Water Diplomacy and Mediation

Booming population growth, intensification of industrial and agricultural water use, and the effects of climate change are increasingly exacerbating conflicts over access to water. Growing political tensions can arise over the access, depletion or pollution of shared water resources. Water diplomacy and mediation plays a critical role in alleviating tensions and reducing conflicts around the world.

Water as a source of conflict

Over the ages, water has rarely been reported as being the direct cause of armed conflicts, and there is little evidence of formal water wars. However, transboundary water basins are often located in regions marked by interstate tensions or armed conflicts. Conflicts may not arise directly as a result of water issues, but direct confrontation over water and the use of water resources as an intimidation tactic can drive conflicts more broadly. Similarly, water shortages negatively impact international peace and security. Droughts in one region can lead to rising food prices and the deterioration of socio-economic conditions in another, thereby exacerbating tensions and triggering conflicts. Water can, and does, fundamentally impact the landscape of internal, regional and international relations.

Water as a weapon

Water resources are increasingly targeted for attacks in contemporary conflicts, with large scale water infrastructures in urban areas destroyed or captured during the course of war. Water supply lines are sometimes deliberately sabotaged with water resources poisoned to intimidate civilians. Armed groups capture dams and use them either to flood or starve downstream populations or even shelter high-value prisoners. This has significant long-term impact on local communities, displacing civilians, disrupting agricultural activities and spreading disease. In protracted conflicts, children younger than 15 are, on average, nearly three times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease linked to unsafe water and sanitation than violence directly linked to conflict and war (UNICEF 2019).

Water as a tool for peace

Water stress alone is a weak predictor of tensions and can even help enhance cooperation when opposing parties have a shared need for water. Shared water may support cooperation, with violent disputes occurring only in exceptional circumstances.

Different instruments can also be used to prevent early stage water conflicts. These include (but are not limited to): negotiation, mediation, arbitration, litigation, diplomacy, international court and open war.

The Blue Peace approach adds particular value to the following:

Water Negotiation

Water negotiations provide opportunities for two (or more) parties to come together to negotiate joint transboundary water agreements, with or without external support. These agreements can range from commitments to provide access to technical information all the way up to the establishment of river basin organisations, enhancing sustainable water management in an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence.

Water Mediation

Third party mediation offers additional opportunities to drive mutual understanding and drive collective actions around shared water. The Geneva Water Hub has established the Global Observatory for Water and Peace (GOWP) which was a recommendation of the Global High Level on Water and Peace. It also provides a safe space where countries dealing with conflicts or in need of advice can learn about models of cooperation or receive support in their ongoing negotiations processes. The Observatory can also facilitate identification of potential stakeholders in a position to address specific needs or help secure financing for transboundary water projects as well as facilitate fact finding and good practices. Other more direct forms of dispute settlement would be dealt with by existing mechanisms.

Water Diplomacy

Water diplomacy is defined as the art or practice of using water as a tool for conducting international relations. Water diplomacy can be bilateral, between two involved parties, or include the involvement of a third party. Using the tools mentioned above (water mediation and water negotiation), water diplomacy supports increased engagement, transparency and cooperation between countries.

Want more? Details on the Swiss toolbox for Blue Peace can be found here

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