Digital Water Diplomacy: Keeping Water Dialogues Afloat

Digital Water Diplomacy: Keeping Water Dialogues Afloat

April 19, 2021 By Elizabeth A. Yaari & Martina Klimes

In 2020, the world experienced the convergence of the global water and climate change crises, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic recession. The compounded emergencies hit even well-prepared countries hard. For the more than 50 percent of the world’s population that relies on transboundary freshwater sources for their drinking water, the renewed urgency for access to water for sanitation raised additional challenges. Effectively responding to the crises demanded an elevated degree of communication and coordination between neighboring states precisely when coordination and collaboration processes encountered new barriers to effective transboundary engagement. As neighboring states instituted travel restrictions, water dialogues had to adapt through digital water diplomacy processes.

Water diplomacy supports a variety of stakeholders to collectively find mutually beneficial solutions for jointly managing shared freshwater resources. While still an evolving field, water diplomacy typically happens in both formal, Track 1 settings, such as summits and committees, as well as informal, Track 1.5 and 2 settings, such as through conversations and relationship-building at conferences like World Water Week, workshops, and other meetings.

Digital water diplomacy recognizes that the online platform or space where water dialogues are performed has an impact on the process design, trust-building, transparency, information and data sharing, assessments of shared risks, inclusion, and ultimately decision-making. As new digital water diplomacy processes are being adopted to parts of both formal and informal dialogues, new challenges and opportunities to the field are emerging—including in some of the most conflict-sensitive basins.

Process design for digital dialogues

Adapting a negotiation process to digital spaces necessitates more than sharing a meeting link. The architecture of the entire process must be reconsidered.  

Every negotiation is highly context dependent, and challenges are different in various basins. The approaches that contributed to breaking deadlock in the Drin River Basin and operationalized the shared vision are unlikely to have the same impact in the Eastern Nile River Basin, given varying geopolitical considerations. Yet, each process design follows similar principles, one of the first steps being that all participants must agree on the format for their dialogue process. Defining a process with milestones which are clear to the actors has become more important in digital dialogues, as the milestones help maintain momentum and reconcile differing perceptions in lieu of sustained contact.

Engaging in digital water diplomacy necessitates an even higher level of preparation from participants and the actors who facilitate the process as they work to establish a shared narrative to address challenges. In practice, these challenges can be partially mitigated by establishing clear codes of conduct, decision-making mechanisms, timelines, collaboration in setting the agenda, and a joint understanding of the challenges.

Some online water dialogues benefitted from previous in-person exchanges, where participants had established trust and an understanding of one another’s priorities. Initiating new dialogues or including new actors into ongoing dialogues without sustained personal contact has the potential to reinforce or maintain status quo positional bargaining—when participants dig deeper into their position—rather than fostering a more principled negotiation.

While there are few examples, water negotiation processes since 2020 have mostly been a continuation of pre-pandemic talks being moved to digital platforms. Negotiations between Eastern Nile countries regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have continued online. In Central Asia, water negotiations likewise continued online between Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Afghanistan and Turkmenistan also conducted negotiations online, resulting in a signed protocol that furthered a cooperation strategy for the management of shared water resources.

Technologies like chat applications, employed for side dialogues in parallel to online meetings, are now the norm. It is difficult to entirely transfer trust building to digital platforms, particularly the trust building needed to support dialogues on sensitive issues, such as matters of national interest, perceived vulnerabilities, and geopolitical contexts. Without the option to conduct side meetings in a fully closed environment, third parties are also challenged to establish relations with new actors to effectively facilitate dialogues in digital spaces.  

From ‘a walk in the woods’ to ‘a breakout room e-fika’

As water diplomacy processes migrated to digital platforms, one of the first losses was the treasured coffee break or fika in Swedish. An unassuming pillar of any successful dialogue process, coffee breaks and other informal activities—for example the ‘walk in the woods’ process—are used strategically in negotiations to defuse tensions, create opportunities for bilateral meetings, meet with one’s own delegation, or confer with other government officials.

With the loss of the crucial informal spaces, official dialogues have taken a markedly more formal turn with actors sticking to pre-determined statements—especially in processes marked with low levels of trust. Rising concerns of conversations being recorded and leaked are also shrinking the space for creative dialogues and diminishing opportunities to identify shared solutions.

Impacts on transparency and inclusion

Conducting dialogues in digital spaces yields advantages in certain settings. Negotiations on long-term water cooperative protocols often lack the urgency of peace processes during worsening security situations. Digital water diplomacy allows for exploration of opportunities in science diplomacy, including bringing in independent technical experts and taking advantage of open-source databases. Such processes can be more easily transferred to digital spaces and, through the process of bringing in relevant stakeholders, can increase transparency.

Digital access impacts participation for better and worse. Digital water diplomacy can provide opportunity for broader and more inclusive participation while reducing travel cost, time, and environmental impacts. However, caution must be taken to adapt and contextualize the tools and processes of digital water diplomacy to the local environment, to ensure online access is not a barrier to participation. Because unfortunately, the digital divide contributes to excluding some stakeholders from the dialogue, with disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable communities. At the same time, some informal and formal water dialogues have benefited from remote access to dialogue and decision-making processes, as it becomes possible to convene actors more frequently, including high level officials. Long a cliché in diplomatic circles, the ‘backroom’—where negotiations continue into the night—has not entirely disappeared in the modern age. With the rise of diplomatic engagements on digital platforms, some celebrated the opening up of these highly restricted conversations, long a barrier to gender equality in decision-making.

Decision-making: a hybrid future

Ultimately, decision-making is highly influenced by structural factors around the process, and new digital platforms hosting dialogue processes influence the outcome and shape of decisions. Despite current constraints to in-person meetings, urgent steps can be made where political will exists. For instance, a joint memorandum of understanding between Turkey and Iraq, ratified by Turkey as of March 2021, signals progress in bilateral water relations.

Game-changing digital tools for transboundary water management are increasingly becoming the norm in many corners of the world. Predictive and forecasting applications such as remote sensing and other artificial intelligence applications are already feeding into decision-support and negotiations. With increasing abilities of countries to assess their neighbors’ water resources without official data sharing protocols, negotiators are reassessing their own and their counterparts’ Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement—a helpful lens to design one’s strategy in a negotiation process.  

Digital water diplomacy will outlive the COVID-19 pandemic. Hybrid dialogue processes, integrating both digital water diplomacy and traditional in-person meetings are likely to become the new norm. Leveraging the benefits of these shifts to improve transparency and inclusiveness while mitigating the challenges to cooperative dialogues is critical. Diplomats and experts urgently need to meet this challenge to combat the multiple strata of the global water and climate crises. With climate change increasing water uncertainties, neighboring states must harness the tools and approaches of digital water diplomacy alongside fostering political will for cooperative approaches to address our shared environmental challenges.

Elizabeth A. Yaari is Operations Lead and Senior Programme Manager in the Transboundary Water Cooperation Department at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) where she is responsible for supporting regional water diplomacy processes in conflict sensitive basins through SIWI’s Shared Waters Partnership programme and SIWI’s International Centre for Water Cooperation.

Dr. Martina Klimes is Advisor for Water and Peace at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) where she is responsible advising on SIWI’s activities in transboundary basins affected by water scarcity, political tensions, and armed violence. Martina is also a Member of the Scientific Programme Committee (SPC) of the World Water Week and an Associated Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP) in Stockholm, Sweden.

Sources: African Union Commission, Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean, Oregon State University, Orient, Programme on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Shafaq News, Stockholm International Water Institute, Turkmenistan State News Agency, and “Using Carrots to Bring Peace? Negotiation and Third Party Involvement” by Dr Martina Klimes.

Photo Credit: World Water Week At Home 2020 Opening Ministerial panel, courtesy of Flickr User SIWI Stockholm International Water Institute


Source :https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2021/04/digital-water-diplomacy-keeping-water-dialogues-afloat/


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