Water, Peace, and Security

High-Level Expert Group Meeting

28 November 2017

Ottawa, Canada

Co-chaired by Jean Chrétien and Thomas S. Axworthy

Water, Climate, and Conflict

In 2011, the InterAction Council warned the world that there is a “hydraulic bomb,” ready to go off at any time and called on the United Nations Security Council to address the nexus between conflict and water shortage. The InterAction Council is delighted that the UN Security Council took up the issue of water and conflict in 2016, and at a second targeted session in June 2017, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated the need for proactive diplomacy in shared water basins. Informed by the report of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace chaired by Dr. Danilo Türk, former President of Slovenia and a member of the InterAction Council, and with the support of the Strategic Foresight Group. the InterAction Council again brought together experts to discuss “Water, Peace, and Security” in November 2017.  

Without water or food, people do one of three things: move, revolt, or starve. It is for this reason that water has risen to the top of the agenda at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and is included among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The relationship between climate change and the global water crisis is a strong one. Climate change is a risk-multiplier in fragile states, and ill-conceived, poorly planned or inadequately delivered climate programs and policies can further exacerbate conflicts. For example, flooding is often a failure of large-scale watershed management. Therefore, a more proactive “conflict sensitive approach” to adaptation to climate change makes sense.

What has been called the Arab Spring had roots in the populace’s desire for access to water and food, which were and will continue to be strained by climate change. However, in attempting to respond to the Arab Spring, too much emphasis was placed on the political movement and insufficient attention was paid to the stressors related to water and food insecurity that sparked the movement. Linked to this situation is the necessity for effective action to respond to the global migration crisis, which is being fuelled in large part by food insecurity, extreme drought, and flooding.

Unfortunately, in places such as Syria, the world has witnessed the consequences of how poor water management can exacerbate social and political conflicts. In another example, a staggering 95 per cent of the water in the Jordan River—shared by Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and Syria—is being diverted for irrigation, underlining and exaggerating the geopolitical stresses in the region. Yemen is poised to be the first capital in the world without a source of drinking water. When the current conflict in Yemen ends, reconstructing the destroyed water infrastructure will be crucial to lasting peace.

In Ukraine, water resources and related facilities are the constant subject of warfare between the conflicting parties. It was suggested that a dialogue on protection of water resources in Eastern Ukraine may form common ground upon which to build further steps towards peace.

How China, which is facing an overall water deficit of 25 per cent, will address that challenge will have considerable influence on international diplomacy. The United States has released a Global Water Strategy, supported by President Donald J. Trump who observed in the preface to the strategy that, “Water may be the most important issue we face for the next generation.”  This strategy builds on its 2012 assessment of global water security and provides a concrete roadmap through which 17 US government departments and agencies will work to improve global water security in regions and countries around the world supportive of US interests.

The United Nations Security Council, with the participation of sixty-nine countries from the General Assembly, has recognized the linkage between water and conflict. There will soon be an opportunity to focus global attention on water as the United Nations marks the start of its new water decade on World Water Day (22 March 2018), with simultaneous major events happening in New York City and at the World Water Forum in Brasilia, Brazil.

While still in development, the Water Cooperation Quotient (WCQ), developed by the Strategic Foresight Group, provides a new tool for determining where conflict may arise. The WCQ is based on evidence that supports that a high degree of cooperation between neighbouring countries on managing water resources leads to a significantly reduced likelihood of conflict. UNESCO has similarly established a set of wise practices and guidance tools concerning groundwater management, having completed a global inventory of aquifers shared across international borders.

Positive examples of how water and other conflicts have been managed together to decrease tensions can be observed in diverse jurisdictions. For example, in Central America, security and water issues were dealt with in parallel, moving the region further away from conflict. Similarly, in West Africa there is significant and active water cooperation within the Senegal, Gambia, and Niger River Basins. Notably, in the Senegal River Basin, participating states have subordinated their sovereignty to the Senegal River Basin Organization, which collectively controls the building of dams and irrigation systems. After the assets are built, they are jointly owned and managed based on an agreed upon cost-benefit formula.

Canada and the United States have a hundred year-long history of peacefully managing their considerable shared water resources. Interestingly, the North American Free Trade Agreement excludes bulk water exports; an indication of the significance of water resources to Canada, which sits upstream from its American neighbour. The United States and Canada have jointly worked on a regular basis to help restore the Great Lakes from considerable ecological damage. These experiences may provide useful insights for the African Great Lakes, where economic development and food security need to be supported by even greater water cooperation.

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Safe Water and Sanitation

Water is a connector that links the critical areas of health, food security, climate change and conflict prevention. As the Report of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace recognizes, ”Water is Life. It is a fundamental condition of human survival and dignity, and is the basis for the resilience of societies and of the natural environment. Unlike other natural resources, water has no substitute. The only substitute for water is water.” The right to water and sanitation is a foundational building block upon which all of the other SDGs are dependent. In particular, the positive impact of improving access to water and sanitation for women and girls is evident. Utilizing a more comprehensive approach, these SDGs are equally applicable to developing and developed countries. For example, Canada continues to struggle to provide safe drinking water for its Indigenous communities, though through this struggle innovative governance systems, such as co-management, have successfully emerged.

The Blue Economy

The global economic impact of water is considerable. The global water industry is anticipated to grow to over US$2 trillion by 2030 from US$500 billion today. The economic risks of poor water management are also substantial. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season cost an estimated US$500 billion in damages. Similarly, many water-intensive industries—agriculture, hydropower, mining, food—are dependent on reliable and sustainable water resources for maintaining a successful bottom line.

It is estimated that as many as 780,000 water and sanitation professionals will be needed to provide essential services to manage complex water systems, if we are to achieve the goal of providing water and sanitation to all. Similarly, there is a substantial business opportunity in upgrading or decommissioning and removing the nearly 80,000 large dams throughout the United States, and the thousands more around the world that are at or nearing the end of their design life. The World Commission on Dams needs to be updated and there should be prudent financing of water infrastructure to meet these challenges.


Therefore, it was recommended that:

  1. The InterAction Council urge the UN Security Council to continue its work on water and conflict with states taking preventative measures to develop cooperative multilateral mechanisms for water management.
  2. Developed nations make water policy a central part of their international assistance envelope and utilize the upcoming UN Decade of Action on the global water crisis “Water for Sustainable Development (2018-2028)” as a vehicle for advancing water management domestically and internationally.
  3. The InterAction Council support the recommendation of the Global-High Level Panel on Water and Peace for the establishment of a Global Observatory for Water and Peace to assist the world community on facilitating water cooperation to pre-empt conflict.
  4. A new global pact be created that codifies soft law approaches for the environment, including water and water-related climate threats.