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Rethinking water

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By Barend ter Haar, Clingendael Institute of International Relations, former Netherlands ambassador to UNESCO.

Think again about water. That is in short the main outcome of the conference on Water Security and Peace that was organised by the Water Diplomacy Consortium* on 14 and 15 November 2013.

After attending the conference some security specialists might doubt whether an armed attack is the largest threat against their country. Engineers might reconsider whether technical solutions will suffice to solve all water problems.  Legal experts might be better aware of the limits of a top-down approach, while local stakeholders may have become convinced of the need of a global approach.

The meeting of a large number of experts in many different fields and from many different countries helped to clarify a number of key points or at least to bring our confusion to a higher level.

Everybody needs clean water, every day of his life, but hundreds of millions of people are still not assured of that. And clean water is becoming scarcer, inter alia because of its growing use for agriculture, cattle breeding, industry and energy production.

All this is relatively simple and straightforward. And so is the answer: we need to change the way we manage water. Regrettably, implementing sound water management is not a simple matter at all. Water is such a fundamental part of our culture, of the way we feed ourselves, we produce energy, we wash ourselves and we govern ourselves, that there is no master key to address water in all its aspects at once.

What is needed is a bunch of keys or, in the buzzwords of the conference, a multisector and multilevel approach. Multisector means that it is insufficient to deal with water in isolation. Sound water management requires looking also at how we produce food, deal with climate change, and so on. Multilevel means that we have to address water issues simultaneously at local, national, regional and global levels.

Assuring the availability of clean water at the local level is the ultimate goal. That means educating and empowering local people as much as possible. But a fair distribution of the available water requires also measures at a national level and at an international level, because rivers and underground aquifers often cross borders. Global cooperation is needed to facilitate and promote action at the local, national and regional level, e.g. by setting global minimum rules for the management of water.

Most if not all participants of the conference seemed to agree about the following:

  • Water management cannot be split in separate jobs for engineers, lawyers, diplomats, etc. All stakeholders have to work together and  should therefore make an effort to ensure that they are understood by other types of specialists.
  • More and better information on the state of water should be collected and be made widely available, to prevent misperceptions and to promote a common understanding of the real challenges.
  • A shared vision on global water management should be developed.
  • New coalitions are needed, between different levels of government, between governments and private business, between private business and NGOs, etc.
  • Leadership is needed.

*The Water Diplomacy Consortium consists of five partners that together cover the different aspects of water diplomacy: the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, the Hague Institute for Global Justice, the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, UPEACE Centre The Hague and the Water Governance Centre.

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