“A big fish to fry: Translating the Basel spirit into inclusive dialogue and common action for water cooperation in Central Asia”

Astana, 19.06.2017 - Rede von Bundesrat Didier Burkhalter anlässlich der Eröffnung der Konferenz zur Schweizer Initiative „Blue Peace Central Asia: Dialogue for 2030 - Water Security and Inclusive Growth“ - Es gilt das gesprochene Wort

Mr Minister of Foreign Affairs

Ladies and gentlemen

It is an honour and great pleasure to welcome you to this conference on water and peace in Central Asia. Or, as we in Switzerland call it, “Blue Peace Central Asia”. I would like to thank Kazakhstan for co-hosting this event. We very much appreciate the warm hospitality we are enjoying here in Astana.

This is the second high-level dialogue on water and peace in Central Asia after our Basel conference three years ago. We started this common dialogue in Switzerland because we wanted to come forward with our own broad experience on transboundary water management and cooperation.

As you may recall, the River Rhine in Basel marks the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland. The Rhine River basis was the place where, after the Second World War, transboundary integrated water management contributed to the transformation of a formerly disputed region into a peaceful one. Coming up with a common water scheme that works for all, upstream and downstream, was no small thing. As the saying goes, this was a big fish to fry! But the results have been remarkable.

Let us now bring the Basel spirit to Astana. The time is ripe to pursue our dialogue in Central Asia. We propose to do so by continuing our Blue Peace approach. In other words: by breaking down traditional silos and barriers, having an informal and consensus-based policy dialogue on jointly agreed priority topics, and exploring new paths and solutions for transboundary water management in an effort to advance both development and peace. 

I would like to take this occasion to thank all the delegations for renewing your confidence in this process and for inviting Switzerland to accompany you on this journey. Our gathering here reflects the multiple dimensions of our mutually enriching and longstanding partnerships. These partnerships range from the constituency in the Bretton Woods institutions to our cooperation in the domain of education.

Meeting on the margins of Expo 2017 is particularly appropriate. The Expo is a unique event aimed at connecting the global community, informing the public, sharing innovation and fostering cooperation. I look forward to visiting it later today.

As you could observe last night, the Swiss pavilion showcases Switzerland as an innovative country with an interactive exhibition on energy efficiency, renewable energies and water management. We have made water a priority theme of the pavilion for two reasons – one Swiss and one global.

First, water is a big issue in Switzerland. With the Alps, Switzerland is Europe’s main water reservoir – or ‘water castle’, as we call it. And we seek to make the most of it: on average, a drop of water flows ten times through a turbine in Switzerland before leaving our country.

The second reason is our conviction that water is at the centre of many global challenges – energy being no exception. The pavilion seeks to draw the visitors’ attention to the importance of water for our common future.

Those present at our meeting at the pavilion last night will have noted two messages that are particularly dear to Switzerland when it comes to water: one, water matters – to all of us; and two, water connects us all. Allow me to offer some thoughts on both these points.

First, water matters.

Without water there is no life, no food, no energy and no security. Water has made it possible for our societies to become established and advance. As you know better than I do, water flows through Central Asia’s history. Your region has a long and unique experience of water management. The water management technologies invented in Central Asia several thousand years ago helped create life and culture in the deserts, steppes and mountains. They gave birth to a medieval civilisation that inspired many.

Water has been an enabler of development, in Central Asia as elsewhere. Today there is a risk however that this enabler could turn into a bottleneck for future development if we fail to commonly address the global water crisis. This crisis is multifaceted. One of its expressions is the decrease of water availability per capita. Half of the world’s largest cities experience water scarcity. It is estimated that by 2050, over half the global population may be living under water stress. The challenge is also one of quality – globally, 80% of waste water goes directly into the environment without treatment.

The second Swiss message that you may have come across yesterday is that water connects us all. Water does not know any borders. Over 90% of the global population lives in countries that share basins. In Switzerland surface water flows through a network that connects us directly with neighbouring countries such as Germany but also with countries much further away, such as Moldova.

There is also the phenomenon of virtual water flowing from one country to another as a result of international trade. For instance, cotton, one of the export products of the region is water-intense. There is a sort of global connectivity of water.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Because water matters, and because water connects us all, water cooperation is becoming ever more important. We must look at water in new ways. We need creative ideas and open minds. A fresh approach includes opening up new spaces for dialogue and mobilising all stakeholders – governments, civil society, international organisations and the private sector. It includes reaching out to sectors beyond water and to the young generation, our children, the future of this planet. Fostering young people's commitment to water and peace is a priority for Switzerland. We all benefit from their creativity, energy and zeal to engage and define new solutions. We appreciate that young professionals are part of your delegations today.

All our governments made the commitment to “transform our world”, as the title of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states. In the field of water management, this transformation is about recognising the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. It is about taking responsibility for managing water more effectively. And it is about working together towards a comprehensive and coordinated approach to water at all levels: local, regional, national and international.

Such a transformation of water management will benefit us all, upstream and downstream countries. The cost of inaction is already significant today and it will rise further.
The benefits of water cooperation go beyond the direct economic gains that can be derived from better water management. I emphasise this because upstream countries sometimes point out with concern that water cooperation generates fewer direct economic benefits for them than for downstream countries. 

To come back to the Rhine: the increased water quality that derives from water cooperation and improved water management has had obvious positive effects on the environment and the quality of life for the people in upstream countries like Switzerland. To give just one example, biodiversity has increased again as fish species have returned. Switzerland invests a lot to deliver high-quality water to our neighbours.

Sometimes we absorb parts of water masses after heavy rain preventing flood disasters downstream. The benefits outweigh the costs of doing so. Doing so is right and in our best self-interest.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Water is universally recognised as a driver – a “river” – of development. Our vision is that water should also be a source of peace.

We have all witnessed that water can be a source of tension and instability. Competition over water resources can cause or fuel conflicts and water crises often add to the fragility of countries. In some cases, such as the war in Syria, water is even used as a weapon of war, in stark violation of international humanitarian law.

Our goal is to counter these challenges with a much more positive narrative and a practice of cooperation. There is enormous potential for transforming water from a source of crises to a source of peace and stability. The interlinkages between water, peace and security are essential for the well-being of humankind. All of us can contribute to this end.
Blue Peace has a global and a regional dimension.

At the global level, in November 2015 Switzerland launched the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace to promote creative thinking on how to boost and institutionalise water cooperation as a vehicle for peace. We did so together with Kazakhstan and 13 other co-convening countries. The report of the 15 panellists will be launched this September in Geneva. We will also present it during the UN High-Level Week in New York.

The report will contain recommendations on a broad set of issues. These include the centrality of financing water cooperation, new mechanisms of hydro-diplomacy, the role of data in knowledge-based decisions around water quality and quantity, and the obligation to protect water infrastructure in times of war. The report also outlines some best practice derived from successful cases of water cooperation. One of these cases is the Senegal River Basin Development Organisation (Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal), of which you will hear more in the course of the coming two days.

Two key lessons of this report will be that more dialogue on water is needed to ensure peace and development. And that collaborative water schemes can be a powerful means to prevent conflict and an entry point to building trust.

These lessons are also essential for the regional dimension of Blue Peace, in Central Asia and elsewhere. So let me conclude with some reflections on Blue Peace Central Asia.
Before we launched our common journey at the Basel Conference, I had met with the presidents of all five Central Asian countries.  Among other things, we discussed the pertinence of regional water resource management. These discussions left me with a conviction that regional solutions for water management in Central Asia are possible and will bring real benefits for the people. Discussions at the time and since then have shown to us that Switzerland’s active engagement in the region and its role in promoting the Blue Peace idea are well received, for which I am grateful.

As we gather here, our aim should be to translate the Basel spirit into an action-oriented, structured cooperation process for Central Asia. We should continue our informal dialogue and make it even more inclusive by opening up space for the young generation. But we should go beyond that and define solid work programmes and working structures for our dialogue platform. Let us use this timely conference to define and finalise areas of work to be pursued in the future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Moving from water crisis to water connectivity takes courage. This conference will help strengthen a coalition of agents of change, a community of engaged and inspirational people who want to move forward.

In the Swiss pavilion at Expo 2017, the water messages that were presented to you yesterday culminate in one final message. That is to say:

- water matters – to all of us;
- water connects us all;
- and so – and this is the final message –, let us all be Water Ambassadors!

I wish you, dear Water Ambassadors, inspiring days in Astana. And I look forward to continuing our mutual cooperation.

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