Margot Wallström is no longer a government minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs

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Keynote speech by Ms Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sweden, to the High-Level Panel on Water Diplomacy during World Water Week on 28 August 2019

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Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here today and discuss an issue of such fundamental importance to humanity: water.

I will start by quoting a favourite author of mine, Rolf Edberg:

“The eternal life cycle of water; it is the same water that I can drink from a small cold creek in the north of Sweden that once filled Cleopatras bath tub, been carried in clay vessels across deserts, that has rained down on the forests in the Amazons, passed through the cooling system of a nuclear reactor or sifted through the mouth of a hump whale or maybe fallen as snow flakes over my house on a dark winter evening. “

I would like to thank the Stockholm International Water Institute for organising this remarkably successful and internationally renowned event ­– World Water Week – over the past 29 years. And I would also like to thank all participants here today: researchers, experts, decision-makers and leaders in various sectors with connections to water. Your contribution to our common knowledge and a future of sustainability is indispensable.

As many of you know, Sweden experienced one of its hottest summers in recorded history last year and suffered devastating forest fires.

We managed to bring the fires under control, thanks to the cooperation of national and international forces, but also thanks to the water in nearby lakes that responders could use to fight the fires.

Water saved our forests and our local communities.

Without water no society can survive. A large proportion of the world’s population lives around river basins where water is shared by two or more countries.

The way in which water is shared and managed by communities has an impact on human life, economic growth and sustainable development. But, given its vital importance, water can also – as we all know – be a source of tension and conflict, threatening peace.

Climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation. Its impacts are already being felt around the world, with threats in many sensitive areas, including ecosystems, the environment, health, agriculture, food security, and peace and security.

Droughts and floods now occur more frequently than previously, forcing people to leave their homes. Some of the regions most affected by conflict also suffer from water scarcity, and climate change will exacerbate these problems.

To implement the goals set in the ambitious 2030 Agenda, we need to address the root causes of conflicts and poverty.

In 2017, during Sweden’s term on the UN Security Council, a landmark resolution was adopted in relation to Lake Chad that emphasised the need for climate-related risk assessments and risk management strategies by governments and the UN. It was one of our key goals to make this connection clear also to the Security Council.

And it was the first resolution of its kind.

During my visit to the Sahel region in July last year, I personally met people who were already suffering from the severe impacts of climate change.

I met people displaced by drought and floods, people who were unable to feed their families because of extreme weather patterns. Such hardship drives tensions and mistrust, and prolongs conflict, making it much harder to adapt to the challenges of climate change. 

To quote UN Secretary-General António Guterres: “Climate change is a direct threat in itself and a multiplier of many other threats – from poverty to displacement to conflict.”

Sweden’s commitment to the prevention agenda pursued by the Secretary-General – to a more holistic approach to prevention – builds on the acknowledgment of many varied and interlinked drivers of conflict.

The management of transboundary waters is an issue where conflict prevention and diplomatic efforts such as water/hydro-diplomacy can be carried out in a more holistic way.

I remember from when I was a European commissioner a conflict over a river and how diverging it would affect the surrounding countries. This created a very tense debate that showed how sensitive these questions are.

The EU has recently updated its Council conclusions on Water Diplomacy, and intends to enhance its diplomatic engagement on water as a tool for peace, security and stability.

Conflict is often an inevitable and always a transformative force in societies. The challenge is to find ways of managing and transforming conflict in peaceful and constructive ways. 

The prevention of violent conflict is a key Swedish foreign policy priority, and was one of our main priorities during our membership of the Security Council, along with climate change, security, and the women, peace and security agenda. All of these converge when we discuss inclusive approaches to water diplomacy.

Women play critical roles in conflict prevention and natural resource management at local level. Yet their participation in political leadership, water management and formal peace processes remains disappointingly low.

It is crucial to remove obstacles to women’s participation in decision-making. Empowering women saves lives.

Networks of women mediators are a good example of how women can contribute to conflict resolution. In 2015, I launched the Swedish Women’s Mediation Network, which was inspired by a similar network in Africa.

Its members have supported dialogue and peace-building efforts in several conflict situations, focusing primarily on supporting local women in taking active roles in conflict resolution, including as part of SIWI’s work in the Nile Basin.

Cooperation between countries is crucial, and has far-reaching benefits for societies, people, the environment and stability. It builds trust and reduces the risk of conflict.

There is great potential in strengthened cooperation on shared water resources in regions such as the Nile Basin, which has immense strategic value for the whole of North East Africa.

Increased cooperation is necessary, not least in light of the high population growth rate and the negative consequences of climate change that we are already seeing today.

Strengthened cooperation also brings significant prospects of positive outcomes on regional peace and stability, economic development, sustainability and environmental protection.

We need to cooperate closely with all stakeholders, and I believe that strong institutions are the best guarantors of such cooperation. Strong multilateral institutions at international, regional and sub-regional level are essential to managing differences, including over shared resources such as water.

Our position continues to be to support dialogue and strengthen the capacity of riparian states to cooperate and negotiate through intergovernmental structures, such as river basin organisations.

Sweden’s foreign, security, and development policies go hand in hand. We have the world’s first feminist foreign policy and feminist government and we are strong supporters of the women, peace and security agenda.

It is crucial to consider the gender-related effects of conflict, poverty and the scarcity of basic resources, such as water. My visit to the Sahel region clearly confirmed the need for consistency between foreign, security and development policy to achieve greater synergies and impact.

To contribute to help tackle the effects of climate change in the Sahel region we decided to top up our assistance to climate- and security-related efforts there with approximately 40 million USD for the period 2018–2021.

Dear friends,

Climate change is a reality that affects us all, even here in the Northern Hemisphere. There are no one solution to these effects but instead they must be tackled collectively and with a wide range of political tools.

The international community must come together and step up our action to address current and future risks and challenges in an integrated manner, through sustainable and climate-resilient water management and inclusive cooperation.

Now is the time to act with science and knowledge and I know that all of you here today are willing and able to do so.

Because a world where water is not seen as a scarce and valuable resource is a world where no society can prosper. I look forward to fruitful and rewarding discussion here at this World Water Week.

Thank you for listening.