Switzerland and Blue Peace
There’s nothing more essential to life on earth than water. Yet in ever more places on the planet, water is in a state of acute crisis. Due to rapid population growth, changing consumption patterns and rising pollution, clean water is increasingly scarce with direct consequences on peace and stability worldwide. As climate change intensifies pressure on our water resources, increased and innovative collaboration is needed between riparian states.
Launched in 2010 by Switzerland, the Blue Peace initiative engages with multiple actors in various water stressed regions to turn competition over shared freshwater into collaboration for stability and sustainable development.
Water flows through Switzerland’s history
Water connects us closely with our neighboring countries. Transboundary rivers represent almost 60% of freshwater worldwide. As this resource is under pressure, cooperation between riparian states and communities is more essential than ever to ensure people have adequate water supply, a stable environment and are safe from uncertainty.
Cross-border cooperation has become a staple of Switzerland’s history of water management. Switzerland shares 6 rivers and 4 lakes with its neighbors. In the early 1960s, fishers and bathers of Lake Geneva noticed a worrying change: their lake was turning green. Due to the rapid urbanization, human-induced pollutants were fostering rapid generation of algae. This phenomenon was hampering the lake’s ecosystems, the access to drinking water, and the enjoyment of swimming time.
Given that the Leman’s watershed crossed political lines, Genevan researchers and authorities sought the support of their French neighbors. As the transboundary water collaboration increased, so did the levels of oxygen in the lake. In the following years, new institutional frameworks were put in place to better manage shared surface and groundwater resources in the Grand Genève region. A collaboration that led to the first transboundary conventions specifically on groundwater resources, covering the Nappe du Genevois in 1978.
On the other side of the country, the River Rhine, one of Europe’s most important rivers, sourced in the Alps before crossing five other countries, is covered by one of the most innovative agreement between riparian states. Since 1963, it has fostered sustainable development in the basin through joint, protective hydrological measures. Today, 90.2% of transboundary basins’ area in Switzerland is covered by water governing regimes. Cooperation with neighboring countries has contributed to the country’s prosperity.
Blue Peace: a vision for sustainable development
As 153 countries worldwide share transboundary water resources, the wide-spread question are: How can we turn real or potential competition into cooperation? How can the issues of who gets how much water, for which purposes, and in what quantity be entry-points for wider socio-economic exchanges? As a vision and a diplomatic initiative, Blue Peace aims to promote water cooperation across borders, sectors and generations to foster peace, stability and sustainable socio-economic development by providing concrete tools for systemic transboundary water resources management.
As each transboundary context has its specific challenges, Blue Peace’s approach is multilevel tailored to the respective context in which it is active, leveraging a range of diplomatic, political, technical, educational and financial instruments. Currently, Blue Peace encompasses three distinct and interconnected regional initiatives: Blue Peace Middle East, Blue Peace Central Asia, and Blue Peace West Africa. As a diplomatic initiative, Blue Peace uses water as a peacebuilding tool, with the support of the Geneva Water Hub, a think tank and academic center of the University of Geneva.
Transboundary cooperation between upstream and downstream countries is central to meeting the populations’ needs, not only providing drinking water and food, but also environmental and energy security. To bring these concerns further on the international stage, the World Water Forum’s ninth edition will focus on “Water Security for Peace and Development”. The Forum is the world's largest water conference in which the international water community and key decision-makers meet and make long-term declarations on global water challenges. For the first time since its foundation, the Forum will take place in sub-Saharan Africa, in Dakar, Senegal, from 21 to 26 March 2022.
Blue Peace West Africa - If the river could talk
West African countries and regional actors, such as basin organizations, commissions and similar entities, have established leading examples of regional transboundary water collaboration for years. Most recently, in September 2021, water ministers from The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, and Senegal met in Geneva to adopt a declaration to establish institutional transboundary cooperation around the Senegal-Mauritanian Aquifer Basin, on which 15 million people depend. Groundwater resources are very seldom the subject of agreements between two or more countries. In the world, there are 468 transboundary aquifers, and less than 10 have been the subject of a formalized agreement. The joint declaration is the result of water diplomacy, demonstrating that challenges pertaining to water resources management can spur dialogue between states for long-term, peace and security.
As source of life, water can hardly be reduced to solely a governmental prerogative. To strengthen shared water management as an instrument for peaceful societies, civilian populations need to have their voices heard. Indeed local knowledge and cultural practices inform Blue Peace’s action in the region. In this regard, art can be a powerful medium to foster shared dialogue and understanding between water and peace. The initiative Voix du Fleuve, Voie de la Paix in the Senegal basin continues to strengthen the views of the local populations in the water-related domains of their local economy and in the decision bodies and strategic water developments of the basin in order to reduce areas of fragility that are sources of conflicts. Supported by Blue Peace, it triggered a strategic and creative reflection on water-related issues. Riparian populations, the Senegal River Basin authorities and experts in water management and adaptation to climate change participated to strengthen job creation and reinforce peace in the basin.
More information on Blue Peace: https://www.thebluepeace.org
Navigating the river of the future
By 2050, more than 50% of the world’s population will live in water-scarce regions and, with almost 60% of freshwater flows coming from transboundary rivers, these resources will become increasingly crucial in ensuring people have an adequate water supply. This creates a need to adapt our ways of thinking and stewarding natural environments from source to sea. There is an urgency to manage these shared resources in a sustainable, equitable and collaborative manner to navigate the river of the future jointly.
Cover image: Integrated water resource management of the Gambia River for the sustainable development of the region is a cross-border issue © SDC