WATER DIPLOMACY AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION FROM A GLOBAL SCENARIO TO THE EUROPEAN UNION

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‘Water links us to our neighbour in a way more profound and complex than any other.’ With these words John Thorson wanted to describe water, the most wonderful and vital substance for almost every creature on the planet. But we are running out of it. Not only can humans not exist without water, they also need it to realize the human right to an adequate standard of living as well as for economic development. Over the years, water has rarely been the cause of direct conflicts. However, transboundary water basins are often located in regions characterized by interstate conflicts and they are sometimes used as an intimidating tactic. This triggers conflicts more broadly causing negative impacts on internal, regional and international relations.[1]

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Water diplomacy or hydrodiplomacy is a term used by policymakers and advisors to define the foreign policy practice of promoting a dialogue of cooperation for peace and conflict resolution over water resources. This term is becoming increasingly important also in the context of national government and international institutions like the European Union and the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This is due to the increasing awareness of a growing water scarcity and climate change, leading to water insecurity and the consequent need to find means to pursue dialogue and cooperation over shared water resources. As a matter of facts, more than 50 per cent of the world population relies on freshwater from rivers that are shared by two or more countries.[2] However, more than 60 per cent of these basins are still lacking any form of collaboration among the different stakeholders. The Atlas of International Freshwater agreements identifies 400 water agreements adopted since 1820.[3] In this analysis I will present the most important ones at the International and European level.

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Water at the international level: between Helsinki and New York

Many steps have been taken in order to increase cooperation and provide legal means to riparian stakeholders. Already in 1992, the first successful attempt was achieved, resulting in the ‘Water Convention’. This international environmental agreement signed in Helsinki had the scope of promoting a Pan-European cooperation for the successful and sustainable management of transboundary water resources. More precisely, the Convention fosters the implementation of integrated water resources management, in particular the basin approach whereby the management is organized at the level of basins.[4] It requires Parties to have a role of preventing, controlling and reducing transboundary impacts, using transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way and ensuring their sustainable management. This is possible by the Parties entering into specific agreements and establishing joint bodies.[5] In 2003, with the aim of sharing the Convention’s experience and promoting water cooperation worldwide, the parties amended the legal text to make it possible to every United Nations Member State to access its instruments. The importance of the Convention is still visible nowadays, almost 30 years after it was signed. Its work has evolved in response to the changing needs of stakeholders and countries. For instance, it should be highlighted the way in which the Water Convention was deployed to address emerging issues such as ecosystem valuation, adaptation to climate change and the water-food- energy-ecosystems nexus in the transboundary context. It has been a key driver for continuous progress on transboundary water cooperation. 

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Another important legal milestone was the UN Watercourse Convention of 1997. Signed in New York just five years after the Helsinki Convention, this legal instrument adopts a “wide” definition of the uses of international watercourses with the aim of capturing multiple economic, social and environmental uses of water.  It is a global framework and as such it serves as an instrument to fill in gaps or supplement existing regional basin and sub-basin agreements. As a matter of facts, the convention has a great potential in addressing the existing legal architecture for international watercourses. However, this Convention is characterized by two main weaknesses. First and foremost, it took more than 17 years to be enforced in 2014 and in addition, it has been ratified by just 36 States, leaving outside the key ones.

The European role: the water framework directive and Eu Water diplomacy

Water legislation started to appear in Europe with a “first wave” from 1975 to 1980. This was mainly aimed at setting binding targets for the Union’s drinking water. It also included quality objective legislation on fish waters, shellfish waters, bathing waters and groundwaters. Its main emission control element was the Dangerous Substances Directive.[6]  However, in the following years, a number of improvements were identified in order to fill the legislative gaps. In 1995 the Commission underlined the need for a more global approach to water policy, to avoid fragmentation in both objectives and means.

In October 2000 the European Commission finally adopted the Water Framework directive. This legal instrument introduced a single strategy concerning water management based on river basins. This model wanted to guarantee independence from administrative and political boundaries contributing in boosting cooperation between Member States. In addition, with the management of every river basin should also be granted aquatic ecology, specific protection of unique and valuable habitats, protection of drinking water resources, and protection of bathing water.[7]

After this important achievement, the foreign ministry conclusion of 2013 officially recognized water as a foreign policy issue. Five years later, in 2018 the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU adopted new conclusions on the Union’s Water Diplomacy, recognising the potential of water to affect international peace and security and to underline the importance of transboundary water cooperation and governance.[8] Moreover, the Council’s Conclusions also highlighted the Union commitment to the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, a fundamental component for granting the right to an adequate standard of living.

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Water mismanagement or water scarcity?

As it was underlined in the article, water is one of the most important resources on the Planet. However, in recent years, it’s increasing scarcity and misuse has had enormous consequences on the world’s population. International actors and stakeholders joined forces to negotiate viable solutions to foster cooperation and peace. At the international and regional level great steps were taken from the 90s to the most recent years. 2013 was also established by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as the “Years of Water cooperation”. Nevertheless, some of these efforts have proved to be inadequate. It looks like the main assumption of all these legal instruments is that the problem to be solved is the mismanagement of water resources and not their scarcity consequent to climate change. A stricter, more sustainable legal and diplomatic approach is needed to face water related problems in line with the UN Agenda 2030 and the Paris agreement on climate change.

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Fonte

[1] Blue Peace, Water Diplomacy and Mediation A case study (2020)

[2] McCracken, M. and Wolf, A.T. (2019). “Updating the register of international river basins of the world.” International Journal of Water Resources Development

[3] Rieu-Clarke, “UN Watercourses Convention : User’s Guide.”

[4] Bergesen, Parmann, and Thommessen, “Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.” (2012)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Introduction to the EU Water Framework Directive – Environment – European Commission

[7] Ibid.

[8] EU Water Diplomacy, EEAS – European External Action Service – European Commission

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