UN Security Council: Open Debate on Water, Peace and Security

Ministry Statements & Speeches:

  • Peace, Rights and Security
Statement delivered by Gerard Van Bohemen, Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations, 22 November 2016

I wish to thank you, Minister Ndiaye, and your delegation for having convened this important and very interesting debate. I also express my appreciation to the Secretary-General and the other briefers.

The subject of today’s debate is somewhat challenging for New Zealand: on the one hand, we are surrounded by water and that water — seawater — is fundamental to our security and to our economic well-being. On the other hand, with our nearest neighbour more than 1,200 miles away, that water is uncontestably subject to New Zealand jurisdiction, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. We are in the lucky situation of not having to share freshwater resources with any other nation or manage the challenges of a shared riverine boundary.

But we know that other members of this Organization have much more difficult situations to manage and that access to critical natural resources can have profound implications for the survival and prosperity of communities, and competition for these has long been a potential source of conflict. Therefore, while I agree with my Russian colleague that there is nothing inherent in water that makes it a security issue, we all know that no resource is more central to human survival than fresh water and that where that resource is scarce or access is restricted, the potential for conflict is real.

As we heard from Mr. Danilo Türk, approximately 145 States and 40 per cent of the world’s population fall within 263 international river basins. In some regions, hundreds of millions of people rely on the outflow of just a handful of at-risk water sources. Even in a country like New Zealand, which has mostly clean and relatively abundant fresh water, economic activities and a growing population are putting pressure on freshwater resources in terms of both managing access and maintaining water quality.

Those regions of the world already struggling with water shortages are expected to experience further scarcity as they feel the combined effects of rapid population growth, increased agricultural production and climate change. Moreover, the potential for conflict between countries over transboundary water resources is well documented. Water crises can increase State fragility and act as a threat multiplier.

I wish to highlight three areas where we believe more could be done on this issue to support international peace and security.

First, we need to acknowledge that the effective management of water resources is not only essential for resilience and sustainable development, but is also an effective conflict-prevention tool. In many parts of the world, considerable progress has been made in the collaborative management of water resources, enhancing security and prosperity. This is most effective at the regional level.

There are many successful multiparty management frameworks, stretching from the Mekong River in South-East Asia to the Senegal River and the Lake Chad Basin in West Africa. Effective regional cooperation to mitigate conflict risk must be applauded. We need to support such initiatives and foster them in areas where frameworks are absent.

As the Secretary-General noted this morning, the United Nations can play an important role. We welcome, for example, the work of the Department of Political Affairs, through the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, in fostering dialogue and cooperation on the management of transboundary water resources in Central Asia. Initiatives such as the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace can also allow us to focus our efforts.

Secondly, in existing conflict situations we need to recognize that competition for water resources can affect the conduct and continuation of hostilities. Disputes over water need to be fully integrated into conflict analyses and conflict-prevention and resolution strategies.

The denial of access to water can be used for political leverage or as a weapon of war, as we have heard a number of times this morning. We have seen the shocking and deliberate use of such cynical tactics against civilians in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Freshwater systems form part of critical civilian infrastructure and, as such, are protected under international humanitarian law. As the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross made clear this morning, deliberately denying civilians’ access to fresh water represents a violation of international human rights law and in conflict settings may even amount to war crimes.

Thirdly, and finally, we need to ensure that water security is not considered solely as a transboundary issue. As the Council heard during the open debate on security challenges facing small island developing States convened by New Zealand last year (see S/PV.7499), security threats can take different forms for such States. For many small island States in my own region, reliable access to fresh water is an existential issue.

Almost half of the small island developing States in the Pacific have no significant surface water resources. Almost as many also lack groundwater reserves. This leaves many communities reliant on unpredictable rainfall patterns for fresh water, representing a threat to the sustainable development and health and, ultimately, the viability of many Pacific populations.

Climate change effects on the region are likely to include more intense droughts and the potential contamination of available groundwater resources. Those impacts can exacerbate security risks. New Zealand has been working with its Pacific partners to address a range of water-related vulnerabilities across the region, including rainwater-harvesting systems in Kiribati and Vanuatu and strengthening national water management and delivery systems. We are also working towards improving supply and reliability of water supplies for drought-prone islands in Tuvalu, Tokelau, Cook Islands and the Marshall Islands.

In conclusion, ensuring water security for the world’s population represents one of the most critical challenges facing the global community. Ultimately, that can only be achieved through effective regional and international cooperation. Doing so will enhance prosperity and security by fostering resilience and trust. It can help prevent conflict and save lives.

I thank Senegal for its work in the area and the briefers for their instructive contributions. We must continue to lend our full support to such efforts.


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