflict and threats to international peace and security. The sad history of the armed conflict in Darfur offers a recent example.

Water can be a powerful driver of violent conflict, albeit generally not as a single or the main cause of war. In addition, in many ongoing armed conflicts water has been used as a weapon of war. Water infrastructures have often become targets of armed attack. All this has had an extremely negative effect on civilian populations and produced grave violations of international humanitarian law.

In 2015, an ICRC study underlined that 50 million people are affected by armed conflicts in urban areas and suffer from limitations in water supplies. Armed conflicts around the Fallujah and Mosul Dams in Iraq, and the Tishrin and Tabqa Dams in Syria, are the most recent examples. Hence there is a pressing need for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to address the problem and try to develop an effective response. The so-called Arria Formula meeting of UNSC, convened on 26 October, is but the latest example of a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, water is a shared resource and can be a strong instrument of peace. For example, transboundary water cooperation is a historically tested tool of confidence-building and peace. Water cooperation can be a significant instrument of prevention of violent conflicts. The water cooperation system on the River Senegal that binds together Guinea, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania offers an example of sophisticated water cooperation that has helped to overcome occasional tensions among the riparian countries. The relations between two of the riparian states of this river, Senegal and Mauritania, have, from time to time, been heated by issues relating to the boundary delimitation of this river. However, the common management of the river between riparian states has prevailed over the years, including in times of tension. This aspect has to be strengthened.

Policy Direction

Recent armed conflicts and other situations on the agenda of the UN Security Council have been characterized by water-related issues, and the council addressed them in its resolutions and presidential statements. They reveal two types of reactions which, taken together, indicate a policy direction of the UNSC. First, are the expressions of concern and, at the same time, calling for respect and protection of the essential civilian infrastructure, including water infrastructure in the ongoing armed conflicts. These resolutions relate mainly to situations in the wider Middle East.

Then there are expressions of concerns over water scarcity, the resulting food insecurity and related causes of instability, and, at the same time, calling for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies. These resolutions relate mainly to situations in Africa, for example in the Sahel region, Somalia and Sudan.

As most of the activity of the Security Council is focused on the ongoing armed conflicts, special attention is given to the fundamental humanitarian concerns in wartime: access of civilians to the essentials of survival, which includes water; access of humanitarian organizations to civilians in need; and, most fundamentally, respect for international humanitarian law. Action by the Security Council in this regard is essential. However, so far action has been sporadic and insufficiently supported by UN member states.

Recently, preventive aspects have been crystallizing. This progress is welcome, but will require much more work — and not by the Security Council alone. It is useful to recall the recommendations addressed to the Security Council by the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace. In its report, A Matter of Survival, the panel suggested, inter alia, the need for the council to call, where appropriate, for water supply ceasefires and the deployment of water specialists in peacekeeping and in post-conflict operations. Water ceasefires could take a variety of forms, including as de-confliction agreements, specifically relating to these infrastructures. The UNSC should support this approach, which helps humanitarian organizations, including UNICEF, in their vitally important activities.

A parallel line of action is represented by establishment of the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructures During and After Armed Conflicts, geared toward the implementation of international humanitarian law. This list — developed by the Geneva Water Hub’s Platform for International Water Law at the University of Geneva, with experts from partners’ organizations, including universities, international and non-governmental organizations — is aimed at systematizing in a comprehensive manner the law applicable to the protection of water infrastructures during armed conflicts and to setting forth practices relating to their protection in post-conflict situations.

The work of the Security Council should continue in ways that will strengthen the awareness of importance of water issues for the maintenance of peace and security. It should remind other elements of the UN system to strengthen activities for protection of water and to the use of water cooperation as an instrument of confidence-building and peace.

Naturally, the Security Council should not be overloaded with activities that have to be followed by other UN bodies, in particular the General Assembly. But the council can and should inspire others — within the UN system and beyond — to address water crises in an effective, preventive manner.

The Nature of Prevention

An old wisdom suggests that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. It is tempting to believe that prevention of armed conflicts and the consequent adverse effects on water are a clear and simple task. It is true that the methodology of measuring and forecasting water stress and the consequent social and political effects has improved greatly. However, this does not mean that better knowledge and understanding can automatically ensure preventive action. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Prevention requires strengthening of all forms of water diplomacy — both in response to specific water crises and in developing water cooperation more generally. These efforts should include involvement of a variety of actors, including regional organizations and arrangements. Water diplomacy will have to address, inter alia, the issue of the “fragmented landscape” of water-related international institutions.

The UN should refine and develop its approach to the nexus between water and security. This should be done in two ways. Firstly, strengthening the analytical capacity and the role of the secretary general for early warning and early initiative, in order to prevent tensions from degenerating into armed conflicts, is imperative. Article 99 of the UN Charter gives the secretary general the authority and the responsibility to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security. This is an important responsibility the secretary general exercises, most of the time informally, in his political activity and in his daily communication with the Security Council.

The analytical capacity is the key. Analysis is provided by the Secretariat’s Department of Political Affairs and a variety of UN field operations, programs, funds and agencies, as well as with the assistance of research institutes and analysts worldwide. This work has to be strengthened. But in order to succeed, it will require that sound political judgment and courageous initiatives come from the secretary general and a Security Council that is prepared to listen.

Secondly, supporting transboundary water cooperation in a variety of its forms is key. This includes specific river and lake basin treaties, as well as the two universal UN water treaties, namely the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses and the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. The latter are designed to help carrying out two basic principles — that of fair and equitable sharing of transboundary water resources and that of not doing significant harm. Positive examples, such as the cooperation of the riparian states of the River Senegal, do exist and should inspire states worldwide.

What is needed for the future is not a new or additional institution. The answer is in greater coherence of action and, above all, enhanced collaboration. The report of the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace, which the author has the honor to chair, proposed such an approach. This global platform should develop a Global Observatory for Water and Peace, hosted at the Geneva Water Hub, to collaborate with existing organizations and initiatives for water cooperation that would be focusing specifically on the nexus between water, peace and security.

The priority tasks of such a platform, which is already taking place in practice, seem to be relatively clear. They include provision of scientific and legal analysis as well as policy advice. This platform will also help to have consultations needed to reduce economic and financial risks for transboundary water cooperation projects and to pave the way toward financing of such projects. Wherever this approach succeeds, it means a significant contribution to stability and peace for millions of people around the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.