The Case for Water Diplomacy

Some international relations analysts predict that water is set to become the “next oil.” Ismail Serageldin, a distinguished scholar in the field of sustainability and development, predicts that future wars “will be over water unless we change the way we manage water.”

Others dissent from this somewhat apocalyptic view. Notwithstanding there is near-consensus on the fact that water is a critical resource which will shape future geopolitics.

“Where there is water, there is life”- this old adage is not a cliché but a statement of fact. On an individual level freshwater satisfies basic biological needs. Most towns and cities were established on the banks of rivers and lakes because of the necessity of a steady freshwater supply for personal consumption and agriculture.

A shortage of freshwater has wide-ranging consequences. The current predictions make grim reading. By 2025 more than 50% of the world’s nations will face freshwater stress or shortages. This figure is likely to increase to 75% by 2050.

Developing countries are most likely to be the most hard-hit. These nations often bear the negative consequences of climate change and extreme weather. The scramble for sources of freshwater may lead to conflict. This exacerbates the potential for geopolitical tension and cross-border violence.

International Alert, a London-based NGO, identified 46 countries where climate change and water crises can lead to violent conflict. A further 56 countries are at risk of political instability.

The United Nations recognises that “the growing global water crisis threatens the security, stability and environmental sustainability of developing nations.” The UN World Water Development Report aims “to report on the status of global freshwater resources and the progress achieved in reaching the Millennium Development Goals related to water.”

The findings of such reports need to translate into practical policy solutions. The potential solutions must take an interdisciplinary approach which actively engages professionals from the fields of science, economics, policy and diplomacy.

Water diplomacy is a new concept which has the potential to become an important tool in conflict-resolution.

Conflicts over freshwater cannot be solved by traditional methods of diplomacy. New issues in diplomacy go beyond traditional political disagreements between nation-states. They are complex issues which spread over multiple national borders and affect both human survival and national security.

The supply of freshwater is threatened by pollution, a lack of ecological conservation programmes and mismanagement of resources. Programmes to safeguard the water supply and the limit mismanagement should be at the heart of water diplomacy.

Water diplomacy is vital in bringing together governments, NGOs and other stakeholders to formulate lasting solutions. Science and technology can empower local communities to manage the allocation of resources and develop practical solutions tailored to their needs.

Developed countries are not immune from such problems. The laissez-faire attitude which most people adopt with regards to environmental issues hinders sustainable development. In the long run, a concerted effort to change our attitude toward scarce resources is required in order to produce concrete results closer to home.

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