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From Water conflicts to Water cooperation. The role of Water Diplomacy

What made Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, change his mind within one year on water? In March 2001 he told the world: “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future”. And in January 2002 he said: “the water problems of our world need not be only a cause of tension; they can also be a catalyst for cooperation….. If we work together, a secure and sustainable water future can be ours”.

Henk van Schaik, water expert and Board member of UPEACE Centre The Hague.

This surprising U-turn by Kofi Annan was explained by Henk van Schaik, Board member of UPEACE Centre The Hague and water expert, in a lecture on the 4th of December 2017 in Groningen for an audience of about 70 members of CLIO, the Study Association of International Relations & International Organization at the University of Groningen.


The interest in the topic ‘Water and conflicts” had been triggered by among others the World Economic Forum, that already for a couple of years considers water as a major security threat for global stability and peace.


In his lecture Henk van Schaik informed the audience about the background of the growing concerns about water that are mainly related with the increasing scarcity of water, due to a growing demand for fresh water, the increasing discharges into the environment of untreated or partially treated waste water flows and the impacts of climate change on the water cycle and the sea levels. These concerns triggered Kofi Annan to his first WATER statement.


His second statement is based on the record of water conflicts since 2500 B.C. These records, collected by Prof. Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University, show that with the exception of one in almost 5 millenia, WATER conflicts did not result in outright war. And, on top of that, the majority of water conflicts since 1948 had moved towards increasing cooperation instead of increasing conflict.


Learning from these experiences his key messages on promoting cooperation and preventing conflicts in international fresh water management were:

  1. International freshwater management is becoming increasingly important for meeting basic water needs and providing food security. A good example is SDG 6 (UN Global Compact Sustainable Development Goal 6): ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  2. There is no single best way to manage international freshwaters.
  3. Commissions or other platforms should be constructed internationally and nationally where the main actors can meet – national governments, lower level governments, water users, local populations, and NGOs. Good examples are the River Rhine Commissions, the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine and the Intenational Commission for the Protection of the Rhine.
  4. International agreements should have a sufficiently broad scope. 
  5. The single most effective strategy for reaching agreement is the political commitment to develop and maintain good relations and reciprocity.
  6. Joint or internationally coordinated research can improve the scientific-technical quality of international agreements; unilateral research usually cannot.
  7. All stakeholders should participate in the research activities and the political dialogue, and should be represented in the institutions and commissions.