International Symposium on Water Diplomacy: An Overview

The International Centre for Water Cooperation (ICWC) – a UNESCO Category II Centre hosted at SIWI organised the International Symposium on Water Diplomacy on 16 and 17 November 2016 in collaboration with the International Centre for Water Resources and Global Change, Koblenz, Germany.

The Symposium brought together researchers, diplomats, decision-makers, thought leaders and practitioners to discuss international cooperation over shared water resources and water diplomacy as an approach to conflict transformation, peacebuilding and regional cooperation.

In recent years, diplomacy has evolved to be more inclusive, open and transparent, involving more diverse actors than the traditional diplomats, in order to better tackle complex global challenges such as water scarcity and climate change. Global interdependencies are growing. Decision-making in one part of the world can easily impact possibilities to advance cooperation in others. International water cooperation is also closely associated with a range of policy areas and interests from non-state actors, such as foreign policy, security analyses, development agendas, environmental policy, private sector investments, and international legal frameworks. As a result, the process of water diplomacy is receiving growing interest from the diplomatic community and security analysists.

Water diplomacy is a dynamic and evolving process, and can support important efforts to achieve peaceful, inclusive and sustainable water cooperation between communities, regions and countries. It can be tailored and responsive to the uniqueness of each process and goepolitical context.

Date: 16 November. Venue: Stockholm City Conference Center, Norra Latin building. Room: Music Hall

08:30 Registration | Coffee

09:00 Welcome | Torgny Holmgren, SIWI

09:10 Video message | Jan Eliasson, UN

09:20 Symposium objectives | Therese Sjömander Magnusson, SIWI

09:30 Communication and networking | Rowena Barber, SIWI

09:35 What is water diplomacy? A diplomat’s perspective | Thomas Meister, Federal Foreign Office, Germany

10:00 What is water diplomacy? An academic perspective | Aaron Wolf,  OSU

11:00 Session introduction: What is diplomacy and multi-track diplomacy | Maria Vink, SIWI

11:00 PaneI | Moderator: Siegfried Demuth, IWRGC Panelists: Marian Neal (Patrick), ICWC, Tineke Roholl, MFA – Netherlands, Seifeldin Abdalla, Sudan Ministry of Water

11:50 Introduction to the table discussion | Maria Vink, SIWI

11:55 Table discussions

12:55 Session conclusion | Maria Vink, SIWI

13:00 Lunch 

13:50 Session introduction: A regional approach to water diplomacy | Ana Cascao, SIWI

13:55 Introduction of Ignite Speakers | Dan Smith, SIPRI

14:00 Ignite Speaker 1 | Fredrik Söderbaum, Gothenburg University

14:10 Ignite Speaker 2 | Susanne Schmeier, GIZ

14:20 Panel | Moderator: Dan Smith, SIPRI. Panelists: Bo Libert, UNECE, Iskandar Abdullaev, CAREC, Lenka Thamae, ORASECOM

15:05 Coffee break

15:30 Introduction to the table discussion | Ana Cascao, SIWI

15:35 Table discussions

16:35 Session conclusion | Ana Cascao, SIWI

16:40 Concluding remarks | Therese SJömander Magnusson, SIWI

17:00 End of session

18:30 Dinner at Haymarket

Date: 17 November. Venue: Stockholm City Conference Center, Norra Latin building. Room: Music Hall

09:00 Morning start | Coffee

09:30 Welcome | Marian Neal (Patrick), SIWI

09:45 Session introduction: Environmental peacebuilding and grassroots water diplomacy | Kerry Schneider, SIWI

09:50 Presentation of Ignite Speakers | Angela Klauschen, GWP

09:55 Ignite Speaker 1 | Nazareth Porras, IUCN

10:05 Ignite Speaker 2 | Juan Carlos Paez, IIC

10:15 PaneI | Moderator: Angela Klauschen, GWP. Panelists: Katerina Strikeleva, CAREC, Ashok Swain, UU, Karin Olofsson, SIWI Board Member, representing the Green Party

11:00 Coffee break

11:30 Introduction to table discussion | Kerry Schneider, SIWI

11:35 Table discussion

12:40 Session conclusion | Kerry Schneider, SIWI

12:45 Lunch

13:30 Session introduction: The role of women in water diplomacy | Martina Klimesova, SIWI

13:35 Introduction of Ignite Speakers | Zaki Shubber, UNESCO-IHE

13:40 Ignite Speaker 1 | Margaretha Wahlström, Swedish Network of Women Mediators

13:50 Ignite Speaker 2 | Lesha Witmer, Women For Water Partnership

14:00 Panel | Moderator: Zaki Shubber, UNESCO-IHE. Panelists: Natasha Carmi, Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, Mey AL Sayegh, “Aljoumhouria”, Christian Altpeter, FBA

14:45 Coffee break

15:05 Introduction to table discussion | Martina Klimesova, SIWI

15:10 Table discussions

16:15 Session conclusions | Martina Klimesova, SIWI

16:20 Summary and way forward | Therese Sjömander Magnusson, SIWI

16:35 Concluding remarks | Torgny Holmgren, SIWI

16:50 End of Symposium

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Water Diplomacy - the art and practice of understanding, communicating and sharing transboundary waters in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Water diplomacy from a diplomatic perspective has several areas of action. It can be both preventive in nature and also used as an approach for conflict management. This can be done through mediation, negotiation, diplomatic statements and shuttle diplomacy. As a preventive tool it can aid in confidence- and trust-building, provide a platform for joint studies and collaborative risk assesments by riparian countries. The governance architecture of cooperation can take the form of international water treaties and conventions, river basin agreements and bi-lateral and multilateral agreements on specific water-related issues.

Water  diplomacy can be a useful approach in support of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 6, which aims at ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. SDG 6.5 specifically refers to transboundary waters – an indication of the importance that the UN places on transboundary water cooperation. Because water is so intertwined with many of the other SDGs, water diplomacy could also be useful in reaching other SDGs such as 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health), 5 (gender equality), 7 (clean energy), 8 (work and economic growth), 9 (industry, innovation and infrastrucure), 16 (peaceful and inclusive societies) and 17 (global partnerships).

Aaron Wolf,  OSU, presentation

Some interesting insights were gained from the panel discussion on multi-track water diplomacy. Water diplomacy means different things to different actors. As a result there are many different niche diplomacies, for example, cultural diplomacy, science diplomacy, shuttle diplomacy, and technical diplomacy. One important point that arised during the Symposium was that water diplomacy discussions tend to occur at the political level where the focus is primarily on economic political rationales for cooperation. The inclusion of different perspectives is of key importance. The culture and history of people is an important perspective that needs to be included as it affects how data is understood and shared, how water is valued and used, and how different parties communicate – all of which affects how cooperation is formulated. Water diplomacy can connect people, and cultures affect shared understanding and responsibility for sustainable water governance.

Water diplomacy is the future – we need to educate the next generation as they are the ones who will make decisions for future water cooperation and sustainable development.

The table discussions explored the expanding actor landscape within the context of multi-track diplomacy and how different actors could influence the different water diplomacy tracks:

  • Actors needed to be included are: civil society such as youth, women, elders, retired politicians, tribal cheifs, private actors, military community, municipal level actors and international NGOs.
  • Inclusion of more actors can help broaden the scope and depth of understanding of the problems, which in turn can create more space for innovative solutions.
  • Keeping power relations in mind is imperative for the progress of water diplomacy and to prevent powerful actors such as states to impose their agendas on local actors.
  • It is important to facilitate interactions among actors and create open platforms for discussion and to include scientists in the discussion to promote science-based decisions.
  • Each process is unique and therefore a specific stakeholder mapping and engagement planning needs to be created within each context.
  • Transparency ensures sustainable solutions, facts should be transparent as this creates mutual trust.
  • Confidentiality does not necessarily mean non-transparent processes. There are some things that have to be kept confidential in order not to undermine the process.
  • Track 1 needs to encourage stakeholder inclusion from other levels. 
  • Coordinate tracks, framing problems and solutions from multiple perspectives then jointly develop a plan of action where roles and responsibilities are allocated.


Cooperation over transboundary water resources are a good entry point for broader regional cooperation involving trade, agriculture, energy and environment.

When thinking about regions one must not forget that all regions, including transboundary waters, are constructed and de-constructed by social actors. Different actors have different agendas or rationales for endorsing different regional imaginations, spaces or governance structures. Two such constructions relevant to water diplomacy are River Basin Organizations (RBOs) and Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Both face the challenge of aligning their regional goals with the national agendas of the states they comprise. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that in order to implement regional goals there is dependence on national and local capacity for their implementation. Multipurpose RBOs & RECs are good for diplomacy and agenda-setting but not necessarily for implementation. In addition, many regional organizations are poor at involving non-state actors.

RBOs are a useful part of the governance architecture for transboundary water cooperation. In turn, water diplomacy provides benefits to basins, countries and riparian populations and opportunities for RBOs:

  • Strengthening the relevance of RBOs
  • Linking science/analyses to policy decisions
  • Ensuring the basis for long-term sustainable basin development

BUT, engaging in water diplomacy also comes with risks for RBOs:

  • Politization/securitization
  • Lack of impartiality
  • Lack of capacity

Fredrik Söderbaum, Gothenburg University, presentation

Susanne Schmeier, GIZ, presentation

Regional approaches to water diplomacy are needed, but this approach involves many challenges and collective action dilemmas. One of the biggest challenges (but also an opportunity) is to reconcile and align national interests and regional common good. Water can often be a good entry point for regional cooperation, but not always (sometimes a good basis of regional cooperation is required to get more effective cooperation in the field of water). Water diplomacy plays an important role in promoting links to cooperation beyond the water sector (energy, agriculture, environment).

From the table discussions on how water diplomacy can bridge differences between regional common good and national interests and the benefits of a river basin organization-type arrangement versus a regional-economic organisation-type arrangement the following points and questions came up:

  • Water diplomacy must be politically palatable and nationally acceptable and be deemed a success by all involved countries.
  • It is important to show the benefits of cooperation and the cost of non-cooperation to ensure national and regional cooperation.
  • Is a regional approach useful for newly emerging states trying to establish national identities? How do we balance state sovereignty with a regional/basin approach in these geopolitical contexts?
  • Water diplomacy must take the regional effects of climate change and adaptation into account.
  • It is an an economic equation and therefore there is no role for diplomacy unless it‘s in a conflict situation where it becomes a political negotiation. Newly emerging states might want to focus on national interests first.
  • Are we expecting too much from water diplomacy?
  • RBOs are intersectional cooperations and RECs are multipurpuse cooperations. Both can expand the settings for cooperation and space for the other to develop.
  • RBOs and RECs are not comparable as they have different roles and mandates. RBOs can bring political will and broader tools and RECs have more room to manoeuvre and change.
  • RBOs and RECs could meet informally and share data and perspectives to ensure that RECs take water into consideration and that RBOs take other economic needs into consideration.
  • Regional organisations are not one-size-fits-all and not necessarily always the solution to collective action issues.
Human rights, the inherent value of the environment and the voices of civil society need to be incorporated into water diplomacy efforts.

The natural environment – its ecological biodiversity and related goods and services – can play an additional or alternative motivator to politics and economics for cooperation. Grassroots organizations have always played an important role in civil soceity. They provide a voice for marginalized and disenfranchised people as well as and the environment and they play an important role in advocacy. There are two types of grassroots groupings: the ‘passionate’ ones, which mainly inform people of what is wrong and unjust and mobilize groups and resources to action and the ‘feet-on-the-ground’ groups which are useful in identifying root causes of problems, proposing alternative solutions and implementing solutions. Empowerment of local actors and their active participation is very important for transboundary water cooperation.

“Without grassroots participation there can be no water diplomacy and, therefore, no peace.”

When projects related to water use are planned, it is imperative that grassroots organizations and local communities are involved in the process in the earliest stages. Making decisions without them could contribute to conflicts at the local level that could escalate.

Nazareth Porras, IUCN, presentation

Some important insights from the panelists: It is important to remember that just because a country has signed an agreement it doesn’t guarantee cooperation. We need to understand the drivers of peace and not just analyse conflicts. Consequently, it is essential to keep in mind that there is no blueprint solution. Each basin is different and needs a unique approach. Developing basin plans at the local level with a bottom-up approach and utilising small basin councils, for example, could improve the implemantion of decisions. Trust on both sides of the river is key for further cooperation, and time is needed to build this. Regular exchange of information and joint meetings can lead to informal connections among actors that are vital to improving the undertanding of issues from different perspectives. Capacity building and training on water diplomacy at the grassroots level helps strengthen the capacity of local actors to engage with and negotiate with actors at other levels of governance.

 Juan Carlos Paez, IIC presentation


What is also important is to contextualize where we are today when we talk about peace-building. The number of conflicts has increased, as has the number of people dying in conflict. Bringing in human rights is essential, as there is an increase in attacks and threats to environmental and climate defenders.

The table discussions focused on two questions: 1) Do Track III (grassroots) efforts need to be linked to or influence Track I decision-making processes in order to be considered effective? 2) What governance structures will allow for grassroots water diplomacy to have an impact?

Some interesting points:

  • National legislation that ensures public participation is most important, as well as the political will for inclusive participation.
  • Linking tracks can prevent environmental injustice and inequity, a so-called preventive diplomacy.
  • Water diplomacy negotiations might be stronger and more able to effect real change if grassroots organizations and marginalized groups are included in the process.
  • Linking the tracks could help decision-makers to craft realistic and implementable solutions.
  • Formalizing a process can end collaboration as it can be perceived as too bureaucratic.
  • It should be up to civil society to determine whether a grassroots organization is valid.
  • Multi-level governance is needed to allow for information to flow up and down.
  • The key principles from the Aarhus Convention and Espoo Convention are important in terms of allowing citizens to have a say in transboundary common goods.
  • Track III can act as a stand-alone effort. When Track I is stalled, then track III can be especially effective.
Women are agents of change in the decision-making domain of transboundary water cooperation. Gender equality is an imperative to successful water diplomacy.

In 2000, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security highlights the interdependence of post-conflict gender equality, peacebuilding and security. Women play an essential role in building peace and sustaining security.

Women have the right to participate on equal terms in peace, security and negotiation processes. However, statistics on peace processes indicate that 93 percent of participants in peace negotiations and 98 percent of signatories to peace agreements are men. The reason often given for these statistics is  that “there aren’t that many women available” who are able to mediate these processes. Sweden is addressing this excuse by supporting the formation of a Network of Women Mediators. When countries set up teams for peace processes as a listener or practitioner, we can ask governments, where are the women? The list of reasons as to why women aren’t included might be long but the reasons to ensure their inclusion is even longer. For example, sometimes women are the best representatives of the local level, the best organizers at the community level and the best supporters of sustainable processes. They can also be the best monitors of progress towards peace because they are already in place.

Margaretha Wahlström, Swedish Network of Women Mediators

Lesha Witmer’s, Women For Water Partnership presentation

The panel discussion gave examples of where women can break barriers at the local levels through negotiating water issues, with examples from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. However, the participation of women doesn’t seem to be filtering all the way up to the top of decision-making processes. A feminist agenda is not only a matter of counting the number of women involved, but also about making women count at these higher levels of governance. Acknowledging women as leaders, experts, diplomats, managers and agents of change in water is essential. The links between SDG 5 and 6 could contribute to a more effective role for women in water diplomacy.

The main takeaways from the table discussions were the following:

  • We need to be aware of the danger of clichés – reinforcing sterotypes by ascribing certain characteristics to men and women.
  • Any discussion about gender needs to include men and masculinities. It is not only about women.
  • Some people still don’t think that gender and lack of gender equality are an issue in some parts of the world.
  • Participants in this symposium showcase what roles women have in water cooperation and diplomacy
  • Perceptions and mind-sets towards women need to change.
  • Lack of education/access to education means lower capacity.
  • We need to question norms and traditional roles.
  • Men to be ‘champions’ of gender equality.
  • We all need to foster an environment that encourages women to feel confident talking and contributing to the decision-making process.

In this symposium we have learned about preventive diplomacy, reactive diplomacy, mediation diplomacy, implementation diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and how they all relate to water diplomacy. Water is truly unifying thematic overlay to these different diplomacies. We have learned that different approaches, dialogue mechanisms and issues can be used to enhance and strengthen cooperation.

We have also learnt that timing is important in terms of when to engage with different actors during the process of diplomacy. It is important to think about how water diplomacy relates to other types of diplomacy and how to combine them for the best outcomes.

In the years to come we will see a different institutional and organizational architecture in support of water diplomacy. It is important to keep in mind that although regional institutions can be successful, their effectiveness is dependent on strong governance at the state and sub-state level for effective implementation. States are not the only driving forces in regional cooperation. Mayors of cities, for example, can push for regional cooperation in the private sector. Incentive structures for cooperation will also change in the future, as governments are increasingly interested in investment opportunities.

Scientific/technical cooperation can sometimes be the only way to give countries incentive to cooperate and this can in turn lead to even broader cooperation. We see a need to focus our efforts in a specific context or region. We need to strengthen the water diplomacy tools, approaches and methods practiced and draw inspiration for other regions.

For more information see ICWC website and the Transboundary Water Management page on

Water diplomacy plays a vital role in our efforts to achieve peaceful and sustainable transboundary water cooperation. Inclusive water diplomacy recognises the many different actors that have the ability to create solution spaces to resolve conflicts over water and create windows of opportunity for stronger cooperation over shared waters.

Dr Marian J. Neal (Patrick), SIWI

Symposium hosted by:

icwc-1   icwc-2

Finacial support by:

 logo2x   ffo-1   global-water-partnership-1   icwc-3