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Jun 20
“A big fish to fry: Translating the Basel spirit into inclusive dialogue and common action for water cooperation in Central Asia”

​Extract of the address by the Federal councillor Didier Burkhalter on the occasion of the opening of the Conference on the Swiss initiative "Blue Peace Central Asia : Dialogue for 2030 - Water Security and Inclusive Growth".


"Without water there is no life, no food, no energy and no security. Water has made it possible for our societies to become established and advance. As you know better than I do, water flows through Central Asia’s history. Your region has a long and unique experience of water management. The water management technologies invented in Central Asia several thousand years ago helped create life and culture in the deserts, steppes and mountains. They gave birth to a medieval civilisation that inspired many.

Water has been an enabler of development, in Central Asia as elsewhere. Today there is a risk however that this enabler could turn into a bottleneck for future development if we fail to commonly address the global water crisis. This crisis is multifaceted. One of its expressions is the decrease of water availability per capita. Half of the world’s largest cities experience water scarcity. It is estimated that by 2050, over half the global population may be living under water stress. The challenge is also one of quality – globally, 80% of waste water goes directly into the environment without treatment.

The second Swiss message that you may have come across yesterday is that water connects us all. Water does not know any borders. Over 90% of the global population lives in countries that share basins. In Switzerland surface water flows through a network that connects us directly with neighbouring countries such as Germany but also with countries much further away, such as Moldova.

There is also the phenomenon of virtual water flowing from one country to another as a result of international trade. For instance, cotton, one of the export products of the region is water-intense. There is a sort of global connectivity of water.

Because water matters, and because water connects us all, water cooperation is becoming ever more important. We must look at water in new ways. We need creative ideas and open minds. A fresh approach includes opening up new spaces for dialogue and mobilising all stakeholders – governments, civil society, international organisations and the private sector. It includes reaching out to sectors beyond water and to the young generation, our children, the future of this planet. Fostering young people's commitment to water and peace is a priority for Switzerland. We all benefit from their creativity, energy and zeal to engage and define new solutions. We appreciate that young professionals are part of your delegations today.

All our governments made the commitment to “transform our world”, as the title of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states. In the field of water management, this transformation is about recognising the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. It is about taking responsibility for managing water more effectively. And it is about working together towards a comprehensive and coordinated approach to water at all levels: local, regional, national and international.

Such a transformation of water management will benefit us all, upstream and downstream countries. The cost of inaction is already significant today and it will rise further.

At the global level, in November 2015 Switzerland launched the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace to promote creative thinking on how to boost and institutionalise water cooperation as a vehicle for peace. We did so together with Kazakhstan and 13 other co-convening countries. The report of the 15 panellists will be launched this September in Geneva. We will also present it during the UN High-Level Week in New York.

Two key lessons of this report will be that more dialogue on water is needed to ensure peace and development. And that collaborative water schemes can be a powerful means to prevent conflict and an entry point to building trust.

These lessons are also essential for the regional dimension of Blue Peace, in Central Asia and elsewhere. So let me conclude with some reflections on Blue Peace Central Asia.

Before we launched our common journey at the Basel Conference, I had met with the presidents of all five Central Asian countries.  Among other things, we discussed the pertinence of regional water resource management. These discussions left me with a conviction that regional solutions for water management in Central Asia are possible and will bring real benefits for the people. Discussions at the time and since then have shown to us that Switzerland's active engagement in the region and its role in promoting the Blue Peace idea are well received, for which I am grateful.

As we gather here, our aim should be to translate the Basel spirit into an action-oriented, structured cooperation process for Central Asia. We should continue our informal dialogue and make it even more inclusive by opening up space for the young generation. But we should go beyond that and define solid work programmes and working structures for our dialogue platform. Let us use this timely conference to define and finalise areas of work to be pursued in the future."

Didier Burkhalter

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