Water is a matter of survival and plays a critical role in social, economic and environmental activities as well. With a rise in global demand for water, water crises have consistently featured among the World Economic Forum’s top global impact risks. Water insecurity, i.e., the lack of water availability for basic human needs and socio-economic development, undermines billions of livelihoods and poses significant risks for peace and prosperity by thwarting progress and fuelling displacement and conflict.
Water insecurity fuels displacement and instability and adds to humanitarian pressures (see target 6.1: achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all). By increasing health risks, undermining food security and limiting economic opportunities, lack of water for drinking incentivizes people to move and may fuel grievances in host communities. More broadly, it can also undermine governmental legitimacy, which has strong linkages to water management since the dawn of civilization in irrigation-focused kingdoms in the Middle East, Egypt, and China.
Water insecurity negatively impacts across many SDGs, notably on health, but, by way of coping mechanisms that often see girls spend a lot of time on fetching water, also on education and gender equality. It is particularly problematic in countries and situations of fragility. By placing additional pressure on weak institutions, water insecurity further undermines the social compact. This can fuel a downward spiral as increasing fragility makes it even more challenging to achieve water security. The cycle of water insecurity and fragility has two dimensions: the short-term failure to water availability (e.g. to adequately supply displaced persons, or pastoralists’ animals) and the long-term failure to preserve water resources, e.g. in the form of over-pumping or pollution of groundwater that ultimately undermines livelihoods1. For example, the International Organization of Migration found that water insecurity was a key reason for internal displacement in many Iraqi governorates2.
The importance of water resource sustainability is directly related to integrated water resources management. The cue on transboundary cooperation in target 6.5 is particularly relevant for foreign policy-makers because transboundary cooperation is often essential for regional stability, but also a precondition for sustainable and equitable management of the water-energy-food nexus. Many of the most worrying water conflicts are a function of difficult trade-offs related to the question of whether to prioritize water use for energy (hydropower) or food (irrigation) production. Hence, water links intimately with the SDGs on poverty, hunger, energy, and peace.
Transboundary water cooperation offers significant opportunities for both upstream and downstream countries. Dams constructed in up-stream countries for hydropower production, for example, can simultaneously help control downstream floods, improve downstream navigation, and increase the potential for downstream hydropower by stabilizing water flows —and may also offer downstream countries cheap electricity import options. In reality, however, dam construction in up-stream countries often leads to conflict with downstream neighbours who fear the consequences of flow changes and the potential political lever against them in the hands of upstream countries. Although such conflicts are unlikely to escalate into international wars, they fuel tensions and hinder cooperation in other sectors, hampering economic development as well as sustainable and equitable water use.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Aral Sea basin has witnessed significant conflict over water. Upstream countries inherited big reservoirs that had been built to boost downstream irrigation. However, losing access to cheap energy post-independence has nudged them to prioritize water release for hydropower generation in winter rather than downstream irrigation in summer. Uzbekistan, which is mainly dependent on irrigation, has reacted with punitive measures and vehemently opposed the construction of additional up-stream dams, going as far as to threaten military action. Limitations in cooperation have cost all Central Asian countries dearly3. Yet, a recent change in Uzbekistan’s leadership led to the embrace of a new foreign policy doctrine focusing on regional cooperation, transcending competition over resources and unlocking opportunities for mutually beneficial partnership.
Given the critical importance of water and its interlinkages with overarching global objectives such as stability and prosperity, it may be surprising that there is no integrated international regime on freshwater governance. There exists a well-established normative framework that can help foreign policy makers situate their efforts, in particular, the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses that went into effect in 2014 after reaching 35 ratifications. Although it built on decades of work in the International Law Commission, primarily sought to codify customary law, and achieved widespread support in the UN General Assembly, the number of ratifications has remained limited due to concerns that it might restrict development options. A second convention by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, has since 2016 opened for global accession. There is a broad ‘epistemic community’ of water managers underpinning these conventions who largely subscribe to the principles of ‘Integrated Water Resources Management.’ It is defined by the Global Water Partnership as "a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.”
Although water is a critical issue all around the world, its management is often primarily a local challenge. As these challenges differ across (sub-)basins, it is the governance responses at these levels rather than global agreements which are most important for securing peace, prosperity, and equity. Thus, whereas foreign policy can play a helpful role in advocating for recognition of the principles underlying the global conventions, it is even more crucial that it use its influence to help shift discourse and policy toward cooperation at the sub-basin level. Such collaboration often depends on the perceived political risks of water cooperation, rather than the lack of economic incentives 4. Diplomats can and should try to help shape political thinking over national and regional development perspectives with an aim of shifting such perceptions, drawing on their access, mandate, and skills of persuasion. For third parties seeking to foster cooperation, this means embracing water management as primarily a foreign policy issue, which technical development cooperation can support5. A broad toolbox –from facilitating private discussions between decision-shapers to identify mutually beneficial development paths and narratives, to reducing risks by offering guarantees or joint assessments – has been developed6, but it often needs the political impetus and diplomatic skillset that foreign policy can provide.
Conflicts over lack of access to water at both individual and state level can undermine global and national foreign policy priorities, in particular, the prevention of displacement and the maintenance of regional stability. Achieving SDG 6 also entails transformational possibilities, regarding unlocking human potential (avoiding illness, reducing gender discrimination and unlocking time for education and productive endeavours) and inter-state cooperation. Moreover, better water management is a facilitator if not a precondition for achieving numerous other SDGs, which in turn are harbingers of fundamental progress.
As developments in Central Asia illustrate, foreign policy can play a critical role in overcoming zero-sum competition over water and enabling beneficial cooperation by helping rethink and reframe issues. However, to realize this potential water diplomacy needs more agency and more constructive political engagement that will help embed technical transboundary cooperation into attractive regional development narratives and pathways. Since achieving SDG 6 is an essential element of the quest for international security, and that political engagement is often a necessary element to progress in water management, diplomats should embrace water diplomacy and help build the agreements to underpin better water management.
[This article originally appeared as part of adelphi's policy brief "A Foreign Policy Perspective on the Sustainable Development Goals" (2018) and it's comprehensive annex.]
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