By the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), on behalf of the UN-Water Task Force

Water, the essence of life, stands as a cornerstone in the sustainable development of societies worldwide. It serves as the linchpin for energy, health, and food sectors, while also playing a crucial role in biodiversity conservation. Yet, the alarming reality looms: roughly half of the world’s population faces severe water scarcity for at least part of the year.

This year, as World Water Day on 22 March focuses on the theme, ‘Water for Peace,’ we are compelled to reflect on the complex relationship between water, conflict, and cooperation. Water has the power to create peace or spark conflict. Over time, there have been many more incidences of cooperation than conflict over water. However, climate change and a rapidly growing population mean that pressure is building on a resource that is becoming increasingly erratic.

Climate change intensifies the water cycle, leading to more extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. Water-stressed regions become fertile grounds for various forms of conflict, from social instability to ethnic clashes and border disputes. As climate change impacts increase, there is an urgent need, within and between countries, to unite around water.

As more than 60% of global freshwater flow traverses political boundaries, transboundary water cooperation is crucial for regional stability and conflict prevention. Countries should develop agreements and set up joint institutions to peacefully manage shared water resources. Yet only 24 countries have cooperation agreements for all their shared water. Global legal and intergovernmental frameworks, such as the two UN Water Conventions, have greatly promoted and supported cooperation at basin level.

One striking example is the Sava River Basin. The signature of the Sava agreement, the first intergovernmental agreement after the Yugoslav Wars and creation of the Sava commission not only served as a unifying factor for the four riparian countries – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia – but also initiated trust and cooperation in the region.

In West Africa, heads of state in the 1970s decided to address the severe drought jointly by creating shared dams and the Senegal basin development organization.

Effective transboundary water cooperation acts as a powerful tool for conflict prevention and peacebuilding, addressing root causes of conflict and building trust between water users, communities, and countries sharing water resources.

World Water Day 2024 urges us to explore the critical relationship between water and peace. Numerous tools and good practices from around the world are available to support us in protecting and conserving our most precious resource. By embracing cooperative approaches and ensuring equitable access, we can harness water as a stabilizing force and a catalyst for sustainable development, fostering peace for generations to come.