Water is a key element through which climate change impacts on our immediate environment. A very significant proportion of adaptation to climate change will consist of adapting to hydrological changes – changing patterns in rainfall, the changing availability of freshwater in particular regions, greater variability in flows, more intense extreme weather events, and the resulting consequences for biodiversity, food security and more. These changes have important repercussions for international relations, above all due to the linkages that stem from the fact that some 60% of global river flows are transboundary.

Because of these interlinkages and their implications for foreign policy, water diplomacy is a crucial aspect of climate diplomacy:

  • First, changing flow patterns imply significant foreign policy challenges in geopolitically unstable regions. Declining access to water carries risks for political stability at the national level, but also internationally if governments’ responses focus on blaming basin neighbours.
  • Second, infrastructure projects, even those motivated by climate change ambitions, may bring about risks of their own if the consequences of adaptive action in one country come at the expense of another. Thus, new hydropower dams may appear to be helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while increasing protection against greater flow variability and its potential corollaries of floods and seasonal lack of water for irrigation. Yet if erected in upstream countries, downstream neighbours may resist them because of their own seasonal irrigation needs.
  • Third, climate change adaptation offers new opportunities for cooperation over water. Faced with the shared challenge of climate change, co-riparians can use joint analysis to build trust, identify potential benefits from cooperation and, eventually, elaborate joint responses. This is by no means a foregone conclusion, but a significant entry point for external actors that seek to promote stability by supporting cooperation over transboundary waters.

Considering these challenges and opportunities, water diplomacy has been a prominent issue in recent years. Every year since 2014, adelphi and the German Federal Foreign Office have co-organised side-events at the Stockholm World Water Week that have discussed the interlinkages between global environmental change, water governance, and foreign policy objectives. These side-events built on workshops with experts and policy-makers conducted for and with the German Federal Foreign Office.


Moreover, this work has resulted in a number of publications on water diplomacy, including three longer climate diplomacy reports that analyse opportunities for strengthening water diplomacy: The Rise of Hydro-diplomacy: Strengthening Foreign Policy for Transboundary Waters (2014), Water and Climate Diplomacy: Integrative Approaches for Adaptive Action in Transboundary Basins (2016) and A Short Guide to Preventive Water Diplomacy (2016).