Water (In)Security Panel at European Forum Alpbach

The session on “Water (In)Security” at European Forum Alpbach in 2020 was organised in the form of a panel discussion between four panelists: Leena Koni Hoffmann, Tom Middendorp, Chitra Nagarajan, Stefan Rahmstorf. This was promising to be an interesting discussion, unfortunately the conversation was rather dull and had almost no insights to offer for anyone involved in water governance beyond an amateur level. Mediation of Leena Koni Hoffmann was aspirational, but too zealous and resulted in rather mundane questions posed to the panelists whose expertise did not cover the issues asked.

Leen Koni Hoffmann is an associate fellow at Chatham House covering West African affairs. Among her various governance related expertise there is also a focus on food security and agriculture. Ms Koni Hoffmann’s role was moderation except for an introduction of the speakers and the issue of water security. Stefan Rahmstorf is a professor of Earth Systems and his talk was mostly about the marine ecosystems and oceans and how the water and energy cycles are inter-related. Mr. Tom Middendorp is a senior associate at Clingedael Institute and a Chairman of International Military Council on Climate and Security. He is a retired army general and was The Netherlands Chief of Defence for five and a half years, the highest military official of the country. Finally, Ms. Chitra Nagarajan is a journalist, educator and activist working on a gamut of issues including human development in Central Africa and lake Chad region. A diverse group of experts.

Each gave a short presentation. First, Professor Rahmstorf spoke about the science of climate change and the importance of both adaptation and mitigation. A memorable remark of his (citing another scholar) was that humanity has three options: a) adaptation; b) mitigation; and c) suffering. Hence, we need to adapt and mitigate. Unfortunately, these calls have been voiced so often that they lost their appeal. Then General Tom Middendorp gave a powerful and passionate speech on the importance of water and, unexpectedly at first, the role for military to play here. From local resilience to capacity building for water management, military could help was his argument. He gave very few examples of how exactly the military may help apart from saying that local cultures matter and must be considered. Finally, Ms. Chitra Nagarajan spoke on various issues around lake Chad governance and problems with water quality, water supply and irrigation in the region. Already in her talk she gave a rebuttal of the General’s approach putting under question a further militarisation of the water sector that has been rather advanced, and detrimental, in Central Africa.

From all three speakers only Ms. Nagarajan spoke on cases studies in detail showing much experience of working with communities on the ground. Her opposition to militarisation of water governance was powerful and to the point. Professor Rahmstorf’s talk was technical and he was set “offside” for most of the discussion because neither any of the speakers nor the audience cared for understanding the complexity of climate science. Desperate attempts of the moderator to address questions to him were not successful, to the point when professor himself refused to answer a question. A few strange issues were discussed: a waste-water tax that was not known to any of the speakers (not known to me either), the issue of bottled water as opposed to tap water (something that has very little to do with water security and everything to do with plastic waste and marketing) and water wars (a topic that excited public imagination but proved to be a myth). None of the speakers knew anything on the debates in the water governance literature about these issues and it all remained at the level of a dinner conversation between average citizens. A pity given so much knowledge in the virtual room. Had the moderator discussed in advanced with the speakers about their agendas for speeches and prepared props for a discussion, it could have been a much more interesting panel discussion.

One final observation is the way the Clingendael Institute in The Netherlands works. The retired general gets a position there because of his service to the country and his involvement in a knowledge network on security, and profiles himself on water and environmental security. Owing to his experience, he calls for more military involvement in the issues of human security; nothing new given NATO’s work on environmental security. But a fiercely controversial issue that requires a thorough discussion, that was missing. I read recently in a book by colleagues that water diplomacy of major powers, such as US, UK, Israel and The Netherlands is increasingly driven to gain the geoplitical advantage and often advance military interests (see Zeitoun et al. 2020 new book). General Middendorp’s talk made me think of that new trend.

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