The key role of water management and data for peacebuilding

As the climate change crisis becomes a global reality, so does the importance of water. Accessible, potable water is critical for stable human societies and sustainable ecosystems. What’s more, it is now evident that water shortages have the potential to lead to political and social unrest. In Asia, the 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan is currently being challenged by both nations due to recent changes in rainfall patterns and increasing rates of “water withdrawal” that have resulted from dam developments in both nations1. In Australia, a different sort of water crisis is developing: devastating bushfires are occurring at the same time that algae blossoms are threatening freshwater ecosystems and diminishing the quality of drinking water2. In Russia, the government has been compelled to issue a climate change plan of action in response to extreme weather patterns; water shortages are increasing the demand for the development of drought-resistant crops and of new dams3. Tellingly, the Netherland Judiciary recently maintained that government inaction on climate change violates human rights4. In short,  sustainable water resources management is a critical and universal challenge in the 21st century. 

Addressing such a challenge is complicated – and it is exacerbated by the fact that the human population is continuously growing. Water-related issues are becoming a recurrent factor in fomenting local, national and regional fragility5.  Water scarcity and deteriorating water quality are widely viewed as a conflict-risk multipliers6.  Thus, it is not surprising that challenges related to water resources management have now reached the top of political agendas. For the past five years, the Annual Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum has reported that world business and political leaders consider water crises as one of the top global risks7. In its 2020 report, it stated that extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation, natural disasters, and water crisis rank among the top 10 most likely and impactful risks to global stability: “Over a ten-year horizon, extreme weather and climate-change policy failures are seen as the gravest threats.”

Climate change impacts are often manifest through flooding or droughts. Further, climate change is expressed by greater climate variabilities and successive, major extreme weather events that dramatically weaken sustainable development. Therefore, great deficiencies or inundations of water are its key impacts. According to the High-level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP), water-related disasters have comprised 90% of the 1 000 most severe disasters that have occurred since 1990. Water-related disasters in 2018 resulted in a death toll of 6 500 and affected the livelihoods of over 57 million people, with an economic loss of US$ 140 billion worldwide (HELP, 2019).

It is also important to recognize that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on fragile states and regions first, increasing their existing social, economic, environmental and governance challenges. Vulnerable regions often prove to be fertile ground for conflicts and violent extremism. Therefore, the response to climate change should take into account the other factors that render nations and regions unstable. By mitigating these, the most vulnerable countries may be better prepared to deal with their changing climates. 

To this end, water resource management has untapped diplomatic potential. Floods and droughts ignore political boundaries. Managing water effectively requires international collaboration. Thus, it can be used as a key vehicle for cooperation and peace. It is with this positive vision that the Geneva Water Hub (GWH) was established in 2014 with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the University of Geneva. The aim of the GWH is to foster a better understanding and prevention of water-related tensions at intersec-toral and transboundary levels – thereby promoting sound water management as an instru-ment for peace and cooperation. GWH works to build bridges between different communities of practices and to leverage resources available in the International Geneva in order to develop a “hydro-politics” agenda.  


The relevance of data for water cooperation and peace

Devastating flood and drought events across the globe have received extensive international media coverage and underscored the need for comprehensive water data. Two major political endeavours – namely the High Level Panel on Water (HLPW) and the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace (GHLPWP) – have collaborated to put water issues at the top of the political agenda during the last three years. They have promoted a united message concerning the need for water data, recommendations for water management, and the importance of water management in promoting peace and sustainable development. 

In 2017, the GHLPWP published “A Matter of Survival.” This report contains analyses and recommendations adopted by the Panel following two years of consultations and discussions with stakeholders. One of its recommendations is to strengthen "knowledge-based decision-making and cooperation on data,” as well as to improve the “level of knowledge relating to water quality and quantity issues at all levels. Knowledge on groundwater and aquifers, representing more than 90% of unfrozen global freshwater reserves, should be enhanced as a matter of priority8.

In March 2018, the HLPW released its own outcome report, “Making Every Drop Count – An Agenda for Water Action.” This included another set of key recommendations, one of which emphasizes the need to develop national water data policies and systems using open-data approaches wherever possible, with support from the World Water Data Initiative.9

In 2019, HELP published its first global report as well for governments and stakeholders. The report urges leaders and users to learn from major water-related disasters and to invest in information systems. Water data, the report asserted, is a key factor for disaster-preparedness.10


The Coalition for Water Data and Peace

To address the importance of comprehensive water-data for both resource-management and peace – and in support of the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agenda – two events have been organized jointly by WMO and GWH:

The first event, “Coalition for Water Data and Peace,” was organized by WMO and GWH with the support of the German permanent mission to the United Nations in Geneva. The purpose of this event was to explain the importance of international data-collection and sharing, and to create a coalition of Geneva International Mission Champions to help raise awareness about the importance of water data and to promote the issue in their national governments. 

The second event was a panel discussion, "Hydrology for Sustainable Development and Peace," held during the opening segment of the WMO Hydrological Assembly, subtitled Aiming at Further Developing the WMO Vision and Strategy for Hydrology, in June 2019 during World Meteorological Congress. The panel was attended by several missions that had participated in the first event, and it helped to set the stage for the deliberations of the Hydrological Assembly. Participants discussed the importance of water for sustainable development, as well as the relevance of water data-collection and sharing as mechanisms for peace. The panel emphasized the need for policy-makers to understand the connection between science and policy, which is essential for better decision-making and better governance if the sustainable development goals are to be reached.


The Global Observatory on Water and Peace

Many existing organizations and mechanisms are contributing significantly to water cooperation on an international level. However, these efforts are constricted by the limited capacity of international actors to work together collectively and effectively at political and diplomatic levels.  In response, GHLPWP has called for the establishment of the Global Observatory on Water and Peace (GOWP) to bridge and promote existing efforts and fill critical gaps in global water management.

GOWP, based in Geneva International, has been founded as an international platform for peace and diplomacy, with its central office at the Geneva Water Hub. GOWP is an inclusive network that unites and aligns regional and local partners with neutral and credible institutions committed to the agenda of water, peace and security. 

GOWP promotes water-cooperation as a way to reduce tension and conflicts between various stakeholders and to promote peace.  GOWP has adopted diplomatic tools such as “the knowledge management approach” and “discreet facilitation” rather than traditional dispute settlement, peacemaking or peace building approaches.

GOWP has various goals designed to promote sharing access to water data: 

  • To conduct data-collection and research-supported analysis of global efforts in terms of water, peace and security, and provide an annual overview of these findings
  • To create a “safe space” in pre-negotiation consultations for project development and for proactively addressing major water, peace and security issues – with the acknowledgment that  the first milestone in any negotiation process and consultation is agreed-upon data
  • To encourage the production and use of innovative approaches and tools to better understand and meet water, peace and security challenges – using water-data.


The role of data in transboundary groundwater management: first diplomatic steps on the Senegalo-Mauritanian Aquifer Basin

A specific example of how water-management collaboration can build peace and good-will between nations can be found in West Africa. In order to address the challenge of managing water in a sustainable manner, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal initiated a discussion for the joint management of a shared aquifer system essential to the economic and social development of their region.  The four states sharing the Senegalo-Mauritanian aquifer basin (SMAB) met in Geneva on 6–7 February 2019 for a roundtable on strategic, transboundary cooperation for managing water resources. Jointly organized by GWH and the Secretariat of the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes hosted by UNECE, this diplomatic meeting was convened expressly to enable the water ministries of the four countries to establish a first exchange on the state of knowledge of this complex system of aquifers. The issues of data production, sharing information and sustainable financing were key components in this exchange.

With an area of approximately 350 000 km2, the SMAB is the largest basin in the Atlantic margin of northwest Africa. The groundwater it contains is a strategic resource for all four aquifer states, whose populations – more than 24 million people in total – depend on the basin to a large extent for their access to drinking water and various sectoral uses. The SMAB is the water supply for such major cities as Dakar and Bissau.  However, today, all four aquifer basin nations face challenges to their water supply including: salinization, pollution and the impact of climate change on the precipitation necessary for groundwater recharge. The precariousness of the aquifer basin situation demands cooperation at regional levels and the development of greater knowledge about the aquifer systems.

In addition to the four SMAB states, the roundtable included the main transboundary basin organizations of the region: the Senegal River Basin Development Organization and the Gambia River Development Organization. These basin organizations were able to illuminate innovative ways they could potentially be involved in groundwater management, in addition to their current surface-water management mandate. The meeting also benefited from active contributions from experts and technical and financial partners.

The meeting highlighted that cooperation around the SMAB should go beyond aquifers located in the Maastrichtian layer to other layers – sometimes shared only by a sub-group of the SMAB’s riparian States. SMAB’s governance should thus eventually adopt an integrated hydrogeological approach that takes into account the interactions between surface- and groundwater. A partnership between both transboundary basin organizations therefore has great potential for the sustainable management of the SMAB. An institutional arrangement between them could build upon other examples of regional cooperation, such as the groundwater management practices of the Orange-Senqu River Basin Commission in Africa; the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River; and the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine in Europe.

As an outcome of this meeting, the riparian nations proposed setting up a working group to promote transboundary cooperation on the SMAB. The working group would develop specific, user-friendly institutional mechanisms to ensure permanent data production and exchange, elevate and equalize the states’ capacities and expertise and implement a regional strategy for the sustainable management of the SMAB.


The role of 21st century river basin organizations for sustainable development – and the need for data in joint investment plans 

Strengthening the water-peace-security nexus around the globe requires strong institutions and political will. Collective efforts are needed to create and implement efficient intersectoral, transboundary and territorially-inclusive approaches. To this end, several institutional arrangements can serve as models for the way forward, such as those of the River Basin Organizations (RBOs).

RBOs range from small or local watershed-user associations to large, transboundary water agencies.  RBOs have huge potential on a number of fronts: to contribute to inclusive water-management approaches; to provide multiple perspectives on water management as developers and equalizers; to prevent and adapt to climate change and water-related disasters; and to act as informal diplomats or peacemakers. GWH considers RBOs to be uniquely positioned as global connectors for building water-management networks; for addressing the growing gaps in development between fragile and stable nations; and for helping regions overcome the disconnect that often occur between different levels or sectors of local or national authorities. As demonstrated by the well-documented Senegal River Basin Organization example, RBOs can play a critical role in leveraging innovative financing solutions and generating new investments in transboundary and multisectoral water-related projects. One word of caution, however: Historically, financial focus has been placed primarily on global- and national-level investments. Financing for water management efforts must integrate local (subnational) and regional – supranational – efforts too in order to be effective.

In its report, GHLPWP recommended that joint investment plans in river basins become standard practice in the financial community. Such plans have the potential to reduce risks and mobilize political and financial wills – and to translate broader cooperation objectives into concrete results for the benefit of basins’ populations. Unfortunately, too many “master plans” or investment strategies have remained on paper because they lacked a policy or a strategic framework or a sound blueprint for operations, financing and implementation. Our objective is therefore to support subnational or supranational organizations – such as RBOs – to meet 21st century challenges and propel the world forward on collaborative water-management. A fundamental part of this goal also depends upon nations having access to – and a consensus on – water data.


Data production for water and climate diplomacy

Within the past two years, the European Council has adopted conclusions on both water diplomacy and climate diplomacy.11 These demonstrate that water and climate are becoming priorities in discussions of foreign policies and preventive diplomacy.

Diplomatic engagement, however, needs to build upon a solid set of data-production mechanisms. Simply put, nations cannot agree on shared goals or shared actions if they are not operating with a shared set of facts. This is all the more true in contexts in which political institutions and multilateralism are being challenged – sometimes, it would seem, in reaction to limited capacities to address and prevent environmental crisis. In light of this, data production mechanisms should be designed in user-friendly ways that are conducive to political engagement and public mobilization. As acknowledged during the 2020 World Economic Forum, new technologies have the potential to develop data systems in such a way as to restore some level of public trust in science, diplomacy, and cooperation. Thereby, they can help us to meet the societal challenges of the 21st century and adopt more inclusive approaches to sustainability and diplomacy.

Ideally, where water management is concerned, information systems should not only be based on hydrometerological data, but combine social, economic and environmental data as well. They should take into account transboundary water legal frameworks and the human right to water and sanitation. Data production – and information access – are essential investments for protecting our natural resources and global stability, and for promoting public trust and constructive participation.

As such, the GWH strives to contribute to shape the global hydropolitical agenda. Although much effort has been concentrated on the implementation of the recommendations of the GHLPWP, even greater effort is needed. Mobilizing a coalition for data on water and peace is crucial for meeting the challenges of our century.



1 India Stops Water Flow From Three Rivers Into Pakistan

2 Australia Bushfires And The Threat to Drinking Water, Ecosystems

3 New Russia Climate Change Plan Acknowledges Extreme Weather Patterns; Looks To Drought-resistant Crops, Dams To Address Water Challenges

4 Dutch Court Says Government Inaction On Climate Change Violates Human Rights

5 FAO 2018: Water Management in Fragile Systems: Building Resilience to Shocks and Protracted Crises in The Middle East and North Africa

6 Water Scarcity: The Most Understated Global Security RiskLack of water will raise the risk of conflict – here's what we need to do

7 The Global Risks Report 2019, last accessed on 8 January 2020

Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace. (2017). A Matter of Survival (Report). Geneva: Geneva Water Hub

9 High Level Panel on Water (1018) Making Every Drop Count- An Agenda for Water Action- Outcome Report

10 HELP Global Report on Water and Disasters 2019

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