A trialogue on water diplomacy which commenced in the summer of 2020 has culminated in the June 2021 launch of a new publication “The Drama of Water in a time of Global Transformation”.
Guest columnist Tobias Schmitz reports that the trilateral discussion on water diplomacy, convened by the Geneva Water Hub, resulted in a joint publication of observations and findings on innovations in water cooperation and water management solutions in the Eurasian region. The event served to unite the activities of the Geneva Water Hub (GWH), the International Association of Lake Regions (IALR) and a group of senior diplomats and water experts from the Russian Federation in a positive vision of water as a powerful vehicle for cooperation and for peace.
Both the discussion and the publication covered key thematic areas identified by the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace In its 2017 report - water in situations of armed conflict, water law and transboundary cooperation, data driven decision making, people’s diplomacy, financial innovation and new mechanisms of water diplomacy.
The discussion during the launch was rooted in the extensive freshwater reserves of the Russian Federation - 20 Percent of the world’s total - as well as its water management experience. The experts underlined the important inter-relationships between Sustainable Development Goals - SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 6 (water and sanitation), highlighting opportunities to prevent water related conflicts and leveraging water as an instrument of peace.
A broad range of topics fall within this nexus: for instance, Russia is paying increased attention in its policies to the importance of the water resources of the Arctic, including freshwater reserves. To this end, countries of the Arctic signed an agreement on scientific cooperation in 2017 that aims at intensified cooperation and environmental monitoring of the region.
Secondly, the experts called for attention to the key role of forests regulating freshwater resources and generating atmospheric moisture. Therefore, it was argued that an interdisciplinary approach is required to the management of these natural resources in the interests of the stabilisation and sustainable management of freshwater.
Thirdly, attention was called to the important role of the world’s youth in international cooperation. Grassroots initiatives bring youth together to increase joint understanding of water management, enhance civic participation, enhance accountability of water management decisions and build the capacity of young water professionals.
Finally, in the perspective of the IALR, global initiatives related to water and peace such as the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace, the Blue Peace Movement, and the Geneva Water Hub need to include attention to the great importance of freshwater lakes, which hold some 87 Percent of the world’s surface water. These lakes are subject to shallowing, environmental degradation, and loss of biological productivity, but since the establishment of the IALR in 2016, efforts are underway to protect and restore freshwater lakes and stimulate sustainable development. In this way freshwater lakes can become a source of international cooperation. Through public diplomacy, programmes have been initiated that emphasise an increase in water quality monitoring, wastewater treatment, and public awareness.
Despite Russia’s wealth in freshwater resources - some five times the world’s average - there are strong geographical disparities between supply and demand, with high population density and water demand in European region and low population density and high water availability in Asian region.
Climate change is exacerbating water scarcity in drier regions, and wastewater discharge is resulting in heavy pollution in some areas. In 2018, the Russian Federation elaborated legal norms to regulate the use of Water Protection Zones in a drive to protect water bodies. However, there are remaining challenges, as laws related to land ownership still stand in the way of effective control of pollution.
Externally, the Russian Federation shares borders with 13 countries, which involve the inflow or outflow of water. Internationally, the water diplomacy of the Russian Federation is rooted in the right to live in an environment enabling dignity and prosperity, as well as the rational use of water, at global, regional and local levels.
To date, the Federation has concluded nine agreements on the rational use and protection of water with neighbouring countries, including Azerbaidjan, Belarus, (PR) China, Estonia, Finland, Kazachstan, Mongolia and Ukraine.
A major diplomatic achievement in the region was the signing of the convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and Turkmenistan in 2018 after more than 20 years of negotiation.
The parties to the tripartite dialogue on water agree that international norms and institutions play an important role in preventing and settling water disputes. Key customary norms such as equitable and reasonable utilisation, the obligation not to cause significant harm, the protection of the environment and procedures for dispute settlement have found their way into framework conventions such as the UN Watercourses convention and the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.
These framework conventions are complemented by more specific legal regimes at the regional and river basin levels. Similarly, the Geneva list of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure developed by the Geneva Water Hub in 2019, based on different bodies of international law, systematises the rules applicable for the protection of water infrastructure during armed conflicts.
An emerging challenge in this context is the growing role of non-state actors in conflicts affecting water infrastructure, actors who may not feel bound to the principles of international law.
Going forward, the trialogue intends to continue its work, focusing on four key areas. The first is the creation of a global alliance on water diplomacy, notably through preparations for the 2023 UN conference on water to be held in New York. Secondly the alliance will work on a so-called "passport" showcasing the world’s freshwater lakes and the local cultures, knowledge and perspectives on water.
There is an intention to work on joint educational progammes on water diplomacy, extending the existing universities partnerships on water cooperation and diplomacy. And fourthly, the parties agreed on further information exchange on water law, application of best practices in water resources management, and the ideas of the Blue Peace Movement. All parties confirmed the growing importance of water and the need to expand international cooperation in solving water problems.