The first scientific information meeting on water ever held at the United Nations General Assembly, on the initiative of its President Csaba Korösi, gave rise on Wednesday 7 February to a debate between eminent scientists and academics on “Conflicts, climate and cooperation”.
We learned that throughout history, States have more often preferred cooperation to confrontation for this resource. But climate change and water scarcity are now fueling tensions and requiring a new science-based diplomacy.
“There are 313 international watersheds that cover about half the planet, in addition to 600 transboundary aquifers,” said Aaron Wolf, professor of geography at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.
These have caused some 1,800 international incidents between member states over the past 60 years, and “in fact, in two thirds of the cases, we find that nations have chosen to cooperate”.
“In terms of real violence, specifically over water internationally, there has been very little throughout history. To find conflicts, you have to go back 4,500 years, to the only documented war over water between two countries,” Wolf said. This conflict was between two Mesopotamian city-states, Lagash and Ummah, in what is now Iraq.
“But as fresh water becomes scarce, tensions increase,” he said.
Even in the past 50 years, a quarter of water-related interactions have been hostile, ranging from name-calling to military action. Water, according to him, is by nature “emotional”, linked to sovereignty, history, power and spiritual life and “this specificity of water leads us to elevate the conversation to address these fundamental values that we share, and allows us to have these difficult conversations, recognizing that it is not just an economic resource, but a resource that touches all of our ways of being”.
The academic recommended the establishment of a monitoring and early warning system, as well as preventive measures, such as reducing poverty and improving environmental and water management .
water and law
Dinara Ziganshina, Director of the Scientific Information Center of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia, for her part, underlined the importance of commissions and conventions for the management of water issues. She noted the existence of more than 120 river basin commissions around the world, which provide technical expertise, help assess needs or develop strategies, despite their lack of funding and narrow mandates.
She encouraged scientists, policy makers, lawyers and diplomats to work together, at the UN, “to transform international law still based on past customs and practices and to adapt it to future challenges”.
Infrastructure facing nature Charles J. Vörösmarty, Founding Director of the Environmental Science Initiative at the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center in New York, proposed to better harmonize the infrastructures under construction with the ecosystems . “It is precisely when we try to expand the productive use of traditional engineering that the environment deteriorates,” he noted. He cited the example of a dam that provides hydroelectricity, but noted that failure to control deforestation upstream can lead to gradual erosion of soils that settle into the water.
He called on the General Assembly to recommend the establishment of a global mechanism for water science and diplomacy to share ideas and unite the UN family, water agencies, policy makers, engineers and educators.
“Otherwise, we will fragment our efforts and we will not find a solid strategy to avoid conflicts,” he warned.
Science, law and expertise
Makane Moïse Mbengue, Director of the Department of Public International Law and International Organization at the University of Geneva, noted that most environmental agreements, a pillar of water cooperation, do not give enough weight to science and lack references to validated scientific data. “We need to create a new generation of water agreements that see science as an intrinsic part of the pact,” he stressed.
He also called for the experts to be more involved in water diplomacy. “It can be expensive to use science”, he acknowledged, “but the training of water experts, water diplomats, the effort to increase capacities in this field, are important, especially in developing countries.
Moving beyond mere crisis management As for Susanne Schmeier, head of the water governance department and associate professor of water law and diplomacy at IHE Delft, she advocated a more proactive approach to cooperation on the water.
“To reap the benefits of this cooperation, we must go beyond the absence of conflict and do things together, move from crisis management mode to real resilience”, she suggested, recommending a greater involvement of academics in policy-making and better communication on water issues.
Source: UN News Service