ECC Platform Library


Water diplomacy: a tool for climate action? – Event summary

01 September, 2020
Raquel Munayer, adelphi

screenshot, water diplomacy a tool for climate action, event webinar.png

Screenshot of the online workshop "Water diplomacy, a tool for climate action?", organised by adelphi and IHE Delft and held on 24 August 2020. | © adelphi

As part of this year’s online World Water Week at Home, adelphi and IHE Delft convened the workshop "Water diplomacy: a tool for climate action?". The workshop reflected on the role that foreign policy can play in mitigating, solving and potentially preventing conflicts over the management of transboundary water resources, especially in a changing climate.

The participation of some 250 people demonstrated the salience of the topic, an interest underlined by the many questions posed to the panelists. The panel was moderated by Beatrice Mosello, Senior Advisor at adelphi, and featured:

  • Susanne Schmeier, Senior Lecturer in Water Law and Diplomacy at IHE Delft
  • Aaron Salzberg, Director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Anoulak Kittikhoun, Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer at the Mekong River Commission (MRC)
  • Dinara Ziganshina, Deputy Director of the Scientific Information Center of Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (SIC ICWC) in Central Asia
  • Aaron Wolf, Professor of Geography and Director of Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University.

The panel looked at how water diplomacy interventions could be leveraged to encourage cooperation beyond water, showcasing experiences and lessons learned from different contexts and regions. The panel also reflected how diplomatic tools could be used to advance climate and security goals, looking into examples from Central Asia and the Mekong basin.

Susanne Schmeier started out by distinguishing water diplomacy from broader transboundary water management and cooperation, highlighting its use of diplomatic tools for objectives beyond water-related risks, including impacts on peace and stability. Schmeier noted increasing interest in this relationship from outside the water community, but also an increasingly nuanced understanding including an acknowledgement of concerns over securitisation and politicisation of water management.  She noted important similarities to the debates over climate security, stressing that climate impacts would largely be felt through the water cycles. Approaches in both areas needed to be coordinated but also implied significant opportunities for mutual learning.

“This new focus on water diplomacy is largely driven by an interest in water-related security challenges from communities beyond the traditional water community.” — Susanne Schmeier, IHE Delft

Aaron Salzberg stressed that water was often a diplomatic bridge to address cross-cutting issues beyond water, promoting trust and cooperation and forcing countries to come together to address challenges such as climate change. This was true for government-to-government conversations, but especially for track 2 conversations including policymakers, scientists, and NGOs. Salzberg gave the example of the Sava River Agreement, which was the first agreement between Balkan countries after the conflict so that water served as the main vehicle for restarting cooperation among states in the region. He argued that foreign policy makers had a critical role in integrating other social and economic concerns into conversations while the water community focused on the more technical aspects. Salzberg concluded that process was often more important than the exact terms of an agreement, and that foreign policy could facilitate the trust necessary for managing the uncertainties and the need for continuous adaptation that climate change was bringing about.

“How countries continue to work together to solve the shared challenges [of climate change] is probably the most important outcome of a transboundary water process.” — Aaron Salzberg, University of North Carolina

Anoulak Kittikhoun emphasised the holistic nature of water diplomacy which included engagement on a legal framework; institutional setup; strategy; and, critically in his view, technical data. Yet agreements could be flexible to adapt to changes. By way of example, although the 1995 Mekong agreement did not dwell on climate change, this had been included into negotiation and planning and was now part of the regional water cooperation process. Member countries did not always agree on the exact figures, but usually on general trends and could therefore adapt measures and recommendations to deal with these issues. Adaptation of big projects towards more sustainable designs and in line with regionally agreed upon processes had been one of MRC’s big successes. Looking into the future, Kittikhoun underlined that climate change was a major issue and that riparians needed to discuss infrastructure adaptation.

“The discussion around […] options to deal with floods in the midst of a changing climate in the future needs to happen, and some of the decisions will be controversial. […] Diplomatic tools can aid in that process.” — Anoulak Kittikhoun, Mekong River Basin Commission

Dinara Ziganshina stressed that Central Asia would benefit from more multi-level diplomacy including at subnational level and public engagement. She highlighted the prominent role of local authorities and basin organisations in actively engaging in finding solutions to transboundary issues, contrary to the image of highly centralised decision-making. She stressed the need for Central Asian countries to have ownership and responsibility for cooperation, noting that most operational issues were already being resolved within the region. Ziganshina confirmed that there was a role for third party involvement, especially on discussing mechanisms for promoting monitoring and compliance, and for how to link technical discussions to broader strategic dialogues, but also stressed the need for including regional knowledge and engaging scientists from the region.

“[Local basin organisations in Central Asia] were always involved in technical, operational water management as ‘water managers’, but they are not so much involved in diplomacy-related practices. And I think we have to find a way to bring them to this discussion.” — Dinara Ziganshina, SIC ICWC Central Asia

Aaron Wolf emphasised that he did not expect any countries to go to war over water, and that stronger tensions usually brought the attention and resources for finding solutions. He explained that tensions were a function of the rate of change in a basin and its institutional capacity for dealing with those changes. Where the rate of change exceeded this institutional capacity, tensions would often rise. Climate change was both changing the hydrology and incentivising new infrastructure. To respond to this challenge, he emphasised the need to connect technical and political cooperation tracks. Whereas water agreements could only go as far as diplomats allowed, negotiations could push those boundaries, as shown by past negotiations between Jordan and Israel.

“A dam is, by definition, one of the major changes that can be brought into a basin. If there’s not an agreement in place on how to deal with the impacts of a dam, that is one of the things that can bring tensions.” — Aaron Wolf, Oregon State University

Many event participants asked questions which were subsequently discussed in the chat and by the panel. These broadly fell into four categories:

  1. Power, with questions on how to deal with international conflict, asymmetric power relations in negotiations at the national but also at the transboundary level, or how to get parties to the negotiation table especially if one party had limited interest in doing so;
  2. Discourse, with concerns over lack of trust and a politicisation of resources in the context of the water security and climate security debates;
  3. Implementations challenges, with questions on the effectiveness of cooperation, collaborative governance and win-wins such as trade, as well as the role of legal instruments and National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs); and
  4. Inclusion, with several questions on the role of women, youth, and regional organisations, as well as queries into how to foster the inclusion of these groups into the water diplomacy context.

In their responses, the panellists stressed the need to connect water experts with the political track, to be able to create incentives beyond the water sector itself and ensure that solutions were politically viable. Foreign policy could help create a suitable environment for negotiations and cooperation. Diplomacy and international law were mutually reinforcing, as diplomacy resulted in treaties and customs while law then defined the boundaries of what was possible. Regional organisations and local experts were crucial for generating context-specific data and knowledge, guaranteeing the inclusion of actors across the board, and ensuring that transboundary water management activities were true to the cooperation agreements. Panellists also stressed the need to invest in spreading and understanding stakeholders’ self-interest in collaboration. Finally, they emphasised that institutional capacity needed to be able to respond to change and highlighted the significance of an efficient science-policy-interface.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy

Global Issues


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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