ECC Platform Library

 

SDG 6: An essential element in the quest for international security

04 March, 2019
Benjamin Pohl, adelphi

sustainability, water, infrastructure, SDGs, security, governance

Collecting Water
Collecting water. | © Sadik Gulec/shutterstock.com

Water is a matter of survival and plays a critical role in social, economic and environmental activities as well. With a rise in global demand for water, water crises have consistently featured among the World Economic Forum’s top global impact risks. Water insecurity, i.e., the lack of water availability for basic human needs and socio-economic development, undermines billions of livelihoods and poses significant risks for peace and prosperity by thwarting progress and fuelling displacement and conflict.

The critical importance of water for core foreign policy objectives

Water insecurity fuels displacement and instability and adds to humanitarian pressures (see target 6.1: achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all). By increasing health risks, undermining food security and limiting economic opportunities, lack of water for drinking incentivizes people to move and may fuel grievances in host communities. More broadly, it can also undermine governmental legitimacy, which has strong linkages to water management since the dawn of civilization in irrigation-focused kingdoms in the Middle East, Egypt, and China.

Water insecurity negatively impacts across many SDGs, notably on health, but, by way of coping mechanisms that often see girls spend a lot of time on fetching water, also on education and gender equality. It is particularly problematic in countries and situations of fragility. By placing additional pressure on weak institutions, water insecurity further undermines the social compact. This can fuel a downward spiral as increasing fragility makes it even more challenging to achieve water security. The cycle of water insecurity and fragility has two dimensions: the short-term failure to water availability (e.g. to adequately supply displaced persons, or pastoralists’ animals) and the long-term failure to preserve water resources, e.g. in the form of over-pumping or pollution of groundwater that ultimately undermines livelihoods1. For example, the International Organization of Migration found that water insecurity was a key reason for internal displacement in many Iraqi governorates2.

The importance of water resource sustainability is directly related to integrated water resources management. The cue on transboundary cooperation in target 6.5 is particularly relevant for foreign policy-makers because transboundary cooperation is often essential for regional stability, but also a precondition for sustainable and equitable management of the water-energy-food nexus. Many of the most worrying water conflicts are a function of difficult trade-offs related to the question of whether to prioritize water use for energy (hydropower) or food (irrigation) production. Hence, water links intimately with the SDGs on poverty, hunger, energy, and peace.

Transboundary water cooperation offers significant opportunities for both upstream and downstream countries. Dams constructed in up-stream countries for hydropower production, for example, can simultaneously help control downstream floods, improve downstream navigation, and increase the potential for downstream hydropower by stabilizing water flows —and may also offer downstream countries cheap electricity import options. In reality, however, dam construction in up-stream countries often leads to conflict with downstream neighbours who fear the consequences of flow changes and the potential political lever against them in the hands of upstream countries. Although such conflicts are unlikely to escalate into international wars, they fuel tensions and hinder cooperation in other sectors, hampering economic development as well as sustainable and equitable water use.

Illustration: conflict and cooperation over water use in Central Asia

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Aral Sea basin has witnessed significant conflict over water. Upstream countries inherited big reservoirs that had been built to boost downstream irrigation. However, losing access to cheap energy post-independence has nudged them to prioritize water release for hydropower generation in winter rather than downstream irrigation in summer. Uzbekistan, which is mainly dependent on irrigation, has reacted with punitive measures and vehemently opposed the construction of additional up-stream dams, going as far as to threaten military action. Limitations in cooperation have cost all Central Asian countries dearly3. Yet, a recent change in Uzbekistan’s leadership led to the embrace of a new foreign policy doctrine focusing on regional cooperation, transcending competition over resources and unlocking opportunities for mutually beneficial partnership.

International efforts to improve water governance

Given the critical importance of water and its interlinkages with overarching global objectives such as stability and prosperity, it may be surprising that there is no integrated international regime on freshwater governance. There exists a well-established normative framework that can help foreign policy makers situate their efforts, in particular, the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses that went into effect in 2014 after reaching 35 ratifications. Although it built on decades of work in the International Law Commission, primarily sought to codify customary law, and achieved widespread support in the UN General Assembly, the number of ratifications has remained limited due to concerns that it might restrict development options. A second convention by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, has since 2016 opened for global accession. There is a broad ‘epistemic community’ of water managers underpinning these conventions who largely subscribe to the principles of ‘Integrated Water Resources Management.’ It is defined by the Global Water Partnership as "a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.”

Although water is a critical issue all around the world, its management is often primarily a local challenge. As these challenges differ across (sub-)basins, it is the governance responses at these levels rather than global agreements which are most important for securing peace, prosperity, and equity. Thus, whereas foreign policy can play a helpful role in advocating for recognition of the principles underlying the global conventions, it is even more crucial that it use its influence to help shift discourse and policy toward cooperation at the sub-basin level. Such collaboration often depends on the perceived political risks of water cooperation, rather than the lack of economic incentives 4. Diplomats can and should try to help shape political thinking over national and regional development perspectives with an aim of shifting such perceptions, drawing on their access, mandate, and skills of persuasion. For third parties seeking to foster cooperation, this means embracing water management as primarily a foreign policy issue, which technical development cooperation can support5. A broad toolbox –from facilitating private discussions between decision-shapers to identify mutually beneficial development paths and narratives, to reducing risks by offering guarantees or joint assessments – has been developed6, but it often needs the political impetus and diplomatic skillset that foreign policy can provide.

Conclusion

Conflicts over lack of access to water at both individual and state level can undermine global and national foreign policy priorities, in particular, the prevention of displacement and the maintenance of regional stability. Achieving SDG 6 also entails transformational possibilities, regarding unlocking human potential (avoiding illness, reducing gender discrimination and unlocking time for education and productive endeavours) and inter-state cooperation. Moreover, better water management is a facilitator if not a precondition for achieving numerous other SDGs, which in turn are harbingers of fundamental progress.

As developments in Central Asia illustrate, foreign policy can play a critical role in overcoming zero-sum competition over water and enabling beneficial cooperation by helping rethink and reframe issues. However, to realize this potential water diplomacy needs more agency and more constructive political engagement that will help embed technical transboundary cooperation into attractive regional development narratives and pathways. Since achieving SDG 6 is an essential element of the quest for international security, and that political engagement is often a necessary element to progress in water management, diplomats should embrace water diplomacy and help build the agreements to underpin better water management.

 

[This article originally appeared as part of adelphi's policy brief "A Foreign Policy Perspective on the Sustainable Development Goals" (2018) and it's comprehensive annex.] 

 

Sources:

  1. Sadoff et al. 2017: Turbulent Waters. Pursuing Water Security in Fragile Contexts. Washington, DC: World Bank Group. Ibid.
  2. Pohl et al. 2017: Rethinking Water in Central Asia: the costs of inaction and benefits of water cooperation. Bern: Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation.
  3. Subramanian et al. 2012: Reaching across the Waters: Facing the Risks of Cooperation in International Waters. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.
  4. Pohl et al. 2014: The Rise of Hydro-Diplomacy: Strengthening foreign policy for transboundary waters. Berlin: adelphi.
  5. cf. Leb et al. 2018: Promoting Development in Shared Basins: Tools for Enhancing Transboundary Basin Management. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.
ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Topic
Adaptation & Resilience
Climate Change
Climate Diplomacy
Water

Region
Global Issues

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

Read more

Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

Read more

Cities

Sorry, no description found.

Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

Read more

Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

Read more

Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

Read more

Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

Read more

Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

Read more

Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

Read more

Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

Read more

Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

Read more

Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

Read more

Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

Read more

Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

Read more

Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

Read more

Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

Read more

Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

Read more

Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

Read more

Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

Read more

Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

Read more

North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

Read more

Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

Read more

South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

Read more

Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

Read more