Main page content

Water Diplomacy

Water is indispensable: we need it to live. No substitute for freshwater exists and it is scarce in many regions. Simultaneously, much of it transcends state borders via shared river and lake basins or groundwater aquifers. The resulting political, economic, social and environmental interdependencies give water resources the crucial potential to either foster cooperation or exacerbate conflict. The significance of access to water is growing as demographic and economic drivers, as well as deteriorating water quality, interact with climate change in ways that will regionally increase water scarcity and variability.

Raze dam, Iran

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of extreme events like droughts and floods. It can also degrade water quality – for example, as sea levels rise, saltwater could intrude into coastal aquifers, or toxins could concentrate in drying rivers. More than 280 river basins worldwide are shared by two or more countries, which often leads to disputes between upstream and downstream countries. Climate change will increase the pressure on scarce water supplies in many basins, yet these disputes are not likely to lead to ‘water wars.’ Of the almost 2,000 incidents that took place in transboundary basins between 1990 and 2008, approximately twice as many events were cooperative rather than conflictual. Conflict can become dangerous when external events overwhelm institutional coping mechanisms, especially in regions that lack resilient institutions for resolving conflicts.

Competition over shared waters should warrant strong interest from foreign policy makers. Foreign policy can help improve transboundary water governance, and transboundary water governance can provide policy makers a toehold for making progress on crucial foreign policy interests. Thus, encouraging greater cooperation over transboundary waters offers significant prospects for the resolution of political conflicts and greater regional integration. Transboundary waters constitute a promising entry point for diplomats aiming for high peace dividends. Foreign policy makers can and should do more to realise these dividends. Diplomats are often well positioned to accompany and facilitate the efforts of technical and development experts in transboundary basins.

Cooperatively managing shared water resources offers significant opportunities for all water users, especially in basins where water sources cross national boundaries. Water quality, hydropower production, irrigation and farming, flood control, navigation, and environmental services can be managed more efficiently at the basin level than within national boundaries. Collaborative water management can also help overcome distrust and create bonds between hostile groups.


Discover more cases of conflict and cooperation around water or other environmental factors in our FACTBOOK. 

Our case study of the Orange-Senqu River Basin, for example, explains how the Lesotho Highlands Water Project creates benefits for both upstream Lesotho and downstream South Africa. A series of tunnels and dams has increased water supply to the water-scarce economic centre of Gauteng in South Africa. At the same time, the project generates important revenues and electricity for Lesotho, which is relatively poorer and resource-scarce. 


With the right tools, water can become a source for peacebuilding

What if water – a resource that is at the centre of many local and regional conflicts – could be utilised for fostering peace? It is this potential that the ‘Water, Peace and Security Partnership’ is seeking to leverage. Dr. Susanne Schmeier, Senior Lecturer at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education of the UNESCO, explains that the partnership has emerged from a call for action sent out at the Planetary Security Conference in 2017, to which governments and organisations responded by creating a set of tools for assessing and responding to water-related security risks.

Water Diplomacy: A tool for climate action? | SIWI World Water Week 

In this SIWI World Water Week workshop organised by adelphi and IHE Delft, experts from the diplomacy, development, security, climate change and water communities discuss the conditions under which specific diplomatic tools can be used by riparian and non-riparian countries to shape regional cooperation to address climate and other security and development challenges, such as migration.

"The Rise Of Hydro-Diplomacy" - Interview with Benjamin Pohl, adelphi

The new study “The Rise of Hydro-Diplomacy” has been launched and discussed at a side event at the World Water Week 2014 in Stockholm. In this interview, Benjamin Pohl, lead author and senior project manager with adelphi, shares insights on the report and his conclusions of the panel discussion.