With water resources under increasing pressure, transboundary water management and cooperation are becoming more and more important in shared river basins and should correspondingly step up on the diplomatic agenda. The paper “Water connects” outlines the available options and provides the scientific underpinning for future-oriented narratives and desirable action in water diplomacy.
Water is a resource with a unique spectrum of uses and properties. It is essential not just for life but also for development, employment and prosperity. Water in shared river basins – which host more than 40% of the global population – bears the potential for cooperation and for producing more benefits for riparian communities under diligent and cooperative management than can be achieved by the sum of national efforts with every riparian acting individually. Water diplomacy can help tap this potential by complementing the traditional policy fields of development aid, environmental and economic cooperation.
In vulnerable basins, a common problem is high national dependence on irrigated agriculture for food security and as a major employer. The affected nations tend to extrapolate from previous national development strategies, allocating investments to irrigation infrastructure and operation - often very energy-consuming – even though water resources availability will encounter hard upper limits and agricultural sectors are losing economic and employment significance.
Water allocation to the industrial, energy and service sectors has a far greater impact on employment and income than agriculture. The tremendous amounts of water withdrawn by irrigation threaten to impair the development of these sectors. Several countries in shared river basins have already irreversibly lost their former food self-sufficiency because populations have grown beyond the limits of water-related carrying capacity. They fill the supply gap by importing agricultural products, which is a viable alternative if national income is generated by the other economic sectors.
Another problematic pattern in shared river basins is the implementation of mega-scale water management projects, which tend to cement an often unilaterally oriented strategy of water management at the expense of other nations, regions and sectors. Once built, the installations are likely to fuel tensions and conflicts with other stakeholders sooner or later.
Within a complex field of forces, there are many possible paths for water diplomacy to become involved:
Water diplomacy generally shares the proven objectives of development assistance, environmental protection and human rights, e.g. increasing water efficiency, promotion of proven instruments like water conventions (UN Watercourses and UNECE Water Convention), river basin commissions, integrated water resources management, the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus approach and the Sustainable Development Goals. The special domain of diplomatic action is international communication, coordination and highest-ranking involvement. When it comes to national commitments, diplomacy will be indispensable. Transboundary management and allocation of water resources, exchanges of goods, food and energy, all need commitments and warranties.
In sensitive cases, where there are strong fears of loss of national sovereignty, where regional dominance and/or strong interests prevail or where for other reasons direct diplomatic involvement is impossible, a more indirect, general approach could be an alternative. An appropriate frame of reference for diplomatic communication is the UN Development Agenda 2030 (Sustainable Development Goals). SDG 6 is dedicated to water issues and explicitly encompasses transboundary cooperation. More than a dozen other targets are partially or indirectly related to water.
In any case, is it advisable to mainstream international water cooperation issues on whatever scale: bilateral, basin-related, regional, international and global. Coalitions of like-minded partners have not yet been employed to their full potential. Beyond promoting and supporting good practices and governance, poor practices need to be addressed with respect to their future - transboundary and transsectoral - impacts, e.g. withdrawal of shared waters, grabbing of water and other resources, reckless investments in environmentally and socially harmful projects etc. This commitment requires awareness, competence and capacities, but it also contributes to creating substantial political added value, e.g. regional stability, security and integration at reasonable additional cost and efforts.
While it may appear unrealistic at the first glance, why not try to involve the military establishment, at least to a certain extent? The security and economic gains of investments in sound water management would eventually turn out to be higher and more sustainable than if spent on military equipment and emergency operations.
So far, we have not experienced water wars, but we are still in the relative convenience zone of not yet having encountered hard water availability limits. We are already experiencing conflicts and violence related to lack of development, e.g. in several parts of the Sahel region. Water diplomacy needs to be developed, become and stay involved, even if at low intensity. There is no “one size fits all” water diplomacy solution for different regions, nor is water diplomacy the silver bullet, nor, indeed, is there any silver bullet at all. Progress in the water cooperation field may proceed in tiny steps, and innovative concepts will take time to be absorbed and accepted by the affected stakeholders. But not becoming involved with all policy fields in time prepares the ground for future crises.
PD Dr. Thomas Vetter is Environmental and Sustainability Scientist at the University of Greifswald, working on cross-cutting issues of natural and renewable resources, such as integrated water resources management, the water-energy-food-ecosystems nexus, virtual water and the linking of science with politics. Among others, he worked as Senior Consultant at the GIZ and as Senior Advisor for Water Diplomacy at the German Federal Foreign Office.
The paper "Water connects" is available online.
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