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Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza. With such crises in the headlines, it is easy to forget about the structural challenges that threaten to become the foreign policy crises of the future. Among these, access to fresh water stands out. It is already contributing to many conflicts around the world, and demand is growing fast while supplies are limited (and, in the case of groundwater, being exhausted at unsustainable rates). Simultaneously, about 60 percent of the volume of global river flow is shared by two or more states.
Many shared basins – among them the Nile, the Indus, the Ganges, the Euphrates-Tigris, the Orontes, the Jordan, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, and the Mekong – overlap with regions characterised by substantial interstate and intrastate tensions. Population and economic growth increase demand for water. Climate change is concurrently leading to changes in regional and seasonal water variability. The resulting scarcity and extreme weather events, both floods and droughts, threaten long-term regional stability.
Yet shared waters do not have to be flashpoints of conflict, and can even build bridges in the midst of conflicts. For example, the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty has survived three wars between India and Pakistan. Water has also served as a crucial means for strengthening cooperation in Southern Africa. And the negotiations over shared waters between Israel and its neighbours have not only come much further than negotiations over other issues, but have also helped to establish informal means of cooperation in an otherwise highly conflictive region.
The risks and opportunities related to transboundary basins beg the question of what the international community should do to prevent conflict and harness water’s potential for reaping greater collective benefits. Responding to this question is becoming increasingly urgent as pressures on these water resources grow.
A new report by a group of experts on international waters analyses the challenges of transboundary waters and argues that foreign policymakers must do more for and in transboundary basins. Drawing on numerous cases, the report shows how foreign policy engagement – together with continued and enhanced technical and financial engagement – can resolve existing conflicts, manage resources sustainably to prevent future conflicts, and harvest the benefits of broader cooperation and regional cooperation even beyond water resources.
Realising these ambitions will not be easy. Three challenges stand out: the lack of agency on hydro-diplomacy at the international level; the need for a more coordinated and strategic approach among external actors; and the limited human, institutional and financial capacity in transboundary water cooperation.
First, we need stronger agency on transboundary water cooperation to realise potential synergies between political and technical engagement. Existing institutions at the basin and global levels must be strengthened and, where inexistent, be created. Yet strengthening institutions alone is insufficient because these institutions often lack the political mandate and capital to effectively engage in basin politics. Therefore, additional, diplomatic engagement is necessary, especially when it comes to engaging basin hegemons that are reticent with respect to institutionalised multilateral engagement.
Second, better coordination is needed, both within and between governments. There is scope for much greater synergies between the “low politics” of technical and financial cooperation and the “high politics” of foreign policy. The multiple conflicts in the Sahel region, for example, are closely linked to worsening water scarcity. Sustainable development of water resources is hence pivotal to achieving foreign policy objectives such as fighting terrorism and ensuring regional stability. Simultaneously, foreign policy can help achieve development objectives by securing political support for regional, basin-wide approaches that avoid merely shifting water scarcity and the attendant conflicts. Beyond better cooperation within governments, external actors also need to coordinate between each other, so as to both ensure systematic engagement and avoid opportunities for “forum shopping”, which can result in the parties to the conflict getting stuck in protracted tactical games.
Third, the international community needs to strengthen the diplomatic track of transboundary cooperation by investing more in training and capacity-building, by expanding efforts to build confidence in shared basins, and by improving water-related crisis response and conflict resolution mechanisms. These are shared tasks for the technical, development and foreign policy communities – tasks that form the basis for political-level engagement and, for their effectiveness, depend on strong and coordinated international agency.
Compared to media headlines about the latest flashpoints, such seemingly abstract tasks may not seem urgent. But urgent matters for today must not crowd out what is pivotal for tomorrow. And water certainly is: the challenges related to scarcer and more vulnerable water resources will play a huge role in determining our future.
Benjamin Pohl is senior project manager with the adelphi thinktank, advising on climate and resource governance as well as their interfaces with foreign, security and development policy.
Susanne Schmeier is the coordinator for transboundary water management with GIZ, the German agency for development cooperation.