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Critical to sustainable communities, water security is fundamental to healthy and prosperous societies. A water secure world harnesses the benefits of water, while minimizing its risks. Impacts on water availability, whether through urbanization, climate change or conflict, can potentially jeopardize future economic, environmental and societal ambitions. Join this latest 30-minute QTalk with environmental journalist Tom Freyberg to hear leading global water security experts cut through the complicated, multidimensional set of issues with succinct, practical advice. Better prepare for the future by learning from historic and current challenges and conflicts. Participants: Martina Klimes, PhD, Advisor, Water and Peace at Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) John Matthews, PhD, Executive Director, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation David J. Kilcullen, PhD, CEO of Cordillera Applications Group

What is water security?

Diving straight into the heart of the topic and acknowledging that the definition is continually changing, Tom asked each of the speakers about their definition of water security. 

Water resilience as the new yardstick for water security

John began by exploring how, over the past 25 to 30 years, there’s been a shift to viewing the future of water as something that’s relatively predictable. While in the past the best indicator of water security was measured by a highly optimized and very efficient use of water, today, water security can be defined by the level of water resilience that exists.  Referring to our current understanding of climate change and how major economic, epidemiological, and political disruptions can create global ripple effects, John spoke of how we can properly anticipate, prepare for, and respond to events. Our level of resilience, he said, is the new indicator of water security. 

Working with other sectors to promote water security 

Following on from this point, Martina spoke about how we need to move away from the traditional definition of water security, and how the water sector can better work with other sectors to help preserve national and regional water security. While climate change and water scarcity are often referred to as threat multipliers, Martina looks at them as opportunities for more cooperation, too. For example, Martina considers the new trilateral deal between Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (enabling Jordan to provide solar energy to Israel in exchange for disseminated water supported by the United Arab Emirates) as a model for future regional cooperation that can help build sustainable energy and water systems in a region of high climate stress. 

Water as a predictor of conflict 

Referencing research carried out by the Pacific Institute that tracks every instance of known water conflict, David spoke about how water is often a key predictor of conflict. Looking at the examples of Syria and Iraq and during the Arab Spring, water shortages are one of the strongest predictors of unrest in an urban setting and of intra-state conflict in particularly water-scarce regions.

Water security in times of conflict

Continuing with the theme of water security during times of conflict, Tom asked the experts whether they predict a future acceleration in conflicts or higher instances of resolved conflicts. 

Distinguishing between different levels and scales of conflict

Looking first at what is meant by “conflict”, Martina acknowledged that we need to distinguish armed conflict from political tensions and regional vulnerabilities. While she doesn’t predict armed interstate wars over water resources, at a community level, Martina believes that there is potential for vulnerable communities in water-scarce regions to be exploited by others, and that water can be a major driver of intra-state tensions.

Water as a strategic asset during conflict

Referencing the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Tom asked David to comment on how water was used as a strategic asset at the beginning of the conflict.  David explained how, globally, there have been 220 armed conflicts over water in just three years since the turn of the decade, of which Ukraine is one. Access to drinking water and access to agricultural irrigation water have both been weaponized during the conflict, while Ukraine itself used strategic flooding as a way to channel the Russian attack into Kyiv. David commented how water isn’t always just a driver of conflict, but it also shapes how conflict takes place.

How water connects a fragmented world

Wrapping up by looking at the role of water as a connector, Tom asked John to elaborate on how he views this role playing out in the context of a fragmented world affected by climate change. 

Water as a “resilience multiplier”

John views water as a resilience multiplier that connects our governance systems and infrastructure systems and links both our economies and ecosystems together.  Water moves through institutions, administrative relationships, and products and services, and John mentioned the chip shortage experienced during the COVID pandemic as a prime example. The water shortage and drought in Taiwan — the country responsible for more than half of the world’s output of chips — created supply chain issues felt across the global economy. All this points to the fact that water problems in one supply chain can impact global supply chains exponentially.  Wrapping up, the experts spoke on the future of water security and discussed the nations that are exemplifying some of the best practices that are helping to promote water security. Afghanistan was highlighted as a good model of inclusive stakeholder engagement, and Hawaii was also acknowledged as a place where progress towards water security has been hampered by excluding women from discussions.

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