Water is the driving force of life – and access to it is a human right.
Despite that, nearly half of the global population now live in areas where water is potentially scarce for at least one month per year. According to the UN, this figure could rise to between 4.8 and 5.7bn people by the middle of the century.
Worse still, pressures on water resources are constantly growing. Extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and floods and droughts exacerbate existing water stress. At the root of this are climate change and pollution that result from environmental degradation. As water scarcity increases, so too does competition and the risk of conflict over access to and use of this precious resource. When we consider that the majority of global freshwater is shared across borders, it is clear that its sustainable and effective management is an issue of global concern.
Transboundary river basins cover 60% of all EU Member State territory, so Europe has plenty of experience in sharing this resource. From the Rhine to the Danube, from the Sava to the rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, there is a long-standing need for transboundary cooperation. We could even say that an important lesson has emerged from this history: the management of shared resources can galvanise peace and productive interdependence.
Europe’s experience shows that water issues can act as a powerful catalyst for closer regional cooperation and integration. It is a lesson we want to share, and that is why the EU is a strong supporter of transboundary water cooperation across the world. For us , the trinity of water, security and peace are closely interlinked .
Our efforts in this area go in three directions – support for international cooperation structures, support for regional efforts, and bilateral diplomacy.
In relation to international cooperation, the EU supports the work of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Water Convention, which aims to ensure the sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating cooperation and providing a governance structure for such cooperation. The process offers a tool for reducing political tensions, making the Convention a vehicle for promoting peace. The Convention is now open to countries beyond the UNECE region, and many African countries have expressed an interest. Some have already joined – a development that has the wholehearted support of the EU. For some time now, we have also argued for a strengthening of the UN system to work on global water issues, through the appointment of a Special Envoy and a reinforcement of the role of UN-Water, for example.
Regarding our regional efforts, EU support goes to legal and institutional frameworks for cooperation in transboundary aquifer basins. A case in point is the Senegal-Mauritanian Aquifer Basin, a shared groundwater reserve on which 80% of the local population is dependent. This work includes facilitating water dialogues and establishing transboundary water commissions, institutional mechanisms, and strategic action plans. It also includes promoting tangible instances of transborder cooperation in areas like Central Asia, the Nile basin, the Jordan River and the Niger River, all of which experience tensions over water resources and the impacts of variability and climate change.
The third pillar of our work on transboundary cooperation is bilateral efforts. This involves, for example, promoting the prevention, containment and resolution of conflicts through Water Diplomacy mechanisms, which also contribute to the equitable, sustainable and integrated management of water resources from source to sea, and to resilience to climate change impacts on water. We do this with China and India through Water Dialogues and partnerships on sustainable water management, sharing policy approaches, best practices and know-how, and bringing together the relevant business sectors.
In all our action on transboundary water management, we prioritise a regional and integrated approach. This is because experience clearly demonstrates that political tensions over water are often linked to poor governance or a lack of institutional cooperation. It also shows that long-term stability is highly dependent on one single factor – the strength of water governance at all levels.
For that reason, and many others, I feel that transboundary water cooperation and management should be the clear priorities for the UN 2023 Water Conference.
Water, they say, is life. It also needs to be the path to peace.