Water securityChanging Climate Increases Need for Water Diplomacy

Published 22 September 2021

The dispute between Ethiopia and its neighbors over the massive Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile is but one example of how the climate change-driven growing scarcity of water may soon lead countries to engage in what, a decade ago, British intelligence called “water wars.” These growing tensions need to be tackled in new ways.

Water diplomacy means that water must be diplomatized and diplomacy watered.

This is how Professor Marko Keskinen from Aalto Universitysums it up, with a smile. Keskinen studied different aspects of water diplomacy together with Erik Salminen and Juho Haapala. The study was recently published in the Journal of Hydrology.

Finland is known for its active role in promoting transboundary water cooperation: both UN Conventions on the theme have been initiated by Finland and the country has supported transboundary cooperation, e.g. in the Nile, Central Asia and the Mekong. The topic is also relevant on a practical level through Finland’s cooperation with Russia on the river Vuoksi, which Aalto researchers have examined in co-operation with the University of Eastern Finland. Vuoksi runs over 160 km from Lake Saimaa in Southeastern Finland to Lake Ladoga in what is now Russia.

“Vuoksi is a great example of how the countries that have been in violent conflict can establish well-functioning water cooperation through a step-by-step process that combines technical and political expertise. Vuoksi became a border river only after Finland lost vast land areas to the Soviet Union after World War II – the starting point for the co-operation was thus very tense. Thanks to the combination of strong political commitment, practical collaboration and progressive treaties, however, co-operation on Vuoksi is now seen as one of the best-functioning in the world, and the key principles have remained unchanged through, among other things, the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Keskinen.

A prominent example of the need for water diplomacy can be found from the Blue Nile in Africa, where the giant hydropower dam being built by Ethiopia has increased tensions with downstream Sudan and Egypt.

According to Keskinen, the situation on the Nile shows why transboundary cooperation based on technical information alone doesn’t always suffice. The countries share largely the same understanding about the dam and its downstream impacts, but the dispute is about much more than water: it involves agriculture, energy as well as the dynamic geopolitical relations in the region. Future uncertainty brought by climate change further challenges negotiations.

“The diplomatization of water means that water cooperation should be connected to other key sectors as well as political relations between countries and, if necessary, seek a solution at a broader political level with the help of diplomatic mechanisms. The watering of diplomacy, on the other hand, emphasizes joint technical knowledge base and the importance of building the countries’ relations on the established international principles on shared waters,” he explains.

From Conceptualizations to Action
In the article, Aalto’s researchers recognize five key aspects for water diplomacy and suggest a new approach for recognizing practical water diplomacy approach. The research builds on extensive literature review as well as series of workshops and interviews among water diplomacy actors.

“Conventionally, water diplomacy is seen to bring together two main tracks: technical and political. We develop this further, suggesting that the technical foundation and political roof are connected by three pillars that emphasize preventive, integrative and cooperative aspects that are present in most water diplomacy processes,” says Keskinen.