“Transforming water into a source of cooperation and peace”

New York, 22.09.2016 - Address by the Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter a the occasion of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly (High Level Side Event Water as a source of peace - Developing political momentum to advance water cooperation and prevent water-related conflicts) - Check against delivery

Deputy Secretary-General
Dear colleagues
Ladies and gentlemen

I would like to thank you all for joining us in this side event on water and peace. Together with our co-hosts from Costa Rica, Senegal and Slovenia, Switzerland has organised this meeting because we think that more political effort should be invested in promoting water as a source of cooperation and peace.

There is broad recognition today that water is essential for sustainable development. Water is an indispensable resource for public health, agriculture and food security, energy, and industrial production. Switzerland welcomes the inclusion of water in the Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, we actively contributed to this and also support the idea of an intergovernmental body to ensure follow-up of water issues within the 2030 Agenda. We also commend the UN Secretary General and the President of the World Bank for launching a High Level Panel on Water to promote the implementation of the water goal. And I would like to personally thank you, Mr Deputy Secretary General (Eliasson), for your long-standing commitment to water and for sharing your views with us today.

Switzerland’s vision is that water will be as firmly established as a peace and security issue on the political agenda as it has been recognised as a development issue. We consider the interlinkages between water, peace and security to be essential for the well-being of humankind.

Water scarcity is growing rapidly, not least as a result of climate change. In many parts of the world, a mounting global water deficit poses a growing threat to the economic, social and political gains of development.

Water can be a source of tension and instability. Competition over water can cause or fuel conflicts, and water crises often add to the fragility of countries. What is more, cutting off water supplies has become an instrument of warfare, with disastrous consequences for the population, as documented by the ICRC in Syria.

The augmented security challenges related to water are a reality we have to deal with. But there is a second reality that we should emphasise much more: there is enormous potential for transforming water from a source of crises to a source of cooperation and peace. All of us can contribute to this end.

The case for transboundary water cooperation is strong. While such cooperation does require political compromise, it also provides enormous gains for all sides. Water cooperation ensures economic prosperity, fosters resilience, creates trust, and enhances security. There are several good examples of which I am sure we will hear today, including the Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal.

Collaborative water schemes can be a powerful measure to prevent conflict. They can also be an entry point when more difficult issues make dialogue between parties difficult.

Let me cite a remarkable example from Syria. In a watershed a few hundred kilometres from Damascus, opponents who were fighting during daylight were observed sitting together and negotiating a fair quota of water in the evening. This extreme example is of course no role model for how we envisage water cooperation. But it does underscore that collaborative water solutions can be found even in the most difficult situations.

The Swiss foreign ministry has developed a set of Lines of Action on Water and Security to address the nexus of water, peace and security. Our engagement relies on the long-standing experience Switzerland has in transboundary water cooperation, for instance in the Rhine basin, one of the most important cultural and economic axes in Europe.

One of our main activities is our ‘Blue Diplomacy’ in different regions, including the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. We seek to strengthen water collaboration through dialogue promotion and capacity building programmes. Switzerland is supporting efforts to strengthen good governance and management mechanisms in seventeen transboundary river basins worldwide.

In addition to these local and regional measures, we consider it essential to have a global dialogue on these issues and on best practices in water collaboration. This is why Switzerland has initiated the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace that was launched in Geneva last November by 15 countries, among them today’s co-hosts. The panel’s task is to develop proposals to facilitate the use of water for building peace and to strengthen the global architecture to prevent and resolve water-related conflicts. We plan to have another side event here next year to discuss these proposals, hopefully with all of you present.

We also launched a Group of Friends of this panel and are grateful to the about 40 countries that have so far joined us in our common endeavor. And we are supporting the Geneva Water Hub that is accompanying the panel and feeding the dialogue on water, peace and security with new ideas.  Let me thank the President of the panel, Mr Danilo Türk, who has offered to introduce its work in more detail today.

Ladies and gentlemen

This meeting offers an opportunity to have an exchange on our respective experiences and expectations concerning water as a source of peace and to develop shared ideas on where to go next.

Let me conclude with two propositions from Switzerland:

First, global and regional development banks are increasingly investing resources in water infrastructure. This is good news. We propose including collaborative elements in these schemes as much as possible to advance development and peace at the same time.

Second, we believe that the UN, together with regional organisations, should play a major role in the field of water and peace. The UN is the natural place to seek global solutions to this global challenge. The UN can provide valuable assistance to countries that are facing challenges in the management of water. And the UN can help promote cooperative responses, which goes to the heart of what this organisation – our common organisation – is about. 

Thank you.


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