Editor’s pickWater: Can it be used to enforce peace?

17-03-2017

The Euphrates River in Syria has highlighted the strategic significance of water in regards to peace. ISIS had seized a number of dams along this river, and had used the water flow to either starve or flood populations living downstream of it in an attempt to force them to surrender. Photo credit: Arlan Zwegers

The world is in such a time now that ideas and concepts of conflict and peace are altering. It is subtle and faint, but it is there. Most notably, the roles resources play in the world – particularly water – are getting the acknowledgement they merit.

This is nothing new; Ban Ki-Moon, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) as well as his predecessor, Kofi Annan, have contended for some twenty years that the allocation and guarding of natural resources, especially water, is vital to the preservation of peace.

But the issue did not take centre stage until November 2016 when Senegal – the President of the UN Security Council for that month – held the UN’s inaugural official debate on water, security, and peace. With the floor opened to all member states, 69 representatives called for water to be completely changed from a possible cause of disaster to a tool of peace and partnership.

The rising awareness of water’s strategic importance mirrors developments all across the world. Over the past three years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized the Fallujah, Mosul, Tabqa, and Tishrin dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Although ISIS was driven out of the areas and lost possession of the dams, the militant group had used them to either starve or flood the populations located downstream, in attempts to pressurise them to surrender.

This strategy is not only employed by ISIS; other extremist groups in Asia have threatened to target and attack water infrastructure. And Singapore has moved various times in the past to safeguard its water supply in order to prevent its application as a bargaining chip.

The value of water in this century can be likened to what oil was in the last century, and can never be overemphasised – though some experts continue to discount it. In truth, there are substitutes for oil; wind, natural gas, and solar and nuclear energy. In comparison, for sanitation, agriculture, industry and drinking, the only other possible alternative to water, as former President of Slovenia Danilo Türk once declared, is water.

The general agreement and unity for the need to defend and guard precious water resources and infrastructure is crystal clear.

But water has the potential to be a promoter of peace and partnership. If nations cooperate with each other to mutually manage and protect their natural resources, even water, often the root of many conflicts and clashes, could facilitate peace.