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“Water for peace”, yes, but it doesn’t change the need for peace and justice

Reflections for World Water Day 2024

15 March 2024

'Hundreds of birds embark on a perilous journey across seven treacherous valleys in search of a king who can right the wrongs in their world. They are led by the poet Attar, who has been transformed into a sharp-beaked, crested hoopoe. The troubles that spur them into flight — “Anarchy — discontent — upheaval! Desperate fights over territory, water, and food! Poisoned air! Unhappiness!” — are of course all too familiar in our world.'

From The Conference of the Birds – the poem by Farid ud-Din Attar – Persian poet and philosopher (1145-1221) – translated by Peter Sis

Dr Mohsen Nagheeby

In a period declared by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as the International Decade for Action on “Water for Sustainable Development”, we are going to celebrate World Water Day on 22nd March – one among many thousands of events in the past several decades to unite around tackling the global water and sanitation crisis. This year’s theme is ‘Water for Peace’, which focuses on the critical role water plays in the stability and prosperity of the world.

If 15 years ago, we were thinking about heading into a perfect storm of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources by 2030, we would likely never have expected a severe global pandemic, which further revealed and increased inequalities in water and sanitation. Despite significant technological and particularly legal advances, for example, the acknowledgment of a “human right to water”, global inequalities concerning water and sanitation have clearly worsened. While two billion people still live without safe drinking water and 3.6 billion lack safely managed sanitation, in many parts of the world, people are not fighting just for survival anymore; but also to not die under the (other) violence of  political oppression.

We are still living in paradigms of the past produced by a history of colonisation that now serve the masters of modern global capitalism, leading us towards colonising the future. After two World Wars and a Cold War, followed by tragic military invasions and occupations – many still ongoing – it is perhaps natural that our language should be dominated more than ever by talk of a “peace” that focuses on water security, food security, environmental security, and, more recently, climate security.

Not surprisingly the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace brought together UN member states at the UN Security Council in 2016 to discuss the nexus between water, security, and peace. For many decades, economic, environmental, and human rights features of water debates have been overshadowed by a language of peace, but one that is insufficient to really engender change.

The current and dominant language of peace is unqualified and inadequate to save the world from itself. This dominant language bubble, so often amplified in UN settings, has led us to actively be complicit in reproducing rather than reversing injustice. The 2023 UN Water Conference in New York demonstrates that we need a fundamental rethink of fault lines in the global approach to water, justice, and peace.  We must rethink the fight for “water for peace”, and ask the question; which 'Peace’ are we seeking? Is it the Peace that allows an unjust status quo to continue, or is it a revolutionary Peace in which a situation of injustice is reversed and real, lived lives of the oppressed are made more bearable?

Water should always be a matter of peace. However, as we gingerly navigate the 21st Century fault lines and divisions between a Global North and Global South, between rampant capitalism and versions of a more equal, even socialist view of development, to prioritise humanity, and between oppressor and the oppressed, we should remind ourselves – always – of the quote from Martin Luther King in which he said: “true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice”.

The end of the global water and sanitation crisis will not come through talk of “Water for Peace” alone. It will only come if justice is sought for the oppressed, and achieved.

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