International Hydro-Diplomacy

Via The Stimson Center, an article on a call to action on transboundary water governance in the Himalayan region, Central Asia, and the Euphrates-Tigris river basin:

Water, a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce, is critical in sustaining human life. The last century has witnessed a multifold increase in global water demand despite its waning availability. The rapidly growing urban populations coupled with increasing impacts of climate change have further exacerbated this challenge: more than two-thirds of the global population live with water-scarce conditions at least one month of the year. If current trends continue, water scarcity, with its cross-sectoral implications on politics and economy, has the potential to challenge national, regional, and international security as countries across the globe compete for shared water resources.

The situation is even more alarming when evaluating transboundary water governance, wherein power asymmetries between upstream and downstream countries are threat multipliers in already fragile and vulnerable socio-political environments. There is thus an urgent need for an inclusive and pragmatic approach to water governance at both regional and international levels. This approach should employ hydro-diplomacy, multi-stakeholder engagement, and institution-building to reinforce greater cooperation over shared water resources. The chapters in this study are each devoted to three of the most water-stressed regions in the world: the Himalayas, Central Asia, and the Euphrates-Tigris river basin. Each region is vexed with finite transboundary water resources which have long been politicized. Tensions between riparian states engender a zero-sum approach to water sharing in the absence of robust frameworks for sustainable and long-term cooperation. The analysis and recommendations to build such frameworks, presented in each region-specific chapter, was made possible courtesy of selected regional experts with extensive knowledge and field experience in international hydro-diplomacy and transboundary river basins.

Institutions and International Hydro-diplomacy

A primary step towards comprehending the appetite of formal institution-building and water governance frameworks is to understand the term hydro-diplomacy itself. Hydro-diplomacy comprises two conceptual frameworks—water diplomacy and science diplomacy—which define ways in which countries can work together to resolve water resource problems at their shared borders. In this context, hydro-diplomacy embraces the engagement of both state and non-state actors to allow for diverse stakeholder interests.

Over the past century, there have been various attempts to navigate the complex and intricate environment of transboundary water governance including international efforts at different levels and in different regions. The 1992 UNECE Water Convention (enforced in 1996) served to be an important international instrument which requires cooperation between riparian countries to “prevent, control and reduce transboundary impact.” In the same vein, in a range of regions, formal agreements and treaties surfaced over the years to legally facilitate integrated water management. However, these treaties have not been entirely effective in keeping water conflicts at bay due to hostile political relations and power asymmetries between riparian states which mean that cooperation remains conditional on political and strategic national interests—compromising and often violating the terms of any formal transboundary agreements.

Senegal River Basin Development Organization (OMVS)1

The Senegal River Basin Development Organization (OMVS) is a regional cooperative management organization on the Senegal River. Developed in 1972, the OMVS is the only African river management entity that has diligently followed guidelines of equitable sharing among member states. The OMVS currently includes Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal.

Regional politics can often weaken the already fragile regulatory frameworks that dictate transboundary water management. For example, the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, a bilateral water-sharing agreement between India and Pakistan, serves as a case in point. The treaty is weak in that it offers no adaptive rules or protocols to cope with extreme weather events and other looming water stressors that require collaboration between India and Pakistan on long-term solutions. Similarly, in the Euphrates-Tigris river basin, existing treaties and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) alone do not have enough leverage to outmaneuver political schisms between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Therefore, these agreements must be supplemented by hydro-diplomacy efforts, and regional institutions and river basin organizations. Such institutions will serve as a regional or basin-wide platform for conflict resolution by enabling all riparian states to work with one another on both political and technical levels; drive research and hydrological data sharing; enable means for multi-sectoral—industrial, private, and non-governmental organizations—and multi-stakeholder coordination; and employ transparency and accountability. Once foundations for joint institutions and basin management plans are laid, an all-inclusive, consensus-driven, and unbiased decision-making process will help engender a goal-oriented and benefit-sharing approach as opposed to the widespread “zero-sum” attitude. The Senegal River Development Organization (OMVS)—a potent regional entity responsible for equitable water sharing among countries along the Senegal River in Africa—sets a good example in this case through its effective planning and development contributions to the region. Nevertheless, in other key water-stressed areas like the Himalayas, Central Asia and Euphrates-Tigris river basin, the securitization and politicization of transboundary water resources coupled with weak institutional capacity—a subject discussed more broadly in this study—have restricted the aptitude of cooperative transboundary mechanisms achieved by the likes of OMVS.

The EU and Transboundary Water Governance Institutions

If scarce water resources are viewed only strategically, there is a strong likelihood of shared waters becoming a source of contention and competition between riparian states. This possibility alone warrants international attention. The ever-changing security and environmental context make it imperative for internal and external stakeholders to discuss water issues more efficiently within policymaking. To that end, the European Union (EU) has shown a vested interest in expanding its water diplomacy initiatives to support global water governance.

EU’s Water Framework Directive of 2000 provides a good example for member states to follow a more holistic approach towards water management, outlining that “for river basins extending beyond the boundaries of the community, member states should endeavor to ensure the appropriate coordination with the relevant non-member states”2. The Council Conclusions in 2013 also recognized the gravity of water scarcity and related conflicts across the globe that would not only adversely impact the EU but also international security. The Council Conclusions in 2018 reiterated that “a key objective of EU water diplomacy is to engage for the long term in fostering cooperative approaches to address the transboundary challenges of water. The EU stands ready to work in partnership with others to promote collaborative and sustainable water management, encouraging and supporting regional and international cooperation.”3 Additionally, EU member states, like the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, and Finland have repeatedly set an example through their continued engagement in the water sector whether by means of enhancing quality, climate adaptation or knowledge sharing within the EU borders and even across.

Although transboundary water governance is often beleaguered by the “tragedy of the commons”4, the commonality of water-related issues also makes a strong case for greater inter- and intra-regional cooperation both through back-channel diplomacy and third-party solicitation. The EU has made credible progress when it comes to regional cooperation over water vis-à-vis initiatives such as the EU-Central Asia Platform for Environment and Water Cooperation (WECOOP) 20095 and the EU Regional Environmental Program for Central Asia (EURECA). Similarly, the India-EU Water Partnership, established in Brussels in 2016, launched a cooperative initiative to jointly work towards enhancing the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of water management in India.6 The EU is also an important influencer in the Mekong Basin through the financial support for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and has capacitated the MRC to bring in new reforms, deliver on its strategic plans for integrated water management and basin-wide water cooperation.

Through these initiatives, the EU has advanced global engagement on water issues over the years and has the potential to further build on its model and best practices to support cooperative regional water mechanisms in other regions going forward. However, the EU’s engagement, as well as knowledge concerning these water-impoverished and conflicted regions, is still limited. The often intense and convoluted nature of transboundary water sharing in conflict-prone regions means that the EU must employ additional undertakings to fully deliver on the industrious aims of the Council Conclusions and truly emerge as a leader in the field of international hydro-diplomacy.

A key objective of EU water diplomacy is to engage in fostering long-term cooperative approaches to address transboundary water challenges.

Foremost, there is a compelling need for the EU to have open channels of communication with the various string of stakeholders in each region or river basin as each has its own unique geographic, political and economic situation that needs to be navigated. There has to be a transparent understanding of all cross-sectoral impacts of water scarcity and security in each region. Additionally, given the lack of development funds allocated towards water infrastructure or institutional capacity building in regions like the Himalayas or South Asia, the EU can work with stakeholders and river basin commissions, much like its cooperation with MRC, to create contingency plans and foster the initiation and expansion of non-partisan regional cooperative mechanisms. This can be achieved by encouraging the High Representative, the European Commission, and member states to give necessary consideration to the importance of water and sanitation in the programming of future financial and technical cooperation with partner countries, including under the next Multiannual Financial Framework. The EU should work in tandem with the private sector to fill the investment gaps which cannot be covered by public finance alone.

The world of transboundary water governance offers the EU an opportunity to be a broker of peace in water-stressed and conflict-prone regions. The EU can build on its multi-faceted experiences in the field of development cooperation to support regional integration on water issues and aid transboundary water initiatives. However, there has to be a more persistent, coordinated, and diligent effort to make a significant breakthrough and facilitate long-term solutions for the looming water crisis existing beyond its borders.


This study necessitates a call to action on transboundary water governance in the Himalayan region, Central Asia, and the Euphrates-Tigris river basin. Transboundary water systems cannot be unilaterally addressed and instead require multistakeholder approaches. There is an outstanding need for coordinating mechanisms and frameworks at all levels to ensure an equitable sharing of water resources by means of an integrated and deliberate effort. Through their analysis, the authors further validate the notion that “most indicative variables for conflict reflect rapid or extreme change to physical or institutional systems within a basin in absence of transboundary institutional mechanisms able to manage the effects of that change.” Therefore, water conflict prevention relies on identifying and understanding different interests and creating an environment that supports arbitration and mediation.

As discussed, in each chapter, a significant number of bilateral and basin-level agreements as well as some governing bodies have been established over the past few decades. Yet the overall effectiveness of these initiatives falls prey to the status quo, “hydro-hegemony”, and conflicting interests of the stakeholders. Often, powerful stakeholders succeed in pushing policymakers to support their claims at the expense of other stakeholders or choose not to participate in collaborative functions altogether. In Central Asia, Afghanistan has not participated in any of the regional platforms on the Aral Sea basin over the years. Therefore, there has been a limited exchange of information and knowledge between Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia on shared rivers which further creates a division between water policies and strategic interests. In the Euphrates-Tigris river basin, Turkey, being the upper riparian, generally is at an impasse over water sharing with the lower riparian Iraq and Syria despite cooperative initiatives. Similarly in the Himalayan region, the MoU which covers data sharing on the Yarlung-Tsangpo/ Brahmaputra has consistently fallen victim to geopolitical tensions between India and China. China, post the Doklam standoff in 2017, refused to share the flood data, required under the MoU, with India. Such cases make it evident that ad-hoc and purely bilateral approaches to water management or water conflict prevention are not always enough, and regional institutions and third-party solicitation can play an important role in incentivizing a collaborative and mutually beneficial approach to transboundary water governance.

The significance and urgency of institution building, legal bindings, and water-sharing agreements is well-accepted and recognized, but their successes are dependent on various aspects exclusive to the exigencies of each region and river basin. For instance, most international water laws already in place are more applicable in non-arid regions like Europe as opposed to arid regions. Laws are subsequently better enforced in the former than the latter. The existence of joint institutions also cannot guarantee inclusive decision-making due to political reservations, and funding and capacity gaps only further minimize the overall influence of any institutional frameworks. In Central Asia, the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia (ICWC) lacks full jurisdiction over the rivers and has technical limitations. Any non-compliance with ICWC decisions is also not sanctioned. Moreover, existing regional water governance institutions in Central Asia have not been able to effectively address the tensions between upstream and downstream riparian countries stemming from dam constructions on the tributaries of shared rivers such as the Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers. In the Himalayan region as well, institutions have made little to no progress over transboundary water governance. In chapter 1, the authors argue that South Asia is yet to apply a robust multidisciplinary and inclusive approach towards water governance, especially given the rampant hydropower projects and dam-building by upstream countries. Although attempts at shared transboundary water governance commenced as early as 1946 in the Euphrates-Tigris river basin, the tense relations between the three riparian states coupled with the growing water scarcity have heavily compromised any gains made over the years.

By and large, all three regions have the following common challenges with regards to transboundary water governance institutions and arrangements:

  • Political inertia in devising and enforcing guidelines that can enable equitable water sharing.
  • Water issues are often overshadowed in national and regional policy spheres.
  • Financial and technical capacity challenges further weaken any existing institutional frameworks. There are wide gaps in knowledge that tend to compromise objective analysis of river basins, ecological systems, and water flows.
  • Geopolitical tensions and power asymmetries divert countries away from cooperative initiatives, third-party mediations, and joint endeavors on water governance.

Reflections on EU’s water diplomacy

The global landscape is rapidly changing in a way that makes it crucial for governments and international organizations to prioritize water security and climate change in their policy-making agendas. We have witnessed ardent attempts by the EU towards broader cross-border engagement. The EU’s successful trajectory in driving cooperation on issues such as water governance within the EU borders has allowed it to develop the experience and knowledge that can be transferred to water-stressed regions across the globe.

The EU’s active involvement in Central Asia is noteworthy. As highlighted by the experts, the EU has been supportive of regional water institutions such as the IFAS and ICWC, and in 2009 launched an exclusive EU–CA Platform on Environment and Water. In addition to this, the European Commission also is a major contributor to the multi-donor trust of the Central Asia Energy and Water Development Program (CAEWDP), implemented by the World Bank. Authors suggest that the EU, with its experience on the ground through the aforementioned engagements, is a strong candidate to assume

the role of a third-party solicitor who not only facilitates regional institutional building but also oversees accountability and enforcement of a cooperative framework. This would ensure capacity building and participation of all relevant stakeholders in the decision-making process of the key regions discussed in this study.

In the Euphrates-Tigris river basin, the EU’s influence has been credible, primarily through its efforts in rallying Turkey to engage in active cooperation with its neighbors on shared rivers. Turkey’s declaration as a candidate for EU-membership in December 1999 led to a positive transformation in its water management policies. In order to comply with the EU’s vision and requirements under the Water Framework Directive, Turkey more willingly engaged in cooperative efforts with other riparian countries. Consequently, Turkey signed bilateral MoUs in 2009 with Syria and Iraq respectively to develop and manage shared rivers. In South Asia, the India-EU Water Partnership (IEWP) is certainly an important initiative that enables India to learn from the EU’s technical and management expertise in the water sector. Even though the IEWP is a bilateral initiative, it does indicate a promising role that the EU can play on a more basin-wide and regional level. While the aforementioned examples demonstrate a step in the right direction for EU’s water diplomacy, the emphasis on global water security in EU’s policy agenda and the scale of its engagement abroad is still relatively low.

Despite resolute ambitions, reservations in terms of meddling or being directly involved in water politics of volatile and crisis-prone regions may have also served to hinder EU’s progress over the years. Nevertheless, the growing water scarcity and its worldwide humanitarian and security implications require bodies like the EU to develop greater diplomatic synergies and a more comprehensive understanding of issues that extend beyond its strategic neighborhood. To this end, the EU must take initiatives that will strengthen its water diplomacy and allow it to build on its own achievements in the realm of transboundary water governance. The EU may consider:

  • Promoting the ratification of the 1997 UN and 1992 UNECE Conventions by third countries in order to facilitate the adoption of the much-needed multilateral approach to shared water governance.
  • Building confidence in disintegrated regions by promoting broader knowledge sharing and engendering a benefit-sharing mindset among contesting riparian countries.
  • Becoming a leading development donor and global player in regions with weak or non-existing water institutional frameworks by providing technical and financial support.

Overall, the EU must exercise a conscious diplomatic effort to acquire more knowledge pertinent to the geographical, political, and social elements of each region/river basin and engage with field players in charting the best way forward.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 9th, 2021 at 11:44 am and is filed under Tibetan Plateau, Tigris-Euphrates System.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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