22nd Forum on Global Issues “Water issues in international politics” - Welcome speech by Minister of State Erler

06.03.2009 - Speech

-- Translation of advence text --


Professor Tabasaran,

Dr Eid,

Ladies and gentlemen,

With its wide-ranging and very different aspects, water – the topic of this forum – has become more significant and a greater potential problem in recent years. There are two reasons for this:

First of all, there is no other resource that is used in so many different ways and is at the same time so irreplaceable for life on Earth.

Secondly, due to climate change, pollution, a growing global population and increasing use in agriculture, industry and households, water is growing ever scarcer and therefore becoming a strategic resource. Over one billion people do not have adequate access to drinking water and over two billion lack access to basic sanitation. It is estimated that more people die directly or indirectly from water scarcity than in armed conflicts or of AIDS.

The severity of the situation is known. The international community rightly included access to water and basic sanitation in the Millennium Development Goals and vowed to reduce the percentage of the population without secure access to clean drinking water and sanitation by half by 2015. The United Nations designated 2005 – 2015 the International Decade for Action: 'Water for Life'. With UNSGAB the UN Secretary-General has created a high-level council on water and sanitation issues, whose Vice Chairperson, Dr Eid, will address us later.

And there has been progress. It is still possible to reach the water target. Particularly in South Asia, today more people than ever before have access to clean drinking water. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, a turnaround is not yet evident. When it comes to sanitation, on the other hand, we already know that it will no longer be possible to achieve the set goal.

The potential problems caused by water scarcity are as varied as the ways the resource can be used. Water scarcity immediately endangers lives, threatens the food supply, hinders economic development and creates dangerous rivalries between social groups and states. All of this threatens global peace and stability. Water issues rightfully have a place in international relations and national foreign and development policy.

Our first panel will focus on international crisis prevention and the question of how to prevent conflicts between affected users through cross-border understanding and management of water resources.

This presents a challenge for diplomacy and the international community. There are a number of difficult issues related to this topic:

  • parties can be hostile or mistrustful of one another;
  • traditions of sustainable water management may no longer be adequate due to demographic changes, migration and other developments, or may not exist at all;
  • civil society actors in the field of water and the environment, such as non-governmental organizations, might have only a very weak position;
  • the economy may not enjoy the leeway necessary to help solve the water problems.

Another important issue here is if and how third parties can help conflicting parties reach understanding.

In Europe our history has made us quite familiar with the difficulties posed by transboundary watercourses and reservoirs. When the first river commissions were founded around 100 years ago, for instance the Rhine or Danube commission, several of the neighbouring states these great rivers flowed through were bitter enemies that fought each other in two World Wars during the 20th century. The capable river organizations we have today to help overcome the many challenges of cross-border water use are the result of a long learning process.

The Federal Government believes that, in the interest of preventing or resolving conflicts, it is necessary to enable states to reach understanding on the sustainable use of water in other regions, too. That is why since 1998 Germany, in cooperation with the World Bank, has held international roundtable discussions on transboundary water management under the auspices of the Petersberg Process.

Another example is the Berlin Process, launched by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier, which aims to foster cross-border cooperation on water issues in Central Asia. But more on this in a minute.

Working to secure access to water and sanitation worldwide requires action in very different fields, as the second panel makes clear.

With an efficient infrastructure, clear legislation and a diverse and highly specialized industry and research sector, Germany has much to offer its partners around the world. Its broad domestic expertise is one reason Germany is especially active in the water sector worldwide.

Water is a priority for German development cooperation. Globally, we are the third-largest donor in the water sector and the leading donor in Africa. That is why I am especially pleased that Dr Konukiewitz, a colleague from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development who is responsible for policy in different sectors, including water policy, could be here today. I think it is easy to understand why this is a priority when you consider that several Millennium Development Goals are tied to secure access to water and sanitation.

Many countries around the world view German legislation on water as exemplary. That's why the Federal Ministry for the Environment has made a great effort over the years to translate a large part of this legislation into English and other languages. From the experience our missions abroad have had, I can report that in many places there is great demand for these texts among local authorities, environmental organizations and private individuals.

One of Germany's great strengths when it comes to water management is having a capable industry and research sector. German water management firms are some of the best-performing and globally most competitive not only in terms of those who build the plants and the engineering firms who consult them, but also when it comes to operating the plants. The strict legal regulation on quality standards for domestic water supply and disposal is certainly a reflection of the strength of the local industry. In Germany, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has made water research a priority and allocated funds to this end.

It was logical then that, with regard to German engagement around the world, a joint forum of firms, governmental and non-governmental organizations, scientific institutions and associations in the water sector was created with the German Water Partnership, which is dedicated to promoting the sustainable use of water as a vital resource. It's my impression that the potential German industry and research offers has become significantly more visible since the founding of this initiative in 2006.

The Federal Government attaches special importance to the human rights dimension of water issues. Germany has been committed to this cause for years. For often the problem is not just water scarcity, but also inadequate legal frameworks for access to water and sanitation. Therefore, as part of its human rights efforts, the Federal Government is working at the United Nations to create a right to non-discriminatory access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Together with Spain, Germany has launched an initiative within the UN Human Rights Council for the universal recognition of this human right.

Last year the United Nations adopted a resolution on the initiative we launched with Spain, which is an important step to achieving further recognition of this essential human right. The resolution records the fact that states have a binding obligation with regard to the right to non‑discriminatory access to drinking water and sanitation.

In order to ensure that this issue remains on the agenda of the Human Rights Council, an independent expert on the right to non-discriminatory access to drinking water and sanitation was appointed at the behest of the German Government. Above all, her task is to help further clarify the legal obligations.

Finally, in the third panel, taking Central Asia as an example, we will discuss what can be done in specific cases to encourage transboundary cooperation between individual states on water issues.

Central Asia has been particularly affected by the increasing scarcity of global water resources. In this case, climate change and the over-exploitation of water resources are having a disastrous effect.

Moreover, in Central Asia there is not only a shortage of water, it is also unevenly distributed and used in different ways: In the states in the upper reaches of the major Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, where water is plentiful, it is used primarily to produce energy in the winter, while the states in the lower reaches of the rivers use the water in the summer mostly for agricultural irrigation.

But it is inadequate and wasteful water management that makes the situation especially problematic. The environmental disaster of the Aral Sea, which is primarily the result of failed water policy, has become the symbol of the region's strained water situation. Water scarcity, mismanagement and differing interests make water distribution an issue that creates a high risk of potential conflict in the region.

However, we also know that effective water management creates stability and security and is thus the main prerequisite for sustainable economic development. This is why Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier launched the “Berlin Process”, a water initiative for Central Asia, at the water conference in Berlin on 1 April 2008.

Let me briefly summarize the central elements of this process:

Firstly, Germany is keen to promote transboundary water management in Central Asia. It intends to do so through specific projects such as building irrigation facilities, but also through training programmes, consulting and the development and implementation of general guidelines. The German water sector will play a considerable role in this project, which is under the direction of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ).

The second element of the Berlin Process is increasing expertise in sustainable water management in the region. One way we plan to achieve this is by offering the knowledge we have to Central Asia.

Thirdly, we plan to introduce a new course on sustainable water management at the Kazakh-German University in Almaty. We hope this will become a centre for students and young academics from the entire region to learn more about water issues and explore them in greater depth. That is clearly an investment in the region's future.

Fourthly, we want to encourage networking among water experts from Germany, the EU and Central Asia. That applies just as much to experts from private-sector utilities as those from municipally-owned utilities and to local politicians.

The Berlin Process is designed to be a long-term contribution to regional cooperation. We see stability and cooperation both as ends in themselves and as the key to sustainable economic development in the whole of Central Asia.

Such a future would be good not only for Central Asia, but for its neighbouring regions and countries as well, including Afghanistan, for example.

The fact that so many of you have turned out today demonstrates how prominent water issues have become in international politics, business and civil society. This policy area in particular demands close cooperation between very different actors. The theme of our conference today affects not only governments, non-governmental organizations and academia, but is also especially relevant to the private sector. For it is crucial that social and development policy goals be implemented in the form of economically sustainable solutions.

With now the 22nd Forum since they began in 1999, we are continuing an impressive series of events addressing different aspects of globalization and current issues affecting our entire globe. For the Federal Foreign Office, these events are about working together with other actors from civil society, politics, business and academia in an attempt to find solutions to the major challenges we face today. Because it is clear that the days when governments took it upon themselves to master these challenges on their own are long gone. The complexity and scale of the global challenges we face has increased dramatically in recent decades. Yet our options for responding have also been expanded thanks to new partnerships between public and private actors. Maintaining and encouraging these partnerships is the aim of the Forum on Global Issues series.

I would like to give an especially warm welcome to Professor Tabasaran who, as Secretary-General, organized the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul which begins on 16 March. Thank you for joining us today, though you have a major event of your own very soon. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to Dr Eid. As a Member of the German Bundestag and Vice Chairperson of the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), you have devoted much time and energy to water issues. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your willingness to assist the Federal Foreign Office whenever questions on international water issues arise.

Let me welcome all of the water experts who will take part in today's panels. Thank you for your willingness to share your expertise on this subject with us today, though some of you had to travel quite a distance to be here. We are glad to have you!

I would also like to thank our co-host, the German Water Partnership. Cooperating with external partners has become a tradition in the Forum on Global Issues and the organization of this event has once again proven that it is an effective approach.

Let me sincerely thank all of you for being here today and hope our discussions will be successful and productive.

Related content

Top of page