Water and foreign policy


Ensuring the fair distribution of global water resources is one of the major challenges facing international policymakers in the 21st century. Currently some 900 million people around the world have no access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion people do not have adequate sanitation. The consequences are serious.

Water wars

Pakistan - supply of drinking water© picture-alliance/dpa

“Water wars” have been a major issue in the German media since the nineties and it is often predicted that wars will be waged in future over “blue gold”. This is not based on wild speculation, for there have been repeated tensions revolving around water, which is a scarce resource. That applies in particular to arid regions where water policy is considered to be part of national security policy. It applies to all major river basins in the Middle East, as well as to Central Asia: changing climate conditions, melting glaciers, increased agricultural production and the necessity to generate energy using water have contributed to this.

From this point of view, the conflict over water is a global issue within the scope of conflicts over resources. The states affected have their strategies on national “water security”. States which are not involved themselves act as mediators. Foreign policy then becomes a short or long-term foreign policy to avoid conflicts.

At second glance …

However, the conflict over water is different to the hunger for resources such as food on the one hand, or for oil, gas and precious metals on the other. Drinking water reserves mostly come from cross-border rivers which flow through several states.

Water cannot be stolen. It is very rare for a state to go so far as to cause areas of land to become desolate or people to die of thirst. All countries along the banks of any major river have at least a minimum amount of water at their disposal. What is more, sufficient water resources is seldom a question of absolute amounts, but often merely a question of sensible and efficient use. Most rivers have enough water. All riparian countries know that and are under pressure to tackle distribution and use issues. This offers enormous potential for regional cooperation.

“Water” is like “coal and steel”

In many parts of the world, regional cooperation only takes place in the water sphere: in Central Asia, for example. A soft issue with sufficient potential for exerting pressure can give rise to viable fora for discussion, thus fostering regional stability – just as the European integration project once emerged from the European Coal and Steel Community.

Such institutions offer considerable potential for opening up new cooperation issues. Energy issues are often closely linked to water issues: for instance, “water in exchange for energy” proved to be a viable model during the Soviet period. In the Nile Water Basin Initiative, cooperation on food security is discussed more than water.

Germany supports cooperation processes

Consequences of the desiccation of the Aral Sea
Consequences of the desiccation of the Aral Sea© dpa/picture-alliance

German foreign policy can, where there is a favourable window of opportunity, encourage and support such cooperation processes. Germany can offer what is frequently missing. It can often be observed that the countries through which any given river flows seldom have an objective picture of the situation because there is no reliable data collation: How much water is available? How high are the inflow, flow and outflow rates? How much water is expected in future? Which factors influence the overall water balance? Which forms of utilization conserve water? The scientific know-how for this is often lacking. If German foreign policy involves the science and research communities here, it can create an objective database. The same goes for technological solutions to tackle efficiency problems: quality German water management products can be used to provide German support.

The international engagement of other departments can benefit German foreign policy: water supplies is one of the major focuses of German development policy, and the Federal Ministry for Development and Economic Cooperation is active around the world in this field. Moreover, the international environment and climate projects of the Federal Environment and Federal Research Ministries can usefully complement German assistance.

Central Asia Water Initiative

Arid field in Kazakhstan, 2008© picture-alliance/dpa

Since 2008, the Federal Foreign Office has been using its Central Asia Water Initiative to shape cooperation in the region (for details go to http://www.cawa-project.net). Central Asia with Afghanistan, which belongs to Central Asia in hydrological terms, has been particularly hard hit by the global water shortage. Here especially, climate change and the chronic over-exploitation of available resources are having disastrous consequences. Moreover, in Central Asia there is not only a shortage of water, it is also unevenly distributed and used in different ways. In the states in the upper reaches of the major Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, where water is plentiful, it is needed to produce energy in the winter, while the states in the lower reaches of the rivers need the water in the summer mostly for agricultural irrigation. The difficult situation is compounded by the fact that water is wasted, for example through the use of ailing irrigation facilities. The environmental disaster of the Aral Sea, which is primarily the result of failed water policy, has become the symbol of the region’s dramatic water situation. There are still many new challenges on the agenda. For example, could Afghanistan be more closely linked to Central Asian countries through water cooperation?

Moreover, there are many examples of new engagement in other regions. For instance, the Hungarian EU Presidency has just decided to make the Danube the defining hallmark of a newly created area. Here, the River Danube environment is to be used to create new political defining features. It is not clear today how this will turn out, but this approach certainly has potential.

Additional content

Everybody has a basic need for access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. Both are not only scarce, but also often poorly-administrated goods.

Water and sanitation