Bringing Parties Together: Water Diplomacy as a Tool for Resolving Conflicts

On 14 and 15 November, the Water Security and Peace Conference was held in the Peace Palace in The Hague, as one of this year’s event to mark the centennial anniversary of the Peace Palace and as a contribution to the International Year of Water Cooperation. Over two hundred participants from 60 countries attended the conference.

The conference was organized by the Water Diplomacy Consortium, consisting of The Hague Institute for Global Justice, UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, UPeace Centre The Hague, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, and the Water Governance Centre.

Water diplomacy challenges were the focus of the opening session. Water diplomacy is often seen as a way to solve existing water-related conflicts on national levels. The inter-state water conflicts along the Nile, the Jordan, and the Indus rivers are well-known examples. Water diplomacy can also be a means to avoid such conflict. This can include early warning of potential conflict, conflict prevention through better water governance and water management, Track-II facilitation, more formal mediation and arbitration.

A keynote speaker, Professor David Grey of Oxford University stated that despite there being enough rainfall in most areas to meet the demand, in certain river basins the hydrology is complex with little data available, and both governance and infrastructure are poor. Nevertheless Professor Grey was optimistic, saying “I see more trained – mostly here in the NetherlaNds – water managers trying to start a dialogue between countries. For instance Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia talk on sharing the water of the Nile river. Doing so they have to argue, share data and align their interests. That is hopeful.”

Another keynote speaker, Professor Shafiqul Islam of Tufts University warned the audience that water resource management is not only about science and technology but also relates to the right to water. Professor Islam indicated that science can help develop the necessary tools to enable the negotiation over the allocation of water resources to be carried out more efficiently.

Negotiations on water rights will undoubtedly get more intense as water demand increases in coming decades. Pavel Kabat, Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, forecasted an increase of fresh water use from 4000 km3/year in 2000 to 5250 km3/y in 2020. He expected particularly sharp increase in Asia because of population growth. In addition, saline intrusion and groundwater depletion are some of the “hidden challenges”.

The main part of the conference, parallel sessions within three working groups on 1) a legal and institutional perspective; 2) a system analytical approach and 3) multi-level water diplomacy were held under the Chatham House Rule.

water diplomacy conference 2013

In reporting back during the closing plenary, Dr. Patrick Huntjens of The Hague Institute for Global Justice mentioned broad stakeholder participation as an element of success. Based on discussion of conflict resolution in the Mekong River Basin, one of the case studies in Working Group 1, Huntjens emphasized that the outcome of the diplomatic process must focus on the benefits for the conflicting parties, both economic and social. We should discuss globally, and act locally.

Reporting on behalf of Working Group 2, Professor Pieter van der Zaag of UNESCO-IHE mentioned that there are several models but they do not solve the problem when it is unclear what the parties want to know. “The conflict over the Nile showed that the use of models is a process.” Van der Zaag stressed that decision-making models must have a role in the background of the whole diplomatic process of resolving the conflict.

Rens de Man of The Hague Institute for Global Justice chaired Working Group 3, which discussed many case studies of grassroots diplomacy from the Netherlands to the African and Asian continents and the Meso-American region, from the perspectives of bi- and multi-lateral financial institutions, governments, NGOs, knowledge institutions, and water users. “Water diplomacy is about connecting levels, people, sectors, countries, and connecting to the political agenda,” De Man stated in his concluding remarks.

As Head of the Water Diplomacy Consortium, Patrick Huntjens looked back on a very productive conference. “This conference proved that water diplomacy is definitely more than a new buzz word,” Dr. Huntjens said. “It can be an additional tool for resolving water-related conflicts. Our consortium can play an important role in capacity building by developing dedicated decision support models and by providing integrated training on both legal and water management issues.”

All presentations during the opening and closing sessions can be viewed here. Conference proceedings will be made available online in January 2014. Please check back regularly for more outputs from this conference and for future activities of the Water Diplomacy Consortium.

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