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As we bear witness to a series of important international crises, from Ukraine to the Middle East and East Asia, it is easy to forget about the structural foreign policy challenges that threaten to become the crises of the future. Among these, climate change and its profound impacts on the water cycle stand out: water is fundamental to human life and scarce in many regions. Changes in the regional and seasonal distribution of rainfall and glacier melting will have significant social, economic, and ultimately political consequences as they change access to and competition over water.

More than 90 % of the world’s population live in states that share watercourses. Many important shared basins – the Nile, the Indus, the Ganges, the Euphrates-Tigris, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, and the Mekong – overlap with regions characterized by substantial interstate and intrastate tensions. Increasing water scarcity and variability, coupled with growing demand due to demographic and economic changes, threatens long-term regional stability in these basins.

Yet shared waters are not necessarily flashpoints of conflicts. Instead, they have often been ‘islands of cooperation’ in otherwise conflictive relationships. For example, the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty has survived three wars between India and Pakistan, cooperation on the Mekong persisted throughout the Indochina wars, and water has served as a crucial means for strengthening cooperation in Southern Africa.

The risks and opportunities related to transboundary basins raise the question of what the international community should do to prevent conflict and maximize water’s potential for reaping greater collective social and economic benefits. To respond to this question, adelphi convened a group of international experts whose discussions have resulted in a new study titled “The rise of hydro-diplomacy. Strengthening foreign policy for transboundary waters”.

Analysing the challenges and drawing on numerous cases, the authors argue that foreign policy makers must do more for and in transboundary basins. Above all, they need to ensure stronger agency at the international level to realize potential synergies between political and technical engagement. To this end, the international community needs to strengthen the diplomatic track of transboundary cooperation on water by investing more in training and capacity-building, expanding efforts to build confidence in shared basins, and improving water-related crisis response and conflict resolution mechanisms.

For further details, please find the new study here. The paper was presented at the World Water Week on 3 September 2014. A high-ranking panel discussed its results in the framework of a side event, jointly organised by adelphi and the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). You can also stream the entire side event.