World Water Day 2013

Keynote speech by Helmut Scholz at the event „Thursting for Justice“, Brussels, March 20, 2013

Ladies and Gentleman,

Let me first of all congratulate our hosts for organizing this event at the occasion of World Water Day 2013 coming up this Friday. I thank you also for giving me the opportunity to share with you some thoughts about one of the most important topics of the years to come.

The UN General Assembly has declared 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation, and World Water Day of course should try to promote this topic as well.

Water systems ignore the political borders of the nation states. Joint water management institutions and strategies are hence a prerogative to avoid conflict. Water wars – in particular on the sub-state level – have already become a reality and with continued growth of world population, rapid urbanisation and the impact of climate change on sensitive agricultural areas the threat of conflict has increased.

While there are numerous encouraging examples of water cooperation and joint water management structures like for instance for the Mekong, we still lack sufficient systematic approaches for 60 % of the world’s 276 international river basins, some of them located in most fragile regions. This includes the river Jordan.

And we have water cooperations that did so far not deliver results that are satisfactory for all, like on the Indus, or that fail completely like in the catastrophe of the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

I am aware that the United Nations reports tend to emphasise on the energy potential of water, but I would like to point out that that the conflict of interests between upstream energy production and downstream irrigation and flood management needs has to be solved.

I am also aware that the organisers of this event stress on the right of the Kashmiri people to harvest hydro-power from their rivers and are unhappy about the India-Pakistan Indus agreement that was concluded without their democratic involvement. But I do not share the view that nations that happen to live upstream can do whatever they want with a river, regardless of the effects for people living downstream. This is wrong in the case of Turkey, controlling the water supplies for Iraq and Syria with its Ata Turk dam. This would be wrong for Uganda or Kenya, if they would unilaterally decide to take much more water out of Lake Victoria at the expense of farmers in Egypt. And the injustice in Israeli governments‘ denial of the right to access to water to Palestinians is just another example rightly highlighted by this forum, that access to water is a human right and should never be a weapon used in political or nation state conflict. Rivers do not belong to one nation, whether recognised as such or not. Freshwater is an increasingly scarce resource of our planet and access to it should be managed as a global public good.

While technologies for renewable energies are advancing quickly, their application as an alternative to harvesting energy from dam projects remains underdeveloped. As long as this is the case I advise to focus on the downstream perspective and the impact on farming and ecosystems. I say this also in the light of current development ambitions and their implied need for access to more energy in a number of regions in the world.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses has tried to supply the needed legal reference framework for the global tasks ahead of us already in 1997. It has still not reached the necessary number of ratifications to enter into force. The reluctance of states to ratify this convention is worrying. As an alternative, we might put some hope into the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes to find greater acceptance. Also non-European countries could now theoretically accede to it. But both conventions make it evident that we still have to bridge a long way between nice public statements and strong legal commitments.

Water and Trade

As an MEP serving in the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, you may allow me to share some thoughts with you on this aspect of water cooperation. In principle, trade offers an option to balance regional differences in access to water by trading for instance agricultural products that wouldn’t grow at the same time elsewhere, or by trading the so-called virtual water component of manufactured goods. Ninety percent of global water consumption can be allocated to industry and agriculture. However, this option should not be abused by simply buying up agricultural potential in another part of the world in order to cover-up miserable water governance in one’s own region. I can understand that the people of Kashmir are angry about being deprived of benefitting from their comparative advantage in water access. I share the Palestinian frustration over their continued artificial water supply shortage.

Until not long ago we could associate global water savings to trade, in particular through trade flows between North America and East Asia and Mexico. But with changes in global production chains, the industrialisation in the emerging economies and the erection of entire new cities on what was previously farm land, the world now learns about the new phenomenon of land – and thereby water – grabbing in other parts of the world.

Let me point out, that trading away water deficits works out only for those who can afford it. Poor people do not have the money to buy food grown elsewhere. If industrial large-scale farming is established in African regions, the related water consumption can literally dry out small-scale farming in the vicinity. The victims cannot grow food for own consumption any longer and cannot compensate with money.

Let us remember what we are fighting for when we are celebrating World Water Day: The Right to Water

Several important documents recognise the right to access to clean water. Let me take as an important example the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Diarrhoea caused by polluted water causes more deaths than HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis together, according to the WHO. Improving access to drinking water and sanitation could save the life of more than 2 million children every year.

WHO estimates the minimum daily water quantity needed per capita at 20 litres. Others argue that in order to meet decent hygienic levels this minimum should be defined at 50 litres.

Here in Belgium, some regions have established the right to water by providing a defined quantity for each household for free. Payment begins only above this quantity. Also the Netherlands, France and Britain have legally or even constitutionally entitled their population with a right to water. For others, providing water is one of the most important tasks of their municipalities. In the EU we currently witness an extremely successful collection of signatures for the first EU Citizens‘ Initiative addressing precisely the right to water, and fighting business dreams of privatisation of this service.

But nature itself makes it a precondition to provide each human being with the needed water, that we cooperate along the water basins and beyond political borders. In this simple truth lies maybe also a certain hope, an opportunity, that water teaches us the need for cooperation. A cooperation that could be fruitful for other development needs as well.