Water Diplomacy: An Approach to Prevent and Resolve Conflict

The Hague Institute presents an innovative framework for multi-track water diplomacy at World Water Week 2016

The availability, allocation and access of water resources determine the well-being, prosperity and stability of societies worldwide. Currently, the demand for freshwater is increasing everywhere, which is leading to situations of unbalanced distribution and tensions among users. As such, water issues may deepen the divisions among parties on other issues. The Hague Institute for Global Justice and its partners have joined forces to develop an innovative framework for multi-track diplomacy for understanding and advancing water cooperation. On 1 September 2016 the framework and its application to the Brahmaputra Basin (China, India, Bangladesh and Bhutan) will be presented at the World Water Week by Dr. Yumiko Yasuda. Yumiko is a postdoc researcher working jointly at The Hague Institute and The International Centre for Water Cooperation (ICWC) – UNESCO Category II Centre in Sweden, hosted by SIWI.

Water issues (local as well as transboundary) are complex because of their intricate coupling with multiple issues within the natural and societal domains. In cases of (potential) conflict, involved parties will need to find ways to address the tensions, in order to prevent escalation. In our highly interconnected world, water is an integral part of any discussion on agriculture, energy, public health, transportation, environment and the future. While innovation in science and technology can expand the availability of quantity and quality of water, it cannot solve water problems that intersect with the value-laden needs of individuals, industries or ecosystems. To address these complex water problems, a new approach that goes beyond applications of technology or the implementation of management policies is needed. Water diplomacy, therefore, is anticipated to play an increasingly important role in preventing, mitigating and resolving the growing water-related conflicts.

A multi-track approach

As an emerging concept, water diplomacy has included a range of definitions by various groups and institutions. In practice, these various definitions are quite different although they share common properties at the conceptual level. At The Hague Institute, we will define water diplomacy to include measures that can be undertaken to prevent or peacefully resolve (emerging) conflicts related to water availability, the allocation or use between and within states and public and private stakeholder interests. In practice, water-related conflict prevention and resolution is largely the outcome of processes of research and fact finding, negotiation, mediation and conciliation. They require an in-depth understanding of the political context alongside the social, cultural, economic and environmental conditions, supported by a sound assessment and integrated analysis of the water system.

Consequently, water diplomacy related efforts can and will take place at many levels. This can include high-level diplomatic delegations of riparian states solving transboundary water allocation issues through formal discussions, or building relationships through unofficial dialogue. It encompasses research, fact-finding and “independent” sourcing and investigating. It demands a common base, understanding and data-sets that inform diplomacy (for example information on water availability and water use, impacts of climate change, policy-economy, legal, social, historical and cultural aspects, etc.). It could also involve business interests, with individuals and private groups building people-to-people relationships at the grassroots level. When these different levels of diplomacy are activated simultaneously, it is known as “multi-track diplomacy”.

Building a framework

As part of the ‘Water Diplomacy: Making Water Cooperation Work’ project, The Hague Institute and its consortium partners have developed an innovative framework for multi-track water diplomacy. The state-of-the-art framework entails a legal and political-economy analysis focusing on the specific challenges and the options for cooperation. The framework will be tested and fine-tuned in the Jordan and Brahmaputra case-study basins, while recognizing that cross-border power dynamics can only be understood by also analyzing the processes of support and contestation at multiple levels within the respective countries. The research findings, on the specific challenges and opportunities related to water cooperation within the basin, will be presented and discussed in multi-stakeholder dialogues in both river basins.

The multitrack water diplomacy framework will be published on the website of The Hague Institute in September 2016. The framework has several potential applications that include:

  • Conducting analysis of current and future cooperation;
  • As a diagnostic tool for informing decision-making;
  • Exploring new and refining existing approaches and strategies for water cooperation; and
  • Supporting collaboration between different stakeholders and proactive approaches.

The project’s international consortium, under the leadership of The Hague Institute, consist of leading organizations in the field of water diplomacy, governance and law, and include: SIWI, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Uppsala University (Sweden), Helmholtz Centre (Germany), Tufts University (U.S.) and the UNESCO Category II Centre on International Water Cooperation (Sweden).

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