Water as an Instrument of Peace

Danilo Turk


China Today

March 2019


For a number of years now the problems of water have been placed high on the lists of global risks. The basic picture is frighteningly familiar: Today, about two billion people lack access to safe drinking water and most of them live in fragile, often violent regions of the world. Experts agree that by mid-century close to four billion people – about 40 per cent of world’s populations will live in water stressed basins. This number is likely to grow when the projected effects of climate change lead to diminished crop yields, while triggering floods and other weather extremes causing further deterioration of water quality. This will surely add to pressures on food security as well as increase displacement of vulnerable groups of people. The ingredients for violent conflict are all there.

As seen in some of the contemporary armed conflicts, water resources and infrastructure often become objects of deliberate armed attack or a weapon of war. The experience of armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and, earlier, Somalia and Darfur all brought great suffering to civilian populations deprived of water in war. 

Water has to be protected in wars and water projects have to be part of the path to peace. A stable peace in Syria will have to include water management arrangements for the Euphrates as well as a vision of water cooperation for the Mesopotamian region as a whole. Is such a development conceivable? It should be. Peace agreements of the past, from the peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the post conflict peace building in the Balkans two decades ago, have time and again confirmed the importance of water cooperation for the sustainability of peace. 

It is in the time of peace when most can and must be done. Water is a shared resource. States sharing rivers, lakes and underground aquifers have every reason to cooperate. However, the international water cooperation has not progressed sufficiently. There are 286 shared water basins in the world, involving 146 states, but only 84 among these basins have joint water management bodies. The situation of underground aquifers is even more difficult. There are less than ten agreements on the transboundary cooperation relating to aquifers today. Clearly, much needs to be done in the future.

Looking at the existing peaceful transboundary water cooperation one can clearly see the advantages of many of the existing models – in every region of the world. In Africa, cooperation on the Senegal river, involving Guinea, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, has in the four decades of its existence proved beneficial to all four participating countries and has given rise to some of the most sophisticated forms of cooperation and financing of joint water projects. In Europe, the experience on the rivers Rhine, Danube and their tributaries has been developing for almost two centuries and represents an important element of peaceful cooperation. In the Americas there are many successful transboundary water arrangements – both in the North and Central America as well on the Southern Cone. In Asia, Indus treaty has been a welcome success in the otherwise strained relations between India and Pakistan. And the Lacang-Mekong cooperation has helped the countries of South East Asia while the more recent involvement of China offers new opportunities for expanding benefits for the people of the riparian countries in agriculture, energy generation, environmental protection and, most fundamentally, eradication of poverty.

Based on such experience it is possible to identify global tasks for the future transboundary water cooperation and support of the United Nations and other global, as well as regional organizations. Much more can and should be done for effective monitoring of the quantities and quality of transboundary water. Sharing of data represents a major part of transboundary water cooperation. Using this information for wise and cooperative policy making at the national level and internationally is another one.

Transboundary water cooperation is a matter of governance, and most of governance is concentrated at the national and local levels.  Therefore, careful balance has to be found between the globally identifiable needs and locally achievable levels of governance. Governance means coordination – within the riparian states and among them. Decisions in these matters are essentially made within states. However, good practices do exist in different parts of the world and they include transboundary water cooperation. They have to be studied and taken advantage of in national policy making and as an inspiration for new transboundary water arrangements. 

And then there is the fundamental question of finance. It is important to start at the beginning. Therefore, special attention has to be paid to financing of the preparation of the transboundary water projects and joint investment plans for building of transboundary water infrastructure. Good preparation means half of success. This applies to timely removal of risks and clarification of issues that need to be resolved in order for the financial institutions to take the key financial decisions.  This is the way to expand the “safe space” for the preparation of projects in the water sector and, importantly, for making such projects bankable.  

Equally important is the need to develop preferential and concessional finance to subsidize interest, insurance and related ancillary costs of transboundary water infrastructure projects - for the countries that are willing to work together to develop such projects. A possible idea would be creation of  a “Blue Fund” that should aim to cover about 3 per cent of the annual cost of the project, including  interest subsidies, insurance, and project proposal preparatory expenses.

Finance, obviously, means money. But equally important is the aspect of water diplomacy. A major task of water diplomacy is to create safe spaces for sound financial decisions. At the same time water diplomacy should catalyze the understanding of political importance of water cooperation. Political leaders would benefit from advice that makes their decisions to engage in transboundary water cooperation easier. This is an important element of water diplomacy and peace.

Peace in our era requires much more than mere absence of war among states. Peace today requires timely understanding of the coming problems that could create a variety of future threats. It requires a set of sophisticated tools for global security cooperation in the widest meaning of this word. Transboundary water cooperation is one of them. There is no time to waste. The international community has to pull their strengths together and act.

But action requires leadership. China is in a good position to exercise leadership. Not only has China become the second largest economy of the world, it is already among the most important players in the field of transboundary water cooperation. China is a source of several rivers supplying South and South-East Asia with water. Important experience already exists in transboundary water cooperation. The earlier mentioned Lacang-Mekong cooperation is the most visible among them. And there is Central Asia, a region of great developmental needs and potential where transboundary water cooperation has to be developed much further from current levels. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its financial and technical potential represent a great opportunity for the future. The world will be eager to see the contribution of China in the years to come.

Danilo Türk was President of the Republic of Slovenia (2007-2012) and, later Chairman of the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace (2015-2017). He is member of the InterAction Council and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.