Keynote address by Sigrid Kaag at the launch of the Water, Peace and Security Partnership

Keynote address by Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, at the launch of the Water, Peace and Security Partnership in Geneva, 5 December 2019.

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you Petteri (Talaas) for your kind words. I’m delighted to see such a diverse group of people gathered here today to discuss this crucial topic. This shows the unifying power of water. Of all the natural resources the Earth offers, water is the most indispensable. And while globally water is not in short supply, local shortages of fresh, clean water are a major, and growing, problem.

Recently, the Economist published an article on the phenomenon of water wars. In previous decades, many feared that regional powers like India, Pakistan, China and Egypt would take military measures against their rivals in a bid for water supremacy. Fortunately, many of the anticipated conflicts over water haven’t occurred. Nonetheless, data from the Water Conflict Chronology database shows that the total number of water conflicts has increased significantly.

Looking at the numbers makes the sheer scale of the global water challenge clear. According to the 2018 SDG 6 Synthesis Report:

844 million people lack access to basic water services.

One-third of the world population (2.1 billion people) do not have access to water at home.

Over two billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress.

And according to recent estimates by the Global Commission on Adaptation, by 2050 more than five billion people will lack access to sufficient water at least one month a year.

Most of these people live in regions where the population and cities are growing, or in regions where most people work in agriculture – the biggest water user. In Afghanistan, for example, this sector is responsible for 95 per cent of total water use. Climate change is compounding the challenges these regions already face. Prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall, flooding and extreme weather events are all making water governance far more difficult.

Managing challenges like urbanisation, intensive farming and climate change is hard enough in stable situations, let alone in fragile regions – where systems and societies are far less resilient to drastic change. There, it’s hard for people to change the way they live and the jobs they do. There, political and social systems are rigid, and environmental crises like water shortages can cause severe shocks.

The situation in Syria is a case in point. Water scarcity and excessive use of groundwater for irrigation played a central role in destabilising the country. While this was of course far from the only cause of the civil war, unsustainable water use and the policies that promoted it brought the country to the brink. A drought pushed them over the edge, leading many Syrians to migrate from rural areas to the cities in search of work. This exodus further destabilised the already tense situation. Growing food shortages and the ensuing price hikes sparked the fire that engulfed Syria in flames.

This is a truly global crisis. In the words of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, it’s ‘a problem without a passport’. But it’s affecting states in different ways, and some are coping better than others. Lebanon and Jordan face the same levels of water stress as Syria, but have remained relatively stable.

Ladies and gentlemen,

What can we learn from this?

First of all, that water stress does not have to lead to destabilisation. Water scarcity is never the only cause of instability or conflict. But it is one of the strongest threat multipliers in fragile situations. It reduces resilience, and can push desperate people over the edge.

Secondly, escalation is preventable and manageable. This allows us to offer hope. Water scarcity doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a crisis that develops slowly. This means there’s time to respond before it’s too late. If we can predict where problems might occur, and can organise action, we can stop threats from becoming crises. This is difficult, because droughts – due to their drawn-out nature – don’t trigger the same political response as floods. But it’s possible.

Thirdly, in order to manage these challenges effectively, we need to invest in innovative, data-driven solutions. These will allow us to predict, prepare for and prevent crises. We can predict them by investing in new tools for early warning that analyse root causes of conflict like water stress and climate change. By training local actors to understand the nexus between water and security, we can effectively prepare, prevent and adapt.

For all of this to be effective, we need to mobilise resources for early action.

But prevention isn’t easy. It requires foresight and patience, especially when threats seem too remote to be credible. Prevention takes courage. It requires new partnerships  between humanitarian and development organisations, and between diplomacy and defence.

In the Netherlands, we practise what we preach. We try to prevent tensions from boiling over into conflicts. We try to understand root causes, and act on that understanding. This helps us defuse tensions and interrupt chain reactions before it’s too late. We work from the understanding that it’s far more effective to prevent destruction, displacement and hunger than it is to tackle them. It costs less money and, far more importantly, it avoids needless human suffering.

That’s why the Netherlands supports initiatives that pioneer innovative approaches to conflict prevention. In 2015 we launched the Planetary Security Initiative: a platform that’s brought together diplomats, development and humanitarian organisations, and security experts. It’s a unique community, with each member playing its part in predicting, preparing for and preventing climate crises.

This existing forum has inspired a new, Dutch-funded initiative, which we are proudly presenting here today: the Water, Peace and Security partnership.

This unique partnership combines knowledge and expertise on water with expertise on peacebuilding. It develops innovative, data-driven tools and approaches that are badly needed to predict and prevent water-related instability. Key to achieving this is the integrated approach. It combines new tools for early warning with capacity-building and dialogue with local actors. Because solutions can only be sustainable and worthwhile if they are created by, or with, the people who are directly affected.

Today we are taking a big step forward in this process. The Water, Peace and Security Early Warning Tool that we’re launching here will help predict and prevent water crises. It shows what’s possible with new technology. The tool combines water data with socioeconomic and political variables, and through a process of machine learning it predicts where instability might increase. Like a blinking red light on our dashboard, warning us when we need to take action.

It’s my pleasure to launch this tool here at the WMO in Geneva. This city is the beating heart of the international humanitarian and development community. And let’s not forget, it’s the place where – in 2010 – the Human Rights Council first recognised drinking water as a human right.

The Economist article I cited earlier concludes on a cynical note. Water wars have continued to happen, it says, and repeated forecasts have done nothing to reduce their number. I dare to be more optimistic. Tools alone don’t prevent conflicts, but our decisions do. Now that our tools are improving, we, the international community, still face the same choice: are we ready and willing to take the necessary preventive action? By launching this tool, the Netherlands is taking a first step, putting our money where our mouth is. But more needs to be done.

I hope that together, we can meet this challenge.

Thank you.