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Water Slide:   A Shrinking Resource Creates a Peace and Security Dilemma for the UN, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Nov

To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things.  Rebecca Solnit

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.  W. H. Auden

On Thursday in the US, many of us gathered with family or other loved ones, glasses and dinner plates on overload, all under the guise of confessing and sharing with each other our many blessings.

We pause too seldom in our busy lives to assess the many ways in which our lives in the so-called developed world have exceeded the global norm – more abundance, more opportunity, surely more access. If gratitude is an engine that makes our lives more meaningful and generous towards others, too many of us have left that engine on perpetual idle.  Or worse than that, we have bought into the more aggressive idea that the things we are lacking are more important to happy living than the things already provided. Despite what often appears to be our many blessings, we protest quite loudly about alleged deprivations regarding the things others have that we feel should be our right as well.

Especially in a time of increasing inequalities and incessant marketing, the temptation to identify our desires with those most well-off is overwhelming.   We want what others want; we desire more for ourselves but also “for our children.”  We can’t easily fathom that others could be rewarded so handsomely for their efforts while the rest of us struggle to merely push the envelope on material success.

Meanwhile, the simple things in life, the things we take for granted, remain largely beyond grateful consciousness.   In many places, we mostly assume that supermarkets will be filled with fresh produce, that water from our taps will be safe to drink, that waste from our consumption will be safely carted away well beyond the reach of our senses.  Our “taken for granted-ness” has taken our souls on a wild ride that clouds our vision while fanning our desires, endangering our own prospects and those around us.

And we so often refuse to connect the dots, to consider those untold millions on the move because the crops will no longer grow and the bombs cannot be silenced; the millions who can barely quench a deep thirst or wash away the layers of dust and ash from their hair and clothing; the millions who can provide no guarantees to their traumatized children that it will get no worse for them, children in conflict zones who must (as noted recently by the ICRC) spend their days in search of water instead of an education; the millions who now dream of even one day of clean water and fresh vegetables in the same way that some of us dream of Mcmansions and secluded seaside resorts.

Many of these “millions” have seen the advertisements as well.  They know something of what we in the “developed” world long for, what we have been taught to “crave.”  If our frustrations boil over at the perceived “injustices” of modern economic life, what response from these millions trapped in places like Aleppo, riding makeshift crafts across the seas from Libya, or recovering from corporate-induced water stresses in El Salvador would we consider to be justified?

This week in the UN Security Council, under leadership of Senegal, the issue of water access took center stage as the principle threat to international peace and security which it surely is.  While some Council members – especially Russia – preferred that discussions such as this take place in more clearly mandated UN conference rooms, all states acknowledged the peace and security implications of this most precious of resources, the degree to which, as Egypt noted, the world is characterized by “uneven distribution” of fresh water resources with potential to raise state tension levels.  With so much of our planet’s remaining unpolluted fresh water now melting into oceans or otherwise under control of only a handful of states, the conflict impacts of water scarcity will (and should) likely remain at the top of our collective security agendas.

Many Council members and briefers highlighted the complex relationship between water and conflict including, as noted by the US and Angola, the case study of the Lake Chad basin where water insecurity is both a cause and consequence of armed conflict.  Uruguay jointed with the ICRC in condemning the degree to which water access by local populations, especially in already water starved areas, is used as a “weapon of war.”  Malaysia rightly described water scarcity as a “threat multiplier,” a condition only made more urgent in the aftermath of military or terror activity.  New Zealand, as one of the very few states exercising sovereign control over more fresh water than it needs for domestic purposes, cited the “existential threat” to many Pacific island states experiencing rising sea water levels mixing with what little domestic fresh water resources exist.   As in other parts of the world, this Pacific  region is enduring what the UK more generally referred to as “a matter of life or death,” a desperation that can only fuel despair and increase prospects for violent conflict.

Of all the briefers and responders this day in the Security Council, perhaps the most impressive was Danilo Turk of Slovenia, formerly a candidate to become the next Secretary-General and now Chair of the Global High-Level Panel on Water & Peace.  In his remarks, Turk urged the UN to do more towards what he referred to as “hydro-diplomacy,” embedding expertise in water infrastructure into peacekeeping missions, ensuring that water protection becomes an integral component of civilian protection.   He also urged the UN to support successful, trans-boundary water management efforts – such as with the Senegal River – as well as offer to mediate agreements in other regions where cooperative water management could yield significant tension-reducing benefits – such as in Central Asia and in the Lake Chad region of Africa.   In this time of inequality and scarcity, water cooperation, Turk noted, “predicts peace.”

This is a prediction that all of us have a role in ensuring.  This is a form of conflict prevention in which all of us with blessings to spare can take part. We can learn to be as sensitive to the water demands of our consumption patterns as we are to the fat and calories in the foods we eat.  We can demand that infrastructure priorities include more reservoirs or, even better, more ways for private homes, apartments and industries to “catch” rainwater before it finds its way to the sea. We can eat more “imperfect” fruits and vegetables that are largely discarded by supermarkets and that consume, in the growing stage, every bit as much water as “perfect” specimens.  We can avoid watering our gardens as though all the plants therein were transplants from a distant rainforest.

And we can do more to promote resource justice. If water and other natural resources are the likely backdrop for new iterations of political and social unrest, we all have a role to play in reducing that potential.   This will be one test of the ability of our species to recover mindfulness and generosity at the heart of our consumptive desires. As Japan noted during the Security Council meeting, “a species made up primarily of water should treat water resources more kindly,” a kindness which surely must be extended to those millions longing for that day when reliable access to fresh water resources for their families can finally be guaranteed.