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Building a transatlantic coalition for climate action on water and security challenges in countries of risk


By Tereza Neuwirthová, Virginie Peccoud, and August Zeidman

On Thursday 22 April 2021, the 11th meeting of The Hague Roundtable on Climate & Security was organized by the Water, Peace and Security partnership together with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This virtual table was held on the occasion of the World Earth Day (22nd April), and in tandem with the Leaders Summit on Climate that was being hosted by the US president Biden on the same day. 

This event commenced with the initial words by Mr. Matt Luna, the organiser of The Hague Roundtable on Climate & Security, who stressed the importance of a Transatlantic momentum to collaborate on climate action.

Thereafter, the co-host Ms. Laura Birkman from Water Peace and Security emphasised the need to combine the available water expertise with peace-building efforts in order to provide solutions for the current and future security challenges caused by climate change. To this end, the WPS is crucially undertaking such capacity development in the regions of East Africa, Iraq, Mali, and Afghanistan.

WPS was founded in 2018 with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the aim of this partnership is to help identify and address water-related security risks to achieve both water security and peace-building. The inclusive nature of this partnership enhances its impact as it brings together various members of the 4D communities (diplomacy, defence, development and disaster-response experts), as well as stakeholders from the public, private sector and from the civil society. 

The opening remarks of the organisers was followed by the keynote speaker, Dr. Carola Van Rijnsoever, who is the Director of Inclusive Green Growth and Ambassador for sustainable development at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“World leaders are challenged to act urgently given the wide recognition of what climate change truly is- an increasing global security threat to everyone. That is why we must take swift and concerted action, and by investigating potential areas of joint action, to further integrate climate-related goals into the Transatlantic partnership.” 

She proposed a three-fold way forward on the issue of security impacts of climate change: 1/ to scale climate adaptation, 2/ to address the complex relationship between water, peace, and security, and 3 /to act more decisively on security implications of climate change. Finally, she pledged that as the co-chair of the Water Conference in 2023, the Netherlands will ensure that the issue of climate change implications on security will be given due attention.

The panel discussion was moderated by Mr. Henk Ovink, Netherlands Special Envoy for International Water Affairs. He argued that even though climate urgency is all over the place it is still unclear how to make climate action actionable and to translate it into concrete solutions. 

Dr. Sharon Burke, Director and Senior Advisor at New America, was the first panelist, she made an interesting observation: “water is a language, it is used by societies to express that they are experiencing climate change”. Indeed, water scarcity and the increasing occurrence of droughts are indicators of global warming. She highlighted that water and climate change create misery but also exacerbate conflicts and violence. According to her now is the time for concrete action grounded in best practices and shared knowledge. To implement this we have to realise that interests of people all around the world are mutual and act accordingly.

Mr. Hinrich Thölken, Director Climate and Energy Policy and Digital Transformation at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke next. He suggested that the role of the Transnational Alliance could be to share understanding and operation response for climate mitigation and adaptation across the Atlantic and learn from each other. This dialogue and cooperation will help to put this issue on top of the agenda. He recommended that, despite the fact that water is a very political topic, to contribute to water security projects abroad, one should put their personal interest or ambition aside and think about the common good.

Indeed, he says; “we were only credible when we proved that we did not have any strategic interests in the project. Our disinterest put us at the table.” Besides, he highlighted the need for the security community especially the military to start seeing climate change as a security risk, which was not the case a few years ago.  He strongly believes that climate action becoming a race to the top internationally is not an efficient way forward as it would be detrimental to a meaningful discussion and cooperation. 

Dr. Benedetta Berti, Head of Policy Planning of the NATO Office of the Secretary General, emphasized the role that the alliance had to play in the future of mitigating the effects of climate change. She discussed how, just like all aspects of society, the future of military operations have a vested interest in understanding the root causes of climate change and ensuring that they can be addressed; saying, “We understand that there may be more extreme weather events and disasters around us. NATO as an alliance has a role to play. We have just agreed on a climate change agenda.

It is an exciting time for transatlantic cooperation on this topic.” According to Ms. Berti, going forward, NATO views climate change as a factor which must be considered in all decision making. The Alliance is currently undergoing a joint mapping of environmental footprint so it can be better understood how, where, and to what degree the militaries involved are leaving environmental impact.

Rounding out the panel was Mr. Tom Middendorp, Chair of the International Military Council on Climate and Security. Mr. Middendorp emphasized the urgency of the issue of water security, describing water as the “Blue Oil” which will drive the future. However, he also addressed the unique role that the security sector can play in this crisis as a platform for new innovations in self sustaining communities and other green technologies. According to Mr. Middendorp though, these innovations will have their value within the paradigm of trans-national cooperation in which militaries do, and must continue to expand, operations in; and it is encouraging to see the United States adopting a redoubled commitment to partnership and climate priorities under new administration.

Commenting on this, moderator Mr. Ovink described the military as a key platform for these partnerships, as they are strengthened when peacekeeping is also sustainable development.

Dr. Susanne Schmeier of Water Peace and Security concluded the panel with comments emphasizing the importance again of these synergies between alliance partners, but also across the 4D communities of development, diplomacy, defense, and disaster.

The panel reflected a cautiously optimistic tone, spurred by recent developments and heightened commitments by alliance partners such as the United States and NATO overall to combating the generational crisis of climate change; while still reserving the extreme urgency and emphasis which must be placed upon these issues as policy makers cannot let shorter term crises like the COVID-19 pandemic distract us from the existential threat that climate change poses to societies all over the world.

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