“Living without water means living without hope”

Water can be a source of conflict, especially as it becomes scarcer due to climate change. In order to maintain or make peace, it is thus essential for countries to find compromises on how to use and manage shared waters. Enter “water diplomacy!”

Martina Klimes

As an Advisor for Water and Peace at SIWI, Dr Martina Klimes is responsible for the Water and Peace portfolio in addition to advising on SIWI’s activities in transboundary basins affected by water scarcity, political tensions, and armed violence.

  • Q What is the water dimension of how climate change can make it difficult for people to live together in peace?
    A

    Climate change affects the future availability of water and water plays for example a very important role for agriculture. Many of the conflict-affected regions are still heavily dependent on agriculture, and the agriculture sector employs most of the youth.

    With increasing water scarcity, we could be facing a situation of up to 80 percent unemployment among youth. These unemployed youth are in turn a very easy target for recruiters of terror networks, which is something we have seen for example in parts of Iraq.

    So water scarcity makes not only for a struggle between different sectors competing for water, but it also directly affects the livelihoods and options for the population. Add to that that in countries where for various reasons, including for instance brain drain, governments can be perceived as fragile and institutions are weak, there are limited options for how to mitigate these crises.

    Take the example of Iraq: A worst case scenario would see upstream development, internal challenges like the need to modernize irrigation systems, and climate change leading to the water in the Tigris river decreasing, which could lead to a possible displacement of up to seven million people, even more than with the crisis in Syria. That can be then the feeding ground for terror networks operating in the region: We have already seen that these networks specifically target rural communities that face water scarcity and spread disinformation to fuel grievances.

    You see, water is the source of everything, and to live without water  means living without hope. So approaching crises that arise as a result of water scarcity in these fragile states is really an urgent matter and we have to think about how we can we all contribute, with the mandate given to us, to supporting affected governments facing these challenges.

  • Q How then can “water diplomacy” work towards people living together in peace?
    A

    I think there is a misunderstanding that water diplomacy is a domain for diplomats, for foreign policy experts. But the concept as we see it also involves a wider range of technical experts. Negotiating teams should involve both foreign policy and technical experts. Non-state actors can be involved as well, voices from vulnerable communities, civil society organizations – they can all support these processes that can have multiple tracks.

    Let me give you an example: In 2015, Turkey and Iraq were reaching an agreement on prior notification period for filling of a dam. Turkey proposed a time frame of six months and the foreign ministry representatives from the other country agreed to that time frame. But then they brought that agreement home to the technical experts who said that six months was not enough time to prepare for the dry period. These negotiations are extremely difficult but the knowledge of technical experts at the negotiation table is really needed to ensure that solutions which diplomats arrive at work in practice.

  • Q Can you give an example of where water diplomacy was successful?
    A

    There is the example of South Africa and Lesotho that reached an agreement on how they could share benefits of the Orange/Senqu river. South Africa’s Gauteng region, in which Johannesburg is located, was in desperate need of water and Lesotho needed electricity. So South Africa reached an agreement with Lesotho to build a series of dams in Lesotho for the mutual benefit of the two countries. Hydropower was generated for Lesotho and the water was sold to South Africa.

    scenic view of river at Kate dam hydroelectric power plant in Lesotho

    An hydroelectric power plant in the mountains of Lesotho. Photo: Getty/ Fabian Plock; EyeEm

    That process really depended on identifying shared benefits. If countries trust each other, they can explore different ways of using water to the benefit of all.

  • Q How can water diplomacy work towards people living together in peace?
    A

    In cases where conflict has already escalated, there is often a need to discuss water resources because both conflict parties need water. That can create an opportunity for talks because talking about water is something tangible. Talks to resolve conflicts are often very much about underlying historical grievances, transitional justice and other issues that are both abstract and loaded with emotions.

    With water, on the other hand, one can really talk about numbers, and even agree on numbers because they are very exact. It also brings the opportunity to bring different stakeholders to the table and that can enhance collaboration.

  • Q You edited a special edition on water diplomacy of the Journal of Hydrology. What was your main take-away from that?
    A

    I really liked that this special issue features articles about river basins written by experts who are based in these areas. For instance, an article written by researchers in Afghanistan about water and conflict management between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We would love to see for example a next article written jointly by researchers from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Another take-away from this work is the realization that often, technical experts and foreign policy or security experts do not use the same language in discussing and writing about a situation, and policy makers do not always understand the key messages that technical experts want to get across. That is something we need to work on and – and that is also the aim of the Climate Security Hub – to help the scientific community produce the key messages that will be understood by the policy makers who may not read this Water Diplomacy Special Issue (laughs).

    Interview: Andrea Lindblom, SEI