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Analytical tools for identifying water conflict risks – Event summary

IHE Delft, the World Resources Institute and Deltares - representing the Water, Peace and Security Partnership - together with adelphi as well as the Dutch and German foreign ministries organized a side event at the World Water Week in Stockholm that sought to explore innovative analytical tools for identifying water conflict risks before their onset. The event brought together researchers developing early-warning tools for forecasting water-related conflicts, and key policy actors working in the field of water policy and diplomacy, in an effort to bridge the gap between knowledge supply and demand.

Intervening at an early stage and stopping a conflict from escalating is far more efficient than trying to resolve it down the road. Therefore, it is imperative to know about water-related conflict risks as early as possible. Yet because there is no easy, deterministic link between water availability and conflict, it is often difficult to know where policy needs to intervene, as a priority, to prevent pressure and competition from resulting in violence. Reducing this difficulty is therefore a core element of boosting the effectiveness of water diplomacy.

Water diplomacy is preventive diplomacy for peace, explained Achim Schkade, Head of Division for Climate and Environmental Foreign Policy at the German Foreign Office, in his opening keynote. Distinguishing it from water cooperation, which focuses mainly on technical, expert-level collaboration, he emphasized that water diplomacy involved building political will and leverage to find solutions. By way of example, Schkade focused on the Berlin Process in Central Asia that had, since 2008, promoted water cooperation between five countries in the region, in line with the EU Strategy for Central Asia. Through this process, which served as a neutral platform for regional dialogue, Germany helped the countries to build trust and cooperation. He underlined that tools able to combine data and science in a way that was manageable for recipient countries would be particularly helpful for Germany’s work in water diplomacy. The tools also had to be inclusive and provide holistic views on crisis situations.


The subsequent ‘tool pitches’ featured five approaches to identifying water conflict risks. Using machine learning, the Global Hotspot Identification System of the Water, Peace and Security Partnership helps identify patterns that can predict water conflicts by pinpointing conflict and water challenge hotspots, comparing among different regions, and exploring the underlying data, explained Liz Saccoccia from the World Resources Institute. A second tool from the Water, Peace and Security Partnership is specifically designed to explore the links between global triggers and local understanding. Karen Meijer from Deltares described how it could help zoom in closer to local risks and inform better decision-making by using open data. In the Inner Niger Delta of Mali, this local-level tool had identified changes in the wetland flooding regime as a trigger linked to an alteration in perceptions of livelihood opportunities, and measured the resulting perceptions of alternative options. By zooming in closer and analyzing the human responses to these triggers, this tool helped inform a better understanding of social dynamics.

Subsequently, Håvard Hegre from the University of Uppsala presented the ViEWS tool, a broader violence early warning system without a particular focus on water. Used to forecast the onset, continuation and de-escalation of violence 36 months into the future, ViEWS derives its data based on a variety of different themes, machine learning models and conflict management research. Meanwhile, the recently launched Blue Peace Index is used to bring information on transboundary water management and collaboration to a “non-specialist” audience, Matus Samel from the Economist Intelligence Unit explained. The index focuses on the premise that freshwater resources are scarce and do not stop at state borders. Derived from a combination of both qualitative and quantitative indicators, its five main pillars help provide a holistic and long-term assessment. PREVIEW, the last tool to be presented, aims at prediction, visualization and early warning. Its enhanced crisis early-warning supports the German Federal Foreign Office in its crisis anticipation and prevention capabilities. By automating open data, harmonizing it into a database and deriving different models, PREVIEW helps inform scientifically-sound analysis and decision-making.

After the presentation, the tools were critically assessed by a panel of experts comprising Johannes Cullmann (World Meteorological Organization), Eileen Burke (World Bank), Ulrike Pokorski da Cunha   (GIZ), Aaron Wolf (Oregon State University) and Achim Schkade (German Federal Foreign Office). The experts discussed several challenges such as the difficulties in combining methodologies and the balance between complexity and user-friendliness. From a policy perspective, the experts highlighted the need for compatible time horizons between early warning and policy programming so as to have capacity to respond to warnings, and the ability to integrate reactions by policy-makers. Moreover, they pointed out that each of the tools had different, if similar objectives, and their utility hence depended on whose awareness about what exactly needed to be raised. Experts also underlined that all the tools analyzed correlations, but not causalities, which are important for addressing underlying issues and implementing targeted dialogue.

In sum, the experts expressed appreciation of the tools that were presented and their contributions to better understanding the links between (water) risks and conflict, but also made a number of suggestions for improving both individual tools and the linkages and synergies between them. This provides important guidance for the way forward in tool development, ultimately informing policy decisions that prevent or mitigate water-related conflicts and foster water-based peacebuilding.

Concluding the session, Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs of the Netherlands asked how the tools could be used to drive longer-term goals like the 2030 Agenda. He further remarked that water and water-related conflict resolution were not a silver bullet, but could help with early conflict prevention. This, however, depended on these tools actually being effectively integrated into policy-making processes – a challenge that remained to be addressed, not least given the number of different tools.