Water and security go hand in hand in global crises

Water plays an increasingly big part in global conflicts and continues to do so in the future. Researcher Olli Varis and politician Pekka Haavisto discuss water security in their Water at Risk keynote speech. Here are some of their initial thoughts.

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Water is always a relevant theme, but right now it is even more pressing because of the global political situation, says Olli Varis, professor of water engineering at Aalto University.

“The political environment in Russia fiercely affects Finnish agriculture and the usage of water as well as our energy choices. On a more global scale, in many African and Middle Eastern countries issues with water go hand in hand with for example instability and poverty”, he continues.

Member of Parliament Pekka Haavisto agrees. He emphasizes the UN’s Agenda 2030 goals of sustainable development that bind our planet to make radically more sustainable choices.

“Clean water supply and sufficiency especially in crisis areas, drought and desertification are current important issues. In addition we need to protect groundwaters and take into account the situation with oceans and freshwater. As the population grows, water will become a pressing global risk factor of the future”, he says.

Water plays a part in global conflicts

This brings out a crucial aspect concerning water that Varis and Haavisto will discuss in their keynote: water security. It is a multifaceted topic and, according to Varis, the center of a heated scientific debate. Some see it from the point of view of infrastructure, whereas for others it is closely linked with social justice and human rights. As a European Union Special Representative Pekka Haavisto often finds himself face to face with the latter.

“Water has a lot to do with environmentally induced migration. For example in many North African and Middle Eastern countries a big part of the ongoing conflicts is the fight for water resources”, he says.

Like all global crises, the water crisis affects Finland even though our country isn’t exactly in the middle of it. However, it has been a party in some water related conflicts. Haavisto brings forth the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras which was partly funded by Finnfund. There has been a lot of controversy around the dam since it’s built on grounds where the indigenous Lenca people live.

The situation culminated earlier this year when Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, a strong Agua Zarca objector, was murdered. Having sat through Cáceres’ murder trial Haavisto has a concrete grasp on how contradictory Finland’s role in global water conflicts can be.

“Finland has done a lot to advance sustainable technical solutions such as wind power and solar power. At the same time, though, we neglect questions of land ownership and governance. In Honduras a project Finland has funded played a part in something very violent”, he says.

Finnish cleantech could solve future water crises

Despite its involvement in the Agua Zarca conflict, Finland does have a lot of potential in improving the current global water situation. Both Olli Varis and Pekka Haavisto praise Finnish cleantech which could make a big difference in the future.

“Technical solutions that reduce water consumption and enhance the usage of water such as sewage systems are wanted all around the world. Finland could both develop and advance this sort of technology”, Haavisto says.

In addition to technical know-how Finland’s forte is the pleasant cooperation between authorities, academia, industries and organisations, says Varis.

“When I was younger, people went to the barricades. Now it seems different parties actually want to improve the environmental situation and actively exchange thoughts.”

The Water at Risk symposium will be held on the 21.–22. of March 2017. The Nessling Foundation organizes the symposium in collaboration with other Finnish organizations working with water.

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