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Water and Peace(making)

AFP/Scanpix
AFP/Scanpix
A woman walking on the bottom of the Chandola Lake in India. India is facing its greatest water crisis in decades, with about 330 million people suffering from drought. Lack of water is becoming an ever-greater issue in the world.

We must be prepared for conflicts over water in the near future.

The Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace was established in mid-November last year. I was at its launch on a recommendation from the Ministry of the Environment, whose current deputy secretary general, Harry Liiv, has been a long-time active envoy at the Geneva Water Hub, which operates under the World Meteorological Organisation. He probably wished Estonia to be represented on this new panel, and so it is.

A “high-level panel” does not necessarily mean that former acquaintances should address its members as “Your Highness”. Rather, it means that, in addition to specialists, the delegates include former ministers and presidents. This panel is not a UN organisation, even though the UN will probably receive its report.

Since there has been little discussion in Estonia about previous commissions founded on a similar basis, let us look at them briefly. In chronological order:

1. The Independent Commission on International Development Issues (1977). This was established on the initiative of the then World Bank president, Robert McNamara, to settle disputes between developed and developing countries that could not be approached via official channels. The commission was chaired by former German chancellor Willy Brandt. Its independence meant that it did not have direct ties to any country, the UN organisations or the World Bank. Fifty per cent of the financing came from the Dutch government and the other half was provided by a group of governments and regional organisations. This resulted in a report entitled North-South: A Programme for Survival that is still in use. The commission continued its work until 1980.

2. The Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues established on the initiative of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme and former British foreign secretary David Owen in 1980. The office and travel expenses were covered by the Austrian government. For a time, the commission had close ties to the UN. Its report was published in 1982, and forwarded to the Disarmament Commission by the UN Secretary-General.

3. The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (1984). Established by a UN resolution, the commission was chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, and collaborated closely with the UN Environment Programme. A report entitled Our Common Future was published in 1987, paving the way for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 (quite possibly the greatest chinwag in the world to date). UNCED was followed by a series of other monitoring and development conferences on the relationship between mankind and the environment, the latest being the Paris climate change conference in December 2015. Unfortunately, this success story may seem so fruitful to me solely because it is the only high-level commission I have tried to keep up with for a quarter of a century. Nonetheless, this long period of time also reveals the normal pace of global policy-making for even partial agreements.

4. The South Commission (1990) was established on the initiative of the then Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohammed to look at cooperation between developing countries. The chair was offered to Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania. The commission was independent and its members personally responsible. It was funded by the governments of developing countries, businesses and foundations from many countries.

5. The Commission on Global Governance (1992). The proposal came from Willy Brandt and the commission was funded by several foundations and the UNDP. It was co-chaired by Swedish prime minister Ingvar Karlsson and former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal. Its report, Our Global Neighbourhood, was released in 1995.

6. Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict was established in 1994 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and co-chaired by Carnegie’s David Hamburg and former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. It received no government support. Due to its location, the commission had ties to the UN management. Its report was published in 1997.

7. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2000) was initiated by the Canadian foreign ministry and chaired by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. Financial support came from US foundations and the UK and Swiss governments. Its report was presented to the UN Secretary-General as part of the Millennium Report (2001) and further matters were entrusted to the UN system.

8. The Global Commission on International Migration (2003) was founded by the UN Secretary-General with Sweden, Switzerland, Brazil, Morocco and the Philippines among the governments represented. Its report was released in 2005.

9. The high-level United Nations Alliance of Civilizations was founded in 2005 by the UN Secretary-General on the initiative of the Spanish and Turkish governments. It seeks “to galvanize international action against extremism through the forging of international, intercultural and interreligious dialogue and cooperation”. In order to finance its activities, a community of supporting countries called the Group of Friends was also founded in New York. Its report was published in 2006.

10. The non-governmental Global Commission on Drug Policy was established on the initiative of the governments of Latin American countries and is led by a think tank in Brazil. The commission is not planning to compile a final report. Instead, continuous reports tackling new aspects are made to the UN Secretary-General.

11. The Global Forum on Migration and Development (2007), initiated by the government of Belgium. The forum does not belong to the UN and is open to all UN member states or observers. Annual reports are published through the UN Secretary-General.

12. The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, founded on the initiative of the Swiss government, is not a commission. Endorsed by more than 100 states, it is a process designed to implement high-level diplomatic initiatives pursuant to established principles addressing the interrelationship between armed violence and development. The partnership works through the UNDP and a Core Group consisting of 15 states and affiliated organisations. There is also a think tank and partners from civil society.

Against this background, the formation of what is effectively the 13th global commission has taken nearly forty years. Those who remember or have read about 20th-century statesmen during this period will recognise a host of names. It should be noted that the international arena often features initiatives and financing from small countries and, less frequently, medium-sized countries. There are often people from the Nordic countries, who were seen as an ideal model for Estonia by Ilmar Tõnisson and Estonia’s current government.

Naturally, even a brief look at the outline above reveals that the work of several of the previous commissions has not been altogether successful. One example could be the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which calculated the refugee numbers that fit into the framework of current migration quite accurately but whose conclusions included a rekindling of past extremist world-views that had been lying dormant in Europe. Without viewing the founders’ initiative as simple theatrics, the activities of the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues in its current form can be deemed just as unfortunate in the long term.

The example of the “sovereignty commission” organised by the World Water Council in 1998, which developed a proposal to establish an international organisation for water-related cooperation in spring 2003, serves as a warning for the latest high-level group on water and peace, because that organisation was never set up. The global organisation Green Cross International, proposed and founded by Mikhail Gorbachev to provide assistance to countries facing environmental difficulties, played a significant role in the formation of the new high-level group.

In his memoir Mikhail Gorbachev: Prophet of Change, he has later claimed that the venture lacked political guidance. Further analysis shows that the real reason lay in water organisations monopolising its administration. Even though the decisions of the new panel are still a thing of the future, it could mean that the use of transboundary bodies of water can be agreed internationally via the UN Security Council, thus avoiding armed conflict. Further prognosis depends on how optimistic or pessimistic the predictor is. Experience shows that it is not always sensible to place full confidence in, and build something based on, the Security Council’s decisions but, on the other hand, it is no use hoping that this anachronistic organisation will be replaced with a better system of world governance in the near future. Consequently, it would be better to act now without fear of failure.

This results in two things specifically relevant to Estonia. First, the knowledge that 80% of our eastern border consists of bodies of water, the use of which is partly agreed with Russia (the Estonian–Russian Agreement on Lake Peipsi Fisheries, signed in spring 1994, was the first to be concluded with Yeltsin’s Russia), but that the cat-and-mouse game over concluding the border agreement could drag on; a UN agreement laying down specific rules would be very useful in this case. With Estonia about to become a non-permanent member of the Security Council (in 2017–18), its participation in the high-level group should perhaps be something akin to a promise to work for the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America suffering from water scarcity, as a lobbying argument. My contacts with the foreign ministry on these matters have suffered somewhat due to the hubbub surrounding the presidential election that overshadows the Estonian summer—and is likely to escalate—but further discussion of the topic should fall to the ministries of foreign affairs and of the environment, as is the custom in governments.

The Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace consists of representatives from 15 countries, supported by Strategic Foresight Group (a think tank based in Mumbai, India managed by Sundeep Waslekar, a thought leader on conflict resolution and global future) and the Geneva Water Hub (founded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to resolve questions related to water policy).

In addition to the author, the panel’s members are as follows:
Dr Danilo Türk (Chair), former president of Slovenia; Professor Laurence Boisson de Chazournes, University of Geneva, Switzerland; Dr Claudia Patricia Mora, former Vice Minister for Water and Sanitation, Colombia; Dr Pascual Fernandez, former State Secretary for Water and Seashore, Spain; Professor Andras Szöllösi-Nagy, former Rector of UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft, the Netherlands; HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal, Jordan; Jerlan Nisanbaev, Vice-Minister of Agriculture, Kazakhstan; Mansour Faye, Minister of Water and Hydraulics, Senegal; Mike Hammah, former Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, Ghana; Ciaran Oćuinn, Director of the Middle East Desalination Research Centre, Oman; Thor Cheta, Secretary of State, Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, Cambodia; Dr Alvaro Umaña Quesada (Vice Chair), former Minister of Energy and Environment, Costa Rica; Franck Galland, CEO, Environmental Emergency & Security Services, France; Aziz Bouignane, Director of the Moulouya River Basin Agency, Morocco.

But what is the current state of the world’s bodies of fresh water? On the one hand, data provided by the Geneva Water Hub indicates that the situation in areas of conflict over transboundary bodies of water has been improving since 1948 and the score is 2:1 in favour of peaceful solutions. Reason has won, but this is not always the case. As recently as January 2016, Daesh captured the Taqba Dam in Syria to use it as a refuge for its top officials and high-value hostages. They had tried their hand at this in 2014 by closing the Fallujah Dam in Iraq, flooding a settlement that was home to 12,000 families. This also resulted in a slight increase in the number of refugees. The long-running dispute over water in the Nile Basin between the downstream and upstream countries has taken threatening turns, but negotiations are continuing.

In order to demonstrate that peaceful resolutions are possible even between developing countries, the panel (more precisely, the Geneva Water Hub and Strategic Foresight Group) chose Senegal’s capital Dakar as the location for its second meeting. The agreement concluded in Dakar between the governments of Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal is a good example of the possibility of diplomatic solutions between developing countries (the World Bank’s Human Development Index places all four aforementioned countries in the bottom quarter of the rankings). A similar solution is currently being sought between the neighbouring countries situated along the River Niger. Consequently, Sub-Saharan Africa might find more peaceful water-sharing solutions than the conflict-prone Middle East.

Nevertheless, we must still be prepared for possible conflicts in the near future, for the following reasons. First, despite a certain slowing, the world’s population continues to grow in the many regions suffering from a lack of water. The numbers for the next few decades can be predicted quite precisely. The question is: how much do governments care about this and what do they conclude? In hindsight (though not gloatingly), let us recall that in 1972 the Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth argued that, although the populations of Europe and Africa were about equal at the time, Africa’s would grow twice as fast. Europe’s reaction was only that Africa would be a source of cheap labour. There is no use hoping that the issue will gain more ground during the age of political technology.

Second, for 20 years there have been no signs that the increasing lack of precipitation caused by climate change in already dry areas is a modelling fault. The development of models has not offered any other results. Estonians may rejoice in our increasing precipitation along with the rest of the Europe, but this is no longer solidarity. Eight years ago I was on my way to Valencia with a European Parliament delegation, when I noticed the nearby Rio Turia dry, with its bed overgrown with grass. I asked the MEP from Valencia, sitting next to me, about it and he cheerfully replied that the local population drank the water from the river to the last drop, adding that they now drilled drinking-water from a depth of 400 metres. Politeness forbade me from asking how deep they were planning to go to extract the water.

Third, climate change has another watery aspect that is often used to scare people, especially those who live in cities with large harbours: the rise in sea level caused by thermal expansion as well as meltwater from glaciers. In the last six months there have been a number of articles on the accelerating thawing of Greenland, continental glaciers in the Western Antarctic and permafrost in Siberia. This will naturally cause a rise in sea level, but it will not go up with a bang, for instance, in the next year. Perhaps the worst part of the issue lies in the significant decrease in fresh-water sources on planet Earth. I will not discuss it further here, as I am hoping to make a presentation on the subject at the next meeting of the panel in Costa Rica before Christmas.

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