Water cooperation can bring peace to conflict zones

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Neena Gill
Neena Gill

Member of European Parliament

Picture of Sundeep Waslekar
Sundeep Waslekar

President of the Strategic Foresight Group

While the press and the eyes of the world focus on Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, as they edge slowly towards reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, another kind of peace process is taking place in Asia.

In March this year, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Dushanbe to meet Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon. They decided to end the two-decade old conflict over the 3600 MW Rogun Dam, located in southern Tajikistan.

Uzbeks had feared the issue would disrupt the flow of water to their cotton fields. Once the agreement was reached, 27 other protocols followed. This included visa-free travel for their citizens and the resumption of electricity trade in Central Asia.

This conflict between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is one of many examples where cooperation over shared water has brought peace in hostile environments. The ‘Water Cooperation Quotient’, released by the Strategic Foresight Group, has shown that no two countries involved in active water cooperation have ever gone to war. Indeed, securing joint action over the world’s 286 shared river basins could be the key to peace and stability in many regions.

As an experienced actor on water conflict, the EU can help Egypt and Ethiopia structure the Blue Peace process

With this in mind, cooling tensions over the Blue Nile River between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia should be at the top of the European Union’s foreign policy agenda. At times, the rhetoric between Egypt and Ethiopia descends into threats of war. However, much like the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan, agreement over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam can be reached through cooperation. Three years ago, the heads of states of the three countries signed a Declaration of Principles ‒ it is time that this translates into more assertive action. 

As an experienced actor on water conflict, the EU can help Egypt and Ethiopia structure the Blue Peace process. The Government of Switzerland has already announced Blue Peace as its state policy in foreign relations. This is an opportunity for Switzerland, and together with the EU, they can launch joint efforts to facilitate a political agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. As a major player in conflict resolution on the continent of Africa, the EU can be an effective ‘middle man’ to Switzerland, as the Union’s international status could see the Swiss achieve resolution at a more rapid pace. 

The EU also has economic weight behind it. With a development cooperation budget of over €3bn annually and a sovereign guarantee package of €4.4bn dedicated to five different sectors, including agriculture and hydro-power, this is a real opportunity for the EU. Unfortunately, much of these funds are constrained to national projects, which prevents an opportunity to promote trans-boundary cooperation and peace. 

In the 21st century, water and environment are at the core of economic and human development

The EU needs to remember how coal and steel brought its own continent together through industrialisation in the 1950s. In the 21st century, water and environment are at the core of economic and human development. Rivers, lakes and climate do not recognise man-made borders. Therefore, it is essential to shift emphasis in the European development cooperation strategy from national projects to ones that promote trans-boundary cooperation. 

On 24 April, we took the first step in the European Parliament to put this important issue firmly on the agenda by hosting the ‘Water as a Force for Peace’ event that was attended by key actors from the EU institutions and think tanks. Now we need political action taking advantage of the current momentum, as the United Nations Security Council is engaging discourse on water, peace and security for the first time in its history. The EU Council of ministers must follow the momentum generated in the Security Council, OSCE and other multilateral institutions to declare trans-boundary water cooperation as a priority for not only development, but also for world peace.

If Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un make peace and agree on denuclearising the region, they will soon have to discuss the future of the Han River that flows between the two Koreas. Navigation in the river is blocked due to conflict between the two countries. Several years ago, the South Koreans were worried about the North manipulating its flow. 

A reconciliation process between the two Koreas will only be complete when an agreement on Han River creates ‘Blue Peace.’

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