Former National Leaders: Water a Global Security Issue


  • 2011•03•20     Hamilton

    Water as an “urgent security issue” tops the agenda this year for a council of 37 former heads of state and government convening in Canada 10 weeks from now, with a preliminary meeting of international experts this week on the prospect of future water conflicts.

    The InterAction Council (IAC), co-chaired by the Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien, former Prime Minister of Canada, and H.E. Dr. Franz Vranitzky, former Chancellor of Austria, makes recommendations related to long-term issues facing humankind and holds its annual plenary this year in Quebec City May 29-31.

    Mr. Chretien and Dr. Vranitzky and General Olusegun Obasanjo (former President of Nigeria) will also co-chair the experts’ meeting, hosted by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto March 21-23.

    Organized in partnership also with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), the experts meeting coincides with World Water Day March 22, during which hundreds of communities worldwide will mark their interest in water issues.

    According to three successive UN Secretaries General:

    “The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics,” Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 1985;

    “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,” Kofi Annan, 2001; and

    “The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict,” Ban Ki Moon, 2007.

    Experts arriving for the meeting in Toronto believe war is unlikely to break out over water anytime soon, noting that access to water has prompted many heated disputes, and that history records just one armed conflict over the resource – in 2500 BC, when the city-states of Lagash and Umma fought it out in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.

    Beyond that, “water has never been the principal cause of two states going to war,” says Dr. Fabrice Renaud, head of the Environmental Vulnerability and Energy Security Section of the United Nations University’s Bonn-based Institute on the Environment and Human Security.

    “Given that 145 states and 40 per cent of global population falls within 263 international river basins that account for 60 per cent of global river flow, this is a significant finding. The opportunities for violent conflict are abundant, yet such instances are extremely rare.”

    Often working through joint international commissions, water management has more often been associated with inter-jurisdictional cooperation than conflict, he says, adding that more than 3,600 water treaties were signed between AD 805 and 1984.

    He and other experts at the high-level meeting concur, however, that the tradition of co-operation could be tested as tensions increase due to growing populations, urbanization, rising industrial, agricultural and household demands, the “threat multiplier” of higher temperatures due to climate change, and as supplies of “fossil water” in underground aquifers, on which many countries rely, are exhausted.

    As well, according to expert Bob Sandford, upstream land-use decisions like wetland destruction and deforestation that exacerbate downstream flood risks present potent new causes for inter-jurisdictional friction.

    “The consequences of undermining the protective ecosystem services provided by wetlands and forests are magnified in a world facing more frequent severe weather events,” says Mr. Sandford, Director of the Western Watersheds Climate Research Collaborative.

    He and Dr. Renaud will be joined on a “water wars” panel March 22 by Dr. Moneef Moneef R. Zou’bi, Director General of the Islamic World Academy of Science, Jordan, and Prof. Patricia Wouters of Dundee University, Scotland.

    “It is interesting that the InterAction Council has taken up the water issue,” says Dr. Zou’bi. “At the end of the day, water is all about politics.”

    He says many Middle Eastern nations have, for at least 20 years, drawn far more water from aquifers than is naturally replenished.

    And he foresees a regional initiative on a grand scale to find and transport water from new aquifers deep in the desert and / or to deploy the region’s rich energy resources to desalinate water, an energy-intense process that today provides a minute fraction of the world’s freshwater.

    The world’s top-ranked potential water conflict hotspot is the Arab region, comprised of the Middle East and North Africa.

    In 1955 just three countries in the region – Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait – were among the seven worldwide deemed “water scarce” (1,000 or fewer cubic meters of water per capita).

    By 1990, 13 countries were added to the list, including eight from the Arab region: Algeria, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. By 2025, the UN predicts 10 more countries will be water scarce, seven of them in the Middle East: Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria.

    According to these predictions, 18 of the world’s water-scarce countries will be in the Arab region 14 years from now.

    Another potential conflict hotspot is the East African region where, for example, agreements on sharing water from the Nile have yet to be agreed with the newly-independent southern Sudan.

    So too is the Mekong, governed by the Mekong River Commission, the membership of which excludes thirsty China.

    Says Dr. Wouters: “It is now clear that military threats are not the only security challenges we face, with poverty, climate change and the recent global financial crisis having provided potential tipping points around the world.”

    “The world’s water problems will only compound – and more quickly than we think. The discourse must capture not only governments but real people – the so-called ‘local water leaders’ who must act together as a community, who aspire to achieve the higher level objectives set forth in the UN Charter – to promote regional peace and security and the fundamental freedoms of all. This legacy of the law of nations – the peaceful management of the world’s shared water resources – must be our collective aim.”

    Defining water security

    Zafar Adeel, who chairs UN-Water, which co-ordinates water-related activities of all UN bodies, says work is underway to develop a working definition of water security, which today has a variety of meanings.

    UN University, whose Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health Dr. Adeel also heads, is at the forefront of the effort to define water security.

    “Many strongly disagree with the simple notion of water as just another tradable commodity and consider secure access to water a basic human right,” says Dr. Adeel. . “The reality of water management lies in providing access to it as a human right but setting up realistic mechanisms or subsidies for recovering service costs for its delivery. It is increasingly important in that context, therefore, for nations to agree how water security should be defined.”

    Dr. Wouters adds that many authorities say “three As” underpin water security: Availability (controlled supply of quality and safe water); Access (enforceable rights to water for a range of stakeholders); and Addressing conflicts-of-use (where competing uses occur, a mechanism to avoid and/or address disputes is needed).

    “Nothing is more fundamental to life than water,” says Mr. Chretien. “Few issues, therefore, have the potential to create friction more than the management of water shared across international borders, especially now with serious scarcity problems in prospect.”

    “The InterAction Council fosters international cooperation and action in three priority areas: Peace and security, economic revitalization, and universal ethical standards. Since it began in 1983, the Council has developed a strong track record of highlighting issues of rising importance. And this year we look forward to making meaningful contributions and recommendations on ways to reduce the threat of future water-related conflict.”

    Other sessions at the event will cover these topics:

    • Why is water fundamental to global security?
    • Is clean water a precondition for development?
    • Can international law make a difference? and
    • Opportunities in solving the water crisis.

    Recommendations for the IAC plenary in May will be summarized at 3.45 pm, Wednesday March 23.


    Other participants include

    David Boyd, Environmental Lawyer, Trudeau Fellow and Gordon Fellow (Canada)

    Clarissa Brocklehurst, Chief of Water, Environment and Sanitation, UNICEF (USA)

    Adele Hurley, Director, Program on Water Issues, Munk School of Global Affairs (Canada)

    Tony Maas, Director, Freshwater Program, WWF-Canada (Canada)

    Michael Miltenberger, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Legislative Assembly of Northwest Territories (Canada)

    Ganesh Pangare, Regional Water and Wetlands Programme Coordinator, IUCN Asia Regional Office (India)

    World Water Day

    Since 1993, World Water Day has been marked annually on 22 March to highlight the importance of managing freshwater resources sustainably. Its theme in 2011 is “water for cities” and the impact of rapid urban population growth, industrialization and uncertainties caused by climate change, conflicts and natural disasters, especially in an urban context. On behalf of UN-Water, UN-HABITAT is coordinating this year’s main World Water Day events in Cape Town, South Africa, jointly with the African Ministers’ Council on Water, the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, and the UN Environment Programme.

    InterAction Council

    Established in 1983, the InterAction Council seeks to address long-term, global issues — identifying future challenges and recommending feasible solutions. The Council’s 28th annual meeting last year in Hiroshima, Japan, took up the theme of abolishing nuclear weapons.


    Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany (1974-1982), Honorary Chairman

    Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister, Australia (1975-1983), Honorary Chairman

    Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada (1993-2003), Co-Chair

    Franz Vranitzky, Chancellor of the Republic of Austria (1986-1997), Co-Chair

    Andreas van Agt, Prime Minister, Netherlands (1977-1982)

    Esko Aho, Prime Minister, Finland (1991-1995 )

    Oscar Arias, President, Costa Rica (1986-1990, 2006-)

    Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, Prime Minister, Malaysia (2003-2009)

    James Bolger, Prime Minister, New Zealand (1990-1997)

    Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister, Norway (1981, 1986-1989, 1990-96)

    Ingvar Carlsson, Prime Minister, Sweden (1986-1991, 1994-1996)

    Jean-Luc Dehaene, Prime Minister, Belgium (1992-1999)

    Fernando de la Rúa, President, Argentina (1999-2001)

    Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President, Iceland (1980-1996)

    Yasuo Fukuda, Prime Minister, Japan (2007-2008)

    Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister (2004-) and Former Prime Minister (1990-2004), Singapore

    Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, President, Indonesia (1998-1999)

    Alain Juppé, Prime Minister, France (1995-1997)

    Seyed Mohammad Khātamī, President, Iran (1997-2005)

    Lee Hong-Koo, Prime Minister, South Korea (1994-1995)

    Abdul Salam Majali, Prime Minister, Jordan (1993-1995, 1997-1998)

    Nelson Mandela, President, South Africa (1996-2000)

    James Fitz-Allen Mitchell, Prime Minister, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (1972-1974, 1984-2000)

    Benjamin William Mkapa, President, Tanzania (1995-2005)

    Olusegun Aremu Okikiola Obasanjo, President of Nigeria (1976-79, 1999-2007)

    Andrés Pastrana, President, Colombia (1998-2002)

    Percival Noel James Patterson, Prime Minister, Jamaica (1992-2006)

    Yevgeny M. Primakov, Prime Minister, Russian Federation (1998-1999)

    Romano Prodi, Prime Minister, Italy (1996-1998, 2006-2008)

    Jerry John Rawlings, Head of State, Ghana (1986-2000)

    José Sarney, President, Brazil (1985-1990)

    Konstantinos G. Simitis, Prime Minister, Hellenic Republic (1996-2004)

    Tung Chee Hwa, Chief Executive, Hong Kong (1997-2005)

    George Vassiliou, President, Cyprus (1988-1993)

    Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, President, Latvia (1999-2007)

    Richard von Weizsäcker, President Germany (1984-1994)

    Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Léon, President, Mexico (1994-1999)

    For more information, journalists may contact Terry Collins:, 416-538-8712