Climate Change, Water, and Conflict: Q&A with Danilo Türk and Hamish Young

Displaced Yemenis from Hodeida fill water containers at a make-shift camp in a village in the northern district of Abs in the country's Hajjah province, on June 23, 2019. (ESSA AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Global warming is impacting the world’s water supply and life cycle in almost every way. The impacts of climate change on water are particularly acute in areas of the world experiencing conflict. As water supplies become more strained in conflict contexts, they are increasingly being exploited and weaponized as strategic targets. Danilo Türk of the Geneva Water Hub and Hamish Young of UNICEF spoke with the Global Observatory about these challenges.

In the coming decades, much of the world’s population will live in cities or areas where climate change is impacting water supplies, access to water is already limited, or where there is conflict. What can be done to address this challenge?

Mr. Turk: The problem of water will certainly grow in the twenty-first century. It is important that existing good practices are properly studied, well-understood, and applied where possible and necessary. Israel, for example, has developed very good technologies for water, not only for desalination, but also for recycling—they recycle more than 80 percent of their water. Singapore and Japan are other examples—in Japan, there are many new technologies being applied for better and more efficient use of water.

These approaches are especially helpful in parts of the world where water is seen as something that doesn’t require much attention—which is, of course, an illusion. We need to have a much more sensible water policy everywhere, even in places where there is an abundance of water.

There is also the areas where water is scarce and where fragility creates a possibility for armed conflicts. These circumstances require other approaches, prioritizing how best to make water resources used or made available in a fair and just manner so that there is no impression that water is being used for some and denied to others. Again, good practices exist, and in places where they don’t they will have to be put in place. If one takes, for example, the Sahara in Africa, one can see that any realistic direction towards peace and stability will require a very careful management of water and using water as a means of peaceful cooperation.

Mr. Young: In terms conflict situations—and more generally for cities—national governments should build water access and respect for water facilities into their rules of engagement. This is, of course, well-covered by international humanitarian law, but more needs to be done because it’s not being respected or enforced.

I think we have one or two examples to draw on. If you look at Syria, there was a period in Aleppo when both parties to the conflict respected water and sanitation, particularly the water treatment and pumping station. And then, when the line of conflict shifted and one party needed the water more than another, it was still respected. This arrangement obviously didn’t last, but it demonstrates that it can be done.

There’s also an example from Yemen, where we’re working with the WHO [World Health Organization] and World Bank, and in the midst of conflict we’re rehabilitating water infrastructure. This is, of course, highly dependent on both sides of the conflict respecting it. So, they’re not everywhere, but there are concrete examples that we can build on.

What can be done to ensure accountability in conflict contexts—for example in Yemen—when water facilities are attacked or water supplies intentionally contaminated?

Mr. Turk: Firstly, the war in Yemen needs to stop. When the war does stop a completely new approach to water use needs to be found. For the time being, Yemen uses 90 percent of its water resources for agriculture, and that’s not good. It has to be done differently, there are more efficient uses of water for agriculture, already known in places like Jordan. Now, we know that there are very powerful political forces that are in favor of continuing the war, but I think that all those who are continuing the war are putting this country in such an existential threat situation and will have to be accountable at some point in the near future.

Mr. Young: The options for ensuring accountability are quite limited. There are, however, approaches to working with non-state armed groups to protect water supplies. Many of these groups have a connection to their own population, and there are accountability mechanisms between their combatants, the political forces that control them, and their communities.

A good example comes from South Sudan, in an area that was under the control of an SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] breakaway group led by the now vice-president Riek Machar. We used to meet with Machar and his political representatives, and sometimes military representatives, and we would advocate for humanitarian access and appeal for respect of IHL [international humanitarian law] and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as it applied to all children in Sudan.

What we would then do is begin a dialogue around protecting children and water supplies. We would encourage senior leadership to sign written agreements committing to uphold IHL and the CRC, to essentially create a framework. This gave us something to take around to other commanders on the ground to say that their senior commanders have committed to protecting children and the water supply. Over time this helped to reduce attacks on wells and pumping stations, as well as intentional contamination acts like dropping dead cows or dead bodies down wells. The approach is far from perfect, but shows there are ways and means.

How do you think water security in fragile contexts should be included in UN resolutions or decision-making? Are there examples?

Mr. Turk: I don’t think there are specific examples where the UN has demonstrated a viable and effective policy. What I would propose is to use the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the discussion around SDG 6 on water for a rather specialized focus on fragile situations. Given SDG 6 is on water, one would assume that water situations will be presented to the UN in a detailed and comprehensive way, which can then inform approaches to water governance in these situations. Only then can one talk about meaningful UN resolutions. Before that I don’t have much hope that the UN would be able to recommend sensible and effective policies.

But when one talks about Security Council resolutions, then it is about an active armed conflict, or prevention of an armed conflict, or post-conflict reconstruction. There, obviously, the Security Council will have to do more to focus on water as one of the critical elements of survival of the people. We are really talking about protection of civilians, and that has to be given much higher priority than it has received so far.

Also, the Security Council will have to figure out the problem of reverberating effects of attacks on civilian sides. For example, if the electricity grid is damaged in a country, that has an effect on water pumps and water treatment, which has further effects on civilian populations, especially young children. So I think that it will be very important to get advice from UNICEF, which is looking at situations on a daily basis.

How can successful water protection in conflicts be leveraged to help support peace more broadly?

Mr. Turk: To do this effectively one would need to take into account the specific local circumstances.

Let us take the example of Syria. In Syria, the international community has many very good reasons to make peace universal. Now, the war has basically ended, but full peace is not yet established. And in order for full peace to be established and for conditions to be adequate for the return of refugees, one would need to take care of the infrastructure, which means, among other things, water. No return of refugees can be expected in areas where water and infrastructure was destroyed. In post-war reconstruction, water infrastructure has to be given a very high priority.