By Carina Dios Falk

We are running out of the water and human health and security are at stake. The finite freshwater resources that are still available today and are getting scarcer. The main reason for this is that the demand for water is higher than ever, while simultaneously using our fresh water without sufficient treatment. This leaves us with a chemical soup instead of clean water. This, in turn, leads to water scarcity. It has gotten so bad that in 2014, one eastern Chinese river, the Wenzhou, was so toxic that the river itself caught fire.

To avoid conflicts caused by water scarcity, hydro-diplomacy is necessary. Contaminated water and pollution which turns water into untreatable waste are in fact trans-boundary, and in addition prove to be among the main causes of water scarcity. Because of this, we should prepare for devastating scenarios of international conflict in the future. A peaceful world is possible, but only when the world’s water is actively protected and secured from becoming polluted. The UN Security Council needs to put an effective course of action into effect, in order to protect international water resources. This is achieved by implementing methods and measures to protect the remaining freshwater resources from becoming depleted due to pollution. This threat is especially real where intergovernmental agreements are inefficient. One way safeguarding against pollution is to enforce the rule of law which is already in place. Another would be incorporating water and its security in the Rome statute’s crime against peace clause. Only then can all public or private individuals, institutions, entities, and states be held accountable by international law in order to more effectively to protect all water resources.  

Human survival, security, and international peace are at stake: water is a fundamental human right. In failing to include protection of our water resources into international law, we are guaranteeing international conflict in the future. To build a peaceful world with secure water, we need a global exchange of concessions and compensation. In addition, a bilateral and multilateral consensus on implementing an international water pollution monitoring system to locate and stopping water pollution.

This issue is rightfully being brought up more and more in the international arena, and steps in the right direction are being taken. On November 22nd 2016, the UN Security Council convened its 7818th meeting and, for the first time, debated the linkages between water, peace, and security. This was an Open Session on Water, Peace, and Security for the first time in UN history. The session discussed cooperation instead of conflict and it was a step toward recognizing water as a vital asset of humankind, worthy of protection. Hydro-diplomacy is in fact crucial in peace-building; as the 2017 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate Stephen McCaffrey states in his book, The Law of International Watercourses, “water management is conflict prevention.” Subsequently, the former Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, and the Legal Counsel of the UN, Hans Corell argues that “the primary goal of efforts to maintain international peace and security must, of course, be to prevent conflicts.” Thus, managing and protecting water resources is vital when working with international peace. That this is brought up in the UNSC is of utmost importance.

The fact is that humanity is slowly but surely depleting all quality freshwater resources and polluting the existing surface- and groundwater. The result will be a future of thirsty generations who will risk their health simply by drinking water. According to the UN, 80% of used, untreated water is being channeled right back into oceans and lakes worldwide. Globally, at least two billion people drink from a water source contaminated with feces. Our consumption and production behavior continues to cause further pollution of our groundwater. This pollution is almost impossible to to get rid of once there, and can remain  for thousands of years, as most of the chemical reactions in the water are irreversible. Furthermore, purifying the water is expensive both in terms of energy and capital. This raises further questions on how we can collaborate in water purification technology without global market restricting cooperation.

A global consensus must be reached in order to deal with the transboundary issues of treating polluted water. What one country does upstream, will, unfortunately, be a problem downstream, regardless of how environmentally conscious the people downstream are. In order to effectively tackle these issues, transparency is needed. With transparency, we will be able to implement an international monitoring system to keep track of water pollution. By monitoring, we can locate each point of water extraction and each possible source of pollution in such a way that we are able to treat the water in a timely, efficient manner. The fact is that the issues of water scarcity and protection lie not only within the context of geopolitics. In fact, water needs to be put in the context of geoeconomics as well, with water scarcity being both a social and economic issue. In an interview with Senior Professor Peter Wallensteen in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, he explained:

“If there are an economic strategic driving force and competition on accessing water resources, then tensions may increase and lead to even more traumatic and almost existential scenarios in the particular conflict. Lack of water and difficulties to access water could reinforce already existing conflicts and perhaps even make them more difficult to handle due to water being essential for human survival”

This brings us to ask what will happen in a world where water is a hot commodity? If “Big Water” industries are in control of the availability and access to quality fresh drinking water in the future, as well as its price, will this human necessity be left to the highest bidder? How can we protect water as a human right and guarantee the right to access water for everyone, in a world where clean water is increasingly commodified?

There are great prospects for international peace-building and helping each other on a global scale to prevent water scarcity caused by pollution. Transparency and openness will be necessary to bring current problems and solutions for water pollution management to light. Should such measure implemented effectively, they could open up for long-term cooperation toward international peace. Countries and organizations need to be honest in their use of water use and production of waste in order to efficiently prevent pollution and conflict. But before we can demand transparency, trust-building and consequences for those who break agreements are needed. This is all within the reach of the UN Security Council, which is where the work needs to be done. Only if they act can we hope for a future with clean, accessible water. 

By Carina Dios Falk

Image: Unsplash

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