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UN Security Council Examines the Connection Between Water Risk and Political Conflict

From record drought in Cape Town to deadly floods in Kerala, water has been top-of-mind for many this year. Water crises can shake societies, destroy livelihoods and threaten prosperity for decades. They can also be the spark that sets aflame a powder keg of social and political issues, resulting in violent conflict.

The UN Security Council recently turned its attention to the relationship between water risks and conflict within and between countries. At an October 26th Arria-formula meeting organized by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Security Council members and UN member countries convened on the topic of water, peace and security. The goal: Explore ways for the UN system to systematically address water scarcity as a root cause of conflict. The Water, Peace and Security Partnership (WPS), which is working to map and predict water threats to security, was highlighted as one initiative that can help tackle this growing global challenge.  

Water Risks Are Security Risks

Thirty-six countries already experience high water stress, meaning that water demanded by cities, farms and industries eats up almost the entire available supply every year. Rapid population growth and appetites for water-intense goods like meat and thermal power are further fueling the demand for scarce resources.

At the same time, climate change is exacerbating the problem further as wet areas get wetter and dry ones become drier. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) laid out what’s at stake if emissions continue on their current trajectory and global temperatures rise above 1.5°C (2.7°F): 200 million more people will be exposed to increased water scarcity and more severe floods and droughts. Nations least responsible for the problem, such as developing island countries, will bear the worst of the impacts.

WRI’s latest publication on water, security and conflict shows that these increasing pressures on water resources are already contributing to conflict and migration in many parts of the world. The tragedy in Syria has epitomized some of the ways in which water can be used as both a catalyst and weapon of war. Record drought across the Fertile Crescent began in 2007, causing crop failures that pushed rural farming families into Syria’s cities. This coincided with an influx of refugees from surrounding countries, high urban unemployment, poor government response, and other external factors to culminate in a civil war. During the war itself, Bashar al-Assad’s regime purposefully targeted Damascus’s water infrastructure, leaving 5.5 million people without water.

Early Warning Can Lead to Early Action

Many UN member countries affirmed at the recent meeting the need to tackle water risks in order to prevent crises, but questions remained on how best to do so.

Alongside growing political will, new technologies could help prevent water-driven conflicts. Advances in remote sensing, machine learning and data processing are starting to make it possible for us to predict water-related stress and conflicts more accurately and with longer lead times. Information and transparency are making the ways in which water risks snowball into conflict—such as through displacement or food insecurity—more and more visible.

One example of a promising emerging technology comes from the Water, Peace, and Security Partnership (WPS), which is developing an early warning system for water-related conflicts.  The tool will use water risk indicators like drought severity and access to clean water, together with social, political, economic and demographic data to predict which conflicts may arise in the next 12 months.

The system could help countries identify water and conflict hotspots early so they can take risk-mitigating measures, such as diverting water from farms to cities, or prioritizing storage in reservoirs. It could also help bodies like the UN and others in the development, diplomacy and defense communities to alert countries of coming crises and provide support.

Complexity Cannot Preclude Action

In 2001, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that “fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.” But 17 years later, efforts to act on water issues are still being undercut by their complexity and inherently local nature.

With the unprecedented foresight we now have, we can’t let ignorance or inertia drive inaction. Better data and early-warning systems can inform smarter water decisions, reduce the risk of conflict, and improve the lives of many. It will require action not only from the UN Security Council, but all branches of the UN system, member states, NGOs and academics. Water needs to be viewed as a human right that underpins almost all development efforts. The UN Security Council can provide a rallying cry for preventive action, and call upon the UN system for coordinated responses, including strengthening the institutions that manage water in vulnerable countries.

After all, peace is not just the absence of conflict. It is also the ability to handle potential conflict by peaceful means, such as effective risk-reduction strategies for water scarcity.

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