event 17 oct. 2019

World Water Week 2019 // Session Summary: Any Role for River Basin Organizations in Managing Water Conflicts?

This article summarizes the main outcomes and discussion points of the World Water Week 2019 session “Any Role for RBOs in Managing Water Conflicts?" Panelists from different regions highlighted the importance of RBOs in fostering dialogue and negotiation in order to solve water conflicts in transboundary basins. It was highlighted, to take the issue of basin management to the energy and agriculture sectors and thus the water, food and energy nexus.

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Speakers: Pitch Hatda, Mekong River Commission; Aaron Wolf, Oregon State University; Sharon Burke, New America; Anoulak Kittikhoun, Mekong River Commission; Ana Inozemtseva, Regional Environmental Center for Central Asia; Mike Enskat, GIZ

Tuesday 27 August | 11:00-12:30 | Room M3

By Susanne Schmeier.During this session, keynote speakers from regions across the world exchanged their perspectives on the roles of River Basin Organizations (RBOs) in managing water conflicts. Opening the session, Hatda noted that transboundary tensions over shared waters have continued to drive conflicts into the 21st century. He stressed the importance of dialogue and negotiation in solving such disputes, highlighting that armed conflict is more expensive than solving water issues through joint management. RBOs are key to facilitating this sharing of waters in transboundary basins. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is one such entity that is willing to share its experiences and is always open to learning from other RBOs.

“Although water is an amplifier of war, it is also a necessity for peace.”

Speaking on the linkages between water stress and conflicts, Burke noted that water has contributed to rising tensions. However, although water is an amplifier of war, it is also a necessity for peace. In many instances, water has even been a cause for cooperation across state lines. Directing her attention to the U.S Defense Department specifically, she noted that more focus should be dedicated towards the link between water and security. She explained that while there were no water wars in the past, the risk of conflict has been and is always simmering under every transboundary water agreement.

In order to build resilience for the future, it is important to address how to share water resources in conditions of scarcity. This is a security challenge with no military solution.

It is important for the U.S. to change its priorities and re-define what security truly means. Next, Kittikhoun spoke on the importance of RBOs in mitigating and solving conflicts. RBOs can be fundamental in helping states manage their water and reap the benefits of cooperation. He explained that an RBO is most effective in contributing to water diplomacy when it possesses a high legal and institutional mandate as well as a high degree of technical capacity. The MRC is an example of an RBO with a functional and effective water diplomacy framework. This is explained through its legal mandate that brings different actors together, as well as its technical work that builds a sturdy base of knowledge.

Inozemtseva highlighted the importance of scaling matters and addressing conflict prevention at the local level. In Central Asia, Small Basin Councils have been established as consultative bodies that involve all stakeholders in water resource management. The Regional Environmental Center for Central Asia supports these local councils by holding meetings between different councils in shared basins, promoting dialogue and joint-planning, assisting in data and information exchanges, and organizing ‘River Days’ to help the councils learn about the needs of their neighbors. She stressed that

Permanent dialogue is key to reducing water conflict at the local level. The more public and inclusive the decision-making, the more effective local understanding and knowledge will become.

During the Round Table discussions, several recommendations were drawn from the different RBOs. The MRC table stressed the importance of political and legal mandates for RBOs, noting that without the political mandate, it is difficult for the RBOs to engage in water diplomacy. The Central Asia table highlighted the importance of youth inclusion in small basin councils, and the need to formalize institutions by involving more experts. The Nile River Basin table echoed these conclusions, noting that the absence of a legal mechanism can make it difficult for RBOs to act. The solution in the Nile is technical but also political and legal.

Concluding the session, Enskat highlighted three final points:

  • It is important that the water community take the issue of basin management to the energy and agriculture sectors and thus the water, food and energy nexus.
  • As water is inherently a nexus issue that links different issues together, more attention must be dedicated to perceiving it this way.
  • Alongside the technical issues, it is equally important to consider the ‘soft power’ dimensions of water, including the issue of culture and identity.

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