World Water Day 2024: Precious blue liquid is a thin red line between war and peace, says UN report

Sustainable and equitable water management can be a source of peace and prosperity; poverty and conflict can amplify water insecurity, says UN report

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Friday 22 March 2024
Representative photo. Courtesy: iStock

Water is life. It can mean peace. Or it can mean war, according to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2024 released on World Water Day (March 22, 2024).

Sustainable and equitable management of the precious blue liquid can be a source of peace and prosperity. On the other hand, stress on water resources — being exacerbated by the climate crisis — will be a large source of conflict, warned the report. Part of its title read Water for prosperity and peace.

“Water can nurture prosperity by meeting basic human needs, supporting health and livelihoods and economic development, underpinning food and energy security, and defending environmental integrity,” the report noted.

Developing and maintaining a secure and equitable water future is thus essential to ensuring prosperity and peace for all.

However, the relationship also works in the opposite direction, as poverty (including inequality) and various types or levels of conflict can amplify water insecurity, according to the UN report.

Michela Miletto, coordinator of UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme, said:

The linkages between the Sustainable Development Goal for water (SDG 6) and several other SDGs (poverty, hunger, health, education, energy, climate, etc.) have been well established. However, the relationships between water and peace (SDG 16) and decent work/economic growth (SDG 8) have remained somewhat more nebulous. This year’s edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report (UN WWDR) offers an in-depth analysis of these complex and often indirect interdependencies. 

Tensions over water

The report presents extremely worrying figures regarding water in the world today. It highlights how tensions over water access are leading to scarcity and stress over the essential resource — exacerbating conflicts across the world.

Humanity’s water footprint is growing as freshwater usage is rising by just under one per cent per year. Eighty per cent of jobs in lowest-income countries depend on water, as compared to 50 per cent of jobs dependent on water in high-income countries.

However, 2.2 billion people do not have access to safely managed drinking water, according to the document. A whopping 3.5 billion people globally do not have access to properly managed sanitation facilities.

The analysis noted that water deficits could be linked to 10 per cent of the increase in migration worldwide.

Displacement can increase the burden on local water systems and resources, resulting in tensions between migrant and host communities.

“In an unstable world where security threats are growing, we must all recognize that ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all — the aim of SDG 6 — is essential for global prosperity and peace,” Alvaro Lario, chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said in the report.

Transboundary cooperation key

More than three billion people globally depend on water that crosses national borders. Such water is under significant and increasing pressures due to population increase, growing water demands, ecosystem degradation and climate change.

Cooperation over transboundary rivers, lakes and aquifers can generate multiple economic, social, environmental and political benefits that in turn deliver prosperity and peace at local, national, regional and global levels, according to the report.

But, of 153 countries sharing transboundary rivers, lakes and aquifers, only 32 have 90 per cent or more of their transboundary waters covered by operational arrangements.

Africa has the highest proportion of transboundary basins relative to other continents. They cover an estimated 64 per cent of the world’s second-largest continent. Of the 72 transboundary aquifers mapped in Africa, cooperation has only been formalised in seven.

Lake Chad, the waterbody in the heart of west-central Africa, has decreased in size by 90 per cent over 60 years. This has led to economic and security challenges for its surrounding countries — Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya, Niger and Nigeria.

However, the report acknowledged that the Lake Chad Basin Commission has expanded to ensure the most efficient use of the basin’s waters, coordinate local development, and prevent the emergence of disputes that might arise among these countries and local communities.

It also cited the example of the Framework Agreement on the Sava River Basin (FASRB) in the Balkans, southeastern Europe.

FASRB — signed in 2002 by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia — can be considered as an example of geopolitical coordination, managing conflicts and driving stability in the region riven apart by the Bosnian War of the 1990s.

The document enumerated ways to cooperate over water — the sharing of energy and food security benefits across transboundary basins, multi-stakeholder environmental protection (such as ‘peace parks’) and basin management schemes.

Such examples in the report illustrate how fostering prosperity through water contributes to the achievement of peaceful outcomes.

The analysis cited the role of water in war. But surprisingly, it did not speak of how water was used by Israel as a weapon against its conflicts with Hamas.

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