Towards a survival kit for a watery planet

Published: 29 September 2017

The Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace officially launched 14 September 2017 its concluding report “A MATTER OF SURVIVAL”. It makes clear what the title says: “The world needs to fundamentally rethink its global approach to water - as a matter of survival”, both in terms of water quantity and quality.

The Report notices that water is increasingly used as an instrument of war which puts worldwide peace and security at risk. The authors suggest to address the water questions on a river basin scale and trigger dialogue and cooperation between countries. The Report expresses the ambition to address the water challenges in an integrated and comprehensive manner, at multiple levels, whether it is by fostering new practices, new institutions, water diplomacy or strengthening international law, and others. All of these are highly relevant to help avoid conflicts related to water.

The Panel concludes, inter alia, that “knowledge relating to water quality and quantity issues has to be improved at all levels. In this priority should be given on groundwater and aquifers, which represent more than 90% of the non-frozen global freshwater reserves”. It is felt that improving of, investing in, and cooperating on, water data should be a basis for trust-building and broader cooperation. Data collection, integration of socio-political data and data on the asymmetries among countries and sectors of activity within river basins are central elements, as well as quality and quantity of water resources. As a matter of a long-term vision, the Panel advocates the establishment of a strong global data system and monitoring mechanism to analyse water quality issues globally and in transboundary basins and aquifers in particular, and to provide reliable information to the interested public on short notice.

The report takes transboundary water disputes as its focus. Consequently, the report does not pay a lot of attention to intrastate conflicts and its relationship with water. That is somewhat disappointing, because such conflicts can and do occur, with sometimes far-reaching societal disruption and (international) migration as a result. Agricultural water use accounts for more than two-third of all water use, and this water demand will increase to feed a growing world population. With a changing climate this may lead to areas of high water shortage, which can subsequently lead to loss of livelihoods and food insecurity and may escalate into conflicts.

The international community should take actions to reduce the risks of these types of conflicts. For example through technical assistance to reduce drought risks, or through emergency aid to prevent famine. These actions require insight in where and when water-related intrastate conflict risks may develop in order to respond in a timely fashion.

This exacerbates the need for improving “knowledge relating to water quality and quantity issues [….] at all levels” as recommended by the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, and we fully assent to the ideas of the Panel.  More specifically, there is a need for information systems which show not just water availability or hydrological droughts but also provide insight in societally disruptive impacts. These information systems should not just focus on collecting and presenting monitored data, but also be capable of analysing the impact of scenarios of climate change and population development, and of policy actions to reduce water-related conflict risks.

There is an urgent need to develop such tools given current and projected levels of water shortage and floods and of the number of people affected. The Report itself mentions that around 2050 40% of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas. At the moment it is increasingly becoming  possible to address water issues such as drought, salinization, and aquifer depletion by innovative combinations of big data (partially satellite based) and modeling. Together with partners, Deltares works on the development and application of tools to assess water quantity and quality issues on a global scale; the long-term goal of the Panel.  These tools will allow for the assessments of water-related tensions and conflict risk at  both the inter- and intrastate level within water basins.

Without adequate governance responses water shortage may escalate into intrastate conflicts.  The international (water) community has a role to play here, in ways additional to the ones recommended in the report. A first step towards a survival kit would be to provide international information systems for timely warning of impending disasters.  We therefore urge the international community to encourage and support the development of such information systems.