A matter of survival
BY: Sundeep Waslekar
Aena News, November 3, 2017

A Matter of Survival

Until a few months ago, the Islamic State or Daesh seemed invincible. Suddenly from May to October, it lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria. Even though its network in Europe is active, it will lose steam in the next few months. This dramatic turnaround was brought about by a singular military action of the US led international coalition. The Islamic State controlled Tabqa, the largest dam in Syria on the Euphrates River. It used it to hide its top leaders and high value prisoners, besides selling electricity from the hydro-power station to the Assad regime. It also had its tax office there for traders from Iraq and Syria to pay ransom. The Islamic State believed that the international coalition would not bomb the dam for the fear of flooding southern Syria.

One night in late March, the US marines helped the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mostly comprising of Kurdish armed group YPG, to land at Tabqa by helicopter. It took six weeks of battle for the Daesh to surrender the dam. Once it lost its biggest strategic asset, it took a few more weeks to lose most of the territory under its control. But this has raised new ethical and political questions. The dam is now controlled by YPG, another armed non-state actor. The competition for strategic water assets in the Middle East is now between armed groups and terrorists. This has resulted from the failure of the states to cooperate over the last several decades.

There is a fear that terrorists will also compete for controlling water assets in parts of Africa in the future.

In February, UN Security Council passed Resolution 2341 calling for UN member states to protect critical infrastructure, including water installations, building on the Security Council session 7818 of 22 November 2016 on water, peace and security.

With growing concern for security threats to water, the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace has presented a comprehensive plan to protect water infrastructure from terrorist attacks and violent conflicts. Chaired by Danilo Turk, former President of Slovenia, and co-convened by 15 countries from all continents, the High Level Panel released its report on 14 September. The recommendations of the panel also include financial and diplomatic measures to foster trans-boundary water cooperation since security and cooperation are interdependent.

The efforts for cooperative water security are further strengthened as the InterAction Council, an organisation of former Heads of Governments has announced its support for the Water Cooperation Quotient, constructed by the Strategic Foresight Group. This barometer of cooperation in all of the world’s 286 shared river basins reveals strong a correlation between trans-boundary water cooperation and diminution of the risk of war. Of the 146 countries with shared rivers and lakes, 22 pairs of countries engaged in war or war rhetoric happen to be the same which score at the bottom of the Water Cooperation Quotient. Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos Horta urges the world to use it as a conflict prevention tool.

Africa is leading the way in water cooperation. The countries in Senegal and Gambia river basins own and manage hydro-electric plants, canals and navigation lines as common property, superseding national sovereignty. The nine countries in the Niger River Basin own water assets nationally but voluntarily offer veto to the neighbours before building infrastructure. Senegal is taking an initiative to spread the idea of cooperative water security in the UN Security Council. It is also hosting the World Water Forum in 2021 to highlight the linkage between water, peace and security. Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are gradually giving up their confrontational attitude on managing the Nile River. And smaller African countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire are taking baby steps to establish river basin organisations. Europe and the Americas already have robust river basin organisations. The countries of the Middle East and Asia are most reluctant to cooperate, creating a mega arch of hydro insecurity from the Middle East via Central and South Asia to Southeast Asia.

The risks of war, terrorism and poverty that two billion people in shared river basins of the developing world face can be averted in the future if investments are made in cooperative water security. Therefore, the report of the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace concluded that water is not merely about development and sanitation. It is a matter of survival.

Sundeep Waslekar is President of Strategic Foresight Group, an international think tank