March 19, 2019

Water cooperation and water diplomacy

By Zaki Shubber.

Water management is conflict management. From the Aral to the Zambezi, water disputes are a priority at local, regional, national, and international levels. Worldwide, water demands are growing, groundwater levels are dropping, water bodies are increasingly contaminated, and delivery and treatment infrastructure is aging. The potential for conflict and the need for cooperation between domestic and transboundary watershed stakeholders will increase as problems become more acute.

New concepts have emerged to describe the issues and to propose pathways for dealing with the increased multi-level competition that is being observed, and for enabling the creation and use of appropriate conflict prevention and management tools. Water cooperation and water diplomacy are amongst these concepts. They incorporate all levels, acknowledging the interconnection between them and between the various stakeholders of shared water resources, and suggesting methods for conflict avoidance, and dispute settlement and resolution. They also set the issues within broader societal contexts and highlight the implications with regard to other sectors not always immediately associated with water issues, beyond those of food and energy.

The ability to identify signs of potential conflict is a starting point in addressing issues of competition. Early warning frameworks can provide support to decision-makers and practitioners to recognise these signals and to consider what might be appropriate measures to address the situation, as well to ascertain which stakeholders to engage with. In this regard governance at domestic and international levels plays a key role. Governance frameworks provide tools, including legal ones, to assess and agree criteria for water allocations, which are fundamental in the context of potential and existing competition. Whether international conventions, regional or basin treaties, or national water legislation, legal instruments contain and outline key policy principles for the peaceful management of water bodies. Importantly, they also contain dispute resolution mechanisms for parties in the event that a conflict could not be avoided.

Moreover, understanding where the right points of entry are and the ability to provide momentum to relevant parties to engage with water related disputes is also an important feature of water diplomacy. Political will is crucial for the resolution of disputes and in its absence, conflicts may stagnate and potentially escalate. This may also in some cases require the involvement of external parties to nudge stakeholders in the right direction or to provide the setting and expertise that the disputing parties themselves are lacking and which is hampering progress in the resolution of the dispute. This is another aspect of water diplomacy that can help create and sustain a peaceful environment for water resources management.

Finally, key in addressing all of these matters is the capacity of water professionals and of stakeholders to deal with them. Education and capacity building are absolute requirements to empower all those who are closely or indirectly involved in water or water related conflicts. It is necessary to provide the right education to the new generation of water professionals. In addition, it is essential to continuously train those already active, to better understand the options available to address latent or actual competition and conflict over water and how to take into account technical, scientific, political, or governance-related factors.

IHE Delft, together with its partners all over the world, has been working on these issues across three broad pillars, education, research and capacity building, to enhance the overall understanding of the processes happening and capacity of those who are involved in them.

At a recent water diplomacy workshop at IHE Delft, attended by a large number of diplomatic representatives, great interest was shown in this urgent and increasingly important topic.


About the author:  Zaki Shubber is a  lecturer in Law and Water Diplomacy at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. For further information on relevant education or training programmes, please contact:


Photographer Hans de Lijser, copyrights IHE Delft

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