The changing of the guard on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York City, with Antonio Guterres taking over from Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general, has taken place at a time when notions about peace and conflict are undergoing a subtle change. In particular, the role of resources — and especially water — is getting the recognition it deserves.
This has been a long time coming. Both Ban and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan have argued for two decades that protecting and sharing natural resources, particularly water, is critical to peace and security, but it was not until November last year that the issue gained widespread acknowledgement, with Senegal — that month’s UN Security Council president — holding the UN’s first-ever official debate on water, peace and security.
Open to all UN member states, the debate brought together representatives of 69 governments, which together called for water to be transformed from a potential source of crisis into an instrument of peace and cooperation. A few weeks later, Guterres appointed former Nigerian environment minister Amina Mohammed as his deputy secretary-general.
The growing recognition of water’s strategic relevance reflects global developments. In the last three years, the Islamic State captured the Tabqa, Tishrin, Mosul and Fallujah dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Islamic State subsequently lost control of all of them, but not before using them to flood or starve downstream populations, to pressure them to surrender.
Many analysts hope that the Islamic State will finally be eliminated from Iraq and Syria in the next few months, but that does not mean that the group will disband; on the contrary, it may well relocate to the border areas between Libya and Chad, putting West African cities and water installations at risk.
This tactic is not exclusive to the Islamic State. Extremist groups in South Asia have also threatened to attack water infrastructure, and of course state actors, too, can use water resources to gain a strategic advantage.
The importance of water in the 21st century — comparable to that of oil in the 20th — can hardly be overstated. Yet some strategic experts continue to underestimate it. The reality is that oil has alternatives like natural gas, wind, solar and nuclear energy. By contrast, for industry and agriculture as much as for drinking and sanitation, the only alternative to water, as former Slovenian president Danilo Turk once put it, is water.
The same is true for trade. Consider the Rio Chagres. While it may not be widely known, it is vitally important, as it feeds the Panama Canal, through which 50 percent of trade between Asia and the Americas flows. There is no risk of the natural depletion of the river flow for the next hundred years, but, in the event of a security crisis in Central America, it could be taken over by rogue forces. The impact on the global economy would be enormous.
The consensus on the need to protect water resources and installations in conflict zones is clear. What is less clear is how to do it. Unlike medicines and food packets, water cannot be airdropped into conflict zones. And UN peacekeeping forces are badly overstretched.
The International Committee of the Red Cross does negotiate safe passage for technicians to inspect and repair damage to water pipes and storage systems in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine; but each passage needs to be negotiated with governments in conflict and rebel commanders — a long and cumbersome process. A better approach would be for great powers, with their considerable influence, to negotiate short-term ceasefires in areas experiencing protracted conflict, specifically to repair and restore water systems.