Transboundary rivers and climate change: Testing times for hydro-diplomacy to attain and maintain cooperation

EDITORS NOTE: This is the third article in a four-part series which explores the role of water in human conflict and politics. The series marks (though is not affiliated with) World Water Day 2016, a UN initiative to promote awareness of water issues. More information on World Water Day can be found here. The first and second articles in the series can be found here, and here, respectively.

By: Professor Ashok Swain

Source: Wikimedia

Water is a basic condition for life and it also plays a fundamental role in human development. The global water crisis is of such magnitude that it is growing into an issue of global common concern. This perspective puts the focus on transboundary rivers: approximately half of global fresh water is available through 276 international basins around the world. Overall, 145 countries have territories that include at least one shared river basin. However, national politics complicates the policies towards the enhanced “river basin management” of such shared rivers. Thus, while dealing with the management of the transboundary rivers, political issues are often overshadowed by integrated water resources management (IWRM) terminology that has contributed to a failure of achieving global water governance .[1]

The management of transboundary rivers in different parts of the world cannot follow a particular golden principle of the value of water — its demand and supply varies from one basin to another.[2] Thus, it can be safely argued that “one-shot approach of management within the context of IWRM is far too simplistic to be useful, or applicable” for sustainable management of international rivers.[3] In spite of its huge significance for global peace and development, the available knowledge on how to manage transboundary waters is quite weak.[4] Moreover, the existing knowledge and institutions on governance of international rivers are becoming increasingly volatile because of greater demand and a decreased supply of fresh water. Adding further to the problem, the threat of global climate change has started undermining the on-going regimes and institutions of water sharing and management of transboundary rivers.[5]

The Climate Change and Transboundary Water

The controversy over the science of global warming and the procedures adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in collecting data fails to undermine the decades of climate research confirming the overall global climate change. Doubts and denial have given way to debates about the scale and impact of climate change, particularly in the developing countries. Agricultural production in the Southern hemisphere may become highly vulnerable to climate change, given the other multiple stresses that affect food systems in these regions. Moreover, some countries and societies are better in formulating adaptation strategies for land- and water-use practices that buffers them against the negative consequences of climate change. To address the adverse effects of climate change, the effectiveness and coping abilities of existing institutions also matter.  Within this context, there is a general recognition that the developing countries will be the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, as they tend to depend more on the natural environment for their livelihoods and have limited coping mechanisms and adaptive capacity.

While the exact impact of climate change is not yet known, it will have a clear bearing upon access to shared water resources as it affects hydrological cycles at all geographical scales, from global to local. Some regions will become much drier, some wetter. Variations in precipitation are already leading to more and severe droughts and floods, changes in the groundwater recharge, high evaporation from fresh water systems, and alteration in river runoff. Increasing number of high and untimely floods will threaten the safety of dams and other water infrastructure projects; severe droughts will drastically reduce water supply, irrigation and hydropower generation. Climate change is thus set to make water management challenges more complicated in terms of providing safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, improved food production, and in generating hydropower and ecosystem protection. Moreover, climate change may have a serious impact on overall availability of river water flow in international basins. Some parts of the basin will experience higher flows and others lower flows placing significant strain on existing agreements and structures for the management of shared water resources — whether at local, national or international level – and thereby increasing the need for serious conflict management institutions and practices. As can be seen, the ongoing climatic changes will make it impossible for a ‘business as usual’ approach, which emphasizes building large projects to increase water supply in managing shared river systems. Increased freshwater variability will introduce a greater uncertainty, which can pose serious new challenges to the on-going practices of water sharing and management in transboundary river basins.

New challenges for hydro-diplomacy

The influence of hydro diplomacy has helped several disputing countries to not only agree on their portions of shared river water, but also to look other areas of cooperation.[6] In 1994, water played a critical role in the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. India and Pakistan, in spite of more than six decades of bitter rivalry, have only had lasting cooperation over the sharing of Indus River water resources.  Thus, international rivers are not only expected to induce riparian conflict, its water resource can also bring engagement and cooperation in the basin.  Many competing riparian countries in the South, most notably the basin countries of the Mekong, Amur, Jordan, Syr Darya, Ganges, Mahakali, Nile, Komati, Limpopo, Okavango, Orange, and Zambezi rivers have signed sharing arrangements in the 1990s. The signing of these river agreements had brought a fundamental shift over the possible impact of shared water on riparian relations, a likely phase of cooperation rather than conflict. Hydro-diplomacy is still being endorsed to take precedence over state-centric politics and decision-making over international water resources.[7]

Most of these recently concluded river agreements have been possible as the riparian countries saw advantages in cooperating to pursue further development of shared water resource to meet their growing demand. In some cases like the Nile, Mekong, Jordan and Zambezi rivers, diplomatic pressures and financial aid and grants from the international community had also facilitated the success of hydro-diplomacy. However, these river water agreements are in grave danger if they fail to receive institutional support for proper water management at the basin level.

Global climate change has added increased uncertainties to the smooth functioning and survival of these recent transboundary water agreements. As Arnell argues, climate change may affect both the demand and supply sides of the balance.[8]  With increasing temperatures, sizeable reductions in precipitation, and the melting of glacial sources of major river systems, less water supplies will be available to the agricultural sector. Climate change will not only decrease the supply of river water, it may also enhance its demand in domestic, irrigation, industrial and ecological use. Thus, climate change induced scarcity and uncertainly of shared water resource in the arid and semi-arid regions can possibly limit the potential of hydro-diplomacy. It is true that the projected impacts of global climate change over fresh water supply might be huge and dramatic, but in a transboundary basin, the effects on the runoff might vary depending on the location. This further enhances the uncertainties and anxieties over the water availability in the shared river systems. Most of the existing river agreements do have provisions to meet near-term shortfalls in the river flow. However, climate change can potentially bring long-term changes to water availability, which requires water regimes and institutions to be flexible and robust enough to cope with the emerging situation.

Climate induced changes in water supply might demand comprehensive adjustments in the on-going water sharing arrangement of shared rivers. The institutions overseeing water sharing must be adaptable enough in re-allocating fluctuating water flow for various sectors. Thus, the task of hydro-diplomacy amid climate change entails both getting the disputing riparian countries to sign river sharing agreements but also to ensure these countries support establishing regimes and institutions which will have the provisions for information sharing, conflict management mechanisms, and flexibility to adjust to the runoff variations in the long term. Moreover, mitigating or adaptive actions at bilateral or even sub-basin levels to address the impacts of climate change in a transboundary river basin are unlikely to achieve the objective of sustainable peace and cooperation over shared water resources. The emerging and unprecedented situation demands basin countries to cooperate and act collectively and jointly. In the face of global climate change, a successful basin-based initiative is required to facilitate better integration of demand and supply and to promote meaningful participatory processes. Business as usual for hydro-diplomacy and a singular focus upon bilateral negotiation and arrangements is no longer an option in the transboundary river basins.

Responding to new challenges

The unfolding effects of climate change will further increase water scarcity, in the form of long-lasting drought and seasonal variation. People need a responsive state to attend to their basic need for water. When climate change makes it difficult for the state to meet demand for water, conflicts over a narrowing resource base are less readily resolved; instability and violent conflict within states may feed instability and conflict between states within the basin. Efficient and good water management in the face of climate change is also part of peace-building effort – both in preventing countries from returning to armed conflict, and in helping avoid relapse after a period of violence. Despite the risk that climate change induced water scarcity poses to social wellbeing and economic growth, in most countries there has been alarmingly little progress towards managing freshwater sustainably. Significant economic and political resources are needed to develop technologies and infrastructure that provide better water management at the basin, national, and transboundary level.

To reach agreement on meeting the competing and fluctuating demands for water in a transboundary basin is, in fact, not an easy task. Hydro-diplomacy thus needs to adopt a total resource view where river water is seen as a key input for development and growth in the basin. The challenges are not only limited to the technical and economic sectors, but also include crucial water sector reform, which is political in nature. Moreover, the task of hydro-diplomacy will not be anymore limited to basin-based regimes and institutions, but also entails achieving effective water governance in the face of climate change and influencing the supporting pathways from local, national and international policies and practices.

In the past, river-sharing issues could be effectively covered by a few negotiators trained specifically to deal with water issues. But today, hydro-diplomacy needs to involve itself not only in an increasing range of fields (such as energy generation, food production, human rights, and health issues) but also hydro-diplomacy should also reflect sufficient knowledge about possible impacts of climate change (such as precipitation pattern, glacier melting, temperature increase, rising sea water encroaching fresh water system). Many developing riparian countries, not only have to survive with the existing power asymmetry vis-à-vis regional powers in the basins, they also suffer from a lack of competent ‘hydro-diplomats’ who can address climate change issues while carrying out negotiation over shared water resources.

Hydro-diplomacy is needed to acquaint itself well with increasingly diversified climate change policy processes. River water negotiators are required to have sufficient knowledge of the climate change phenomenon and the possible impact of climate change on human, society, country and region. They also need to have an overview of the existing and emerging schools of thought regarding climate change and its impact on water availability and demand. It is also crucial to identify and classify important actors and groupings and their positions on climate change and water management issues. Moreover, hydro-diplomacy must have overview of increasing legal and policy documents, which are coming out by international and regional organizations on the impact of climate change on water resources and possible mitigation and adaption measures.



Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research, and the director of the Research School of the International Center for Water Cooperation at Uppsala University in Sweden




[1] Conca, Ken 2006. Governing Water. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[2] Swain, Ashok 2004. Managing Water Conflict: Asia, Africa and the Middle East. London: Routledge

[3] Varis, O., C. Tortajada, and A.K. Biswa. 2008. Management of Tranboundary Rivers and Lakes. Berlin: Springer.

[4] Earle, A., A. Jägerskog, and J. Öjendal, eds. 2010. Transboundary Water Management: Principles and Practice: London: Earthscan.

[5] Earle, A, A. E. Cascao, S. Hansson, A. Jägerskog, A. Swain, and J. Öjendal, 2015. Transboundary Water Management and the Climate Change Debate: London: Routledge.

[6] Conca, Ken, and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, eds. 2002. Environmental Peacemaking. Washington, Baltimore and London: Woodrow wilson Centre Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[7] Pohl, B, A. Carius, K. Conca, G. D. Dabelko, A. Kramer, D. Michel, S. Schmeier, A. Swain and A. Wolf, 2014. The Rise of Hydro-Diplomacy. Strengthening foreign policy for transboundary waters: Berlin: Adelphi.

[8] Arnell, Nigel W. 1999. Climate Change and Global Water Resources. Global Environmental Change 9:31-49.




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