Conceptualizing water diplomacy and the role of RBOs

We understand water diplomacy in the broader context of transboundary water resources management and water cooperation (see Figure 1.1). Water diplomacy—with a focus on the use of diplomatic

The water diplomacy—water management—water cooperation nexus

Figure 1.1 The water diplomacy—water management—water cooperation nexus.

means in order to address existing or emerging disagreements and disputes over shared water resources13—is one dimension of the broader and multifaceted framework of interactions between states and other actors over their shared water resources. The traditional practice of transboundary water resources management aims to achieve water-specific outcomes (e.g., managing floods or conserving fishery resources) through mostly technical means, and transboundary water cooperation aims to manage and develop water resources in a cooperative manner that allows for harvesting the benefits of cooperation (e.g., jointly investing in infrastructure projects at most strategic locations) among sovereign states. Water diplomacy meanwhile focuses on peace and stability and thus on outcomes because of, for, and beyond water.14

At the heart of water diplomacy is thus understanding and addressing complex water issues, challenges, and risks through negotiated solutions involving multiple stakeholders with differing positions and interests. While the primary objective of water diplomacy is water conflict prevention and management, it does not lose sight of the specific water management and ultimate water cooperation goals. The three realms of “water management,” “water cooperation,” and “water diplomacy” are thus not mutually exclusive and typically occur in the same basins, often at the same time. They are distinguished for conceptual and analytical purposes, highlighting the specific objectives, tools, and practices involved. Three points are key. First, to properly understand and offer possible solutions to complex water issues requires technical work that can provide responses to the many challenges of transboundary water resources. Second, to have solutions accepted and implemented that provide benefits generated from the transboundary water cooperation requires facilitation and negotiation among numerous actors, increasing the incentives for cooperation, and making conflict most costly. Finally, to do facilitation and negotiation among all the relevant political and diplomatic players requires all relevant processes and tools at the disposal of the actors involved.

Water diplomacy and RBOs

When considering the role of RBOs in water diplomacy, the context in which they operate matters significantly. Hydrological conditions, water availability, water use, and water needs, as well as the level of regional integration, socioeconomic conditions, and political dynamics, differ. In a basin as vast and water rich as the Congo, so far facing limited immediate pressure on water resources, the RBO’s role will largely be in sustainable management of resources with a view to preventing conflicts. In a basin such as the Nile, however, where water is scarce and development pressure is high, the role of an RBO is likely to be different, with a stronger focus on addressing immediate resource needs and related conflicts. In European basins or in basins shared between the United States and Canada, cooperation challenges relating to water quality require yet different approaches for resolving disagreements. Finally, socioeconomic development and regional political integration, mostly in Europe and North America and increasingly in Southeast Asia, also determine a good deal about the capacity of RBOs to manage differences in the neighborhoods they oversee.

Accordingly, the type of disagreement or conflict and the way it is addressed (preventively or with a focus on resolution), and the engagement of RBOs in water diplomacy, as well as the tools to be applied, have to vary, adapted to the specific needs of the basin. Understanding the context in a basin is thus a prerequisite not only for understanding the role of RBOs in water diplomacy but also for taking informed decisions on how RBOs can and should fulfill this role. The various chapters of this book therefore always provide a comprehensive analysis of the context in which conflict and cooperation in the respective basins are situated, allowing for a differentiated understanding of the basins and the role RBOs play (or do not play) in conflict and cooperation.

Turning to RBOs' role in water diplomacy themselves, four factors are key: the legal mandate and institutional setup of RBOs,15 as well as the technical and strategic mechanisms they employ to manage disputes and usher in beneficial changes.16 When these correlate to a sufficiently high degree, RBOs have and can play effective roles in managing water-related differences, tensions, and disputes, and contribute to regional cooperation and peace. Those basins with less favorable combinations of these sets of factors experience troubles and tribulations in managing conflicts, ultimately affecting the overall regional cooperation context.

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