News

2016 Jun 15th

Water Security: Enhancing Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships and the Role of Artificial Intelligence to Improve Foresight

On 2 and 3 June, Green Cross International and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy co-hosted a high-level seminar for policymakers on enhancing multi-stakeholder partnerships for water security.

As co-chair of the seminar, Adam Koniuszewski opened the conference explaining how the water crisis in Syria and poor water governance contributed to the Syrian civil war and caused the migration that is dividing Europe. “While the worst drought in 900 years was exceptional, it is not unusual in the region. It is the promotion of water intensive crops that exacerbated water scarcity and became the tipping point that forced peasants to move to the cities,” said Koniuszewski. “Despite warning signs, analysts failed to predict that Syria would become the battleground it is today,” he added. “The novelty value of this seminar is in how innovative tools such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help overcome the failures of human foresight. Moving from competition to cooperation over access to scarce resources such as water and arable land will be increasingly important as the impacts of climate change intensify,” Koniuszewski concluded.

Water for Life and Peace Director Marie-Laure Vercambre, drawing on Green Cross’ 20 years of experience using trans-border cooperation to improve water access, led discussions and facilitated a session on the topic. There is ample proof that this work serves to reduce conflict.

“When you bring all of the stakeholders on board, the majority can put a lot of pressure on the more resistant parties to change,” said Vercambre. “We see this happening, and there has been a lot of progress. What’s happened around the Nile Basin is a good example.”

On the morning of 2 June, Koniuszewski introduced Valerie Fert’s presentation on Globe Expert, an AI system designed to predict and analyse future challenges – including the global water crisis.

“Time and again, we have failed and are failing to use foresight to inform policy,” said Koniuszewski. “And that’s why this area of work is so fascinating.”

Global Expert, which is still being developed, has been tested already on issues like the Syria conflict. Its latest application to the water crisis is a step into a more complex field, but has already produced some interesting indications.

“The critical issues, which I find most interesting, are technology transfer, rural water access, extreme event impacts, water law, urbanization, and new water risk countries,” said Fert. “And the keystone linking all of these issues, clearly, is governance.”

Fert went on to identify the issues that are growing in importance.

“New water risk countries is an emerging trend, and this is particularly important because that list includes countries that are developed and industrialised,” said Fert.

The advantage of an AI system is its ability to sift through massive amounts of data and pick out the patterns that emerge. Without even understanding the content or meaning of any particular document, an AI can identify matching keywords and repeating themes to sort documents into “families” of information. They can see which ideas and actors are linked, and which not.

As a small early test of Global Expert, the team looked at candidates to the papal election in 2013. They ended up with Cardinal Bergoglio – the future Pope Francis – at the centre of their map. Even though he was not a high-profile candidate, and the team themselves didn’t even recognize his name, the analysis showed that he shared the strongest links and commonalities with the largest number of other Cardinals.

The challenges of water and security are complex, and the AI’s capacity to simplify information, identify hidden patterns and thereby predict trends can be a powerful tool for the future of policymaking.

In the afternoon, WaterLex’s Amanda Loeffen and University of Geneva’s Mara Tignino talked about legal tools supporting SDG realisation.

“You’re ultimately trying to reach a goal, sustainable water management and governance,” said Loeffen. “But that is a goal – we’re not compliant right now (and in many cases it is not achievable right away). The solution is to set up transitional agreements, that take on the challenge bit by bit. Each country has different water challenges.”

“The sharing of information between actors is extremely important,” said Tignino. “Too often, we lack information. For example, around aquifers – understanding the size of trans-boundary aquifers, their level of use, etc.”

Marc Finaud of GCSP closed the day with a reminder that multi-stakeholder approaches are essential to developing ligitimate and sustainable solutions.

“There are technical obstacles to realising the SDGs, but there are also technical solutions,” said Finaud. “It is a question of resources and priorities. The challenge is basically political. It is important that all stakeholders have a sense of representation, of participation, of inclusion.”

On 3 June, participants broke into groups for focused sessions: on Public-Private Partnerships in cooperative approaches to water security; water management and trans-border cooperation; and drinking water, food security, sanitation and hygiene.

Vercambre, at the head of the group discussing trans-border cooperation, pointed out that water has now become a cause for international cooperation more often than a source of conflict. Because it’s such a vital resource, stakeholders have ample incentive to talk about it seriously.

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