The demand for freshwater is increasing globally. The threat of climate change alongside population growth stands to increase tension over the availability, allocation, and access to water. Much of the world’s available water is transboundary with 310 transboundary river basins shared by two or more countries covering roughly 47.1% of Earth’s land surface [1
]. That said, around two-thirds of transboundary rivers do not currently have cooperative agreements in place [2
]. The implications of this make conflict and instability more likely, particularly as climate-change effects continue to reduce available water in many basins. Whereas historical experience suggests it is unlikely that countries will go to war over water issues, increasingly scarce water resources require resilient multifaceted approaches that go beyond technical water management to incorporate robust water diplomacy pathways for sustained transboundary cooperation [3
Although cooperation around water may not necessarily lead to peace, it can encourage peacebuilding [3
]. Transboundary cooperation on environmental issues often reinforces interdependencies between nations. Transboundary cooperation on water thus holds the potential to discourage the use of violence by facilitating a transnational culture of cooperation. Facilitating such a culture of cooperation, particularly doing so for conflict prevention, however, is complex. Structural violence may be evident in the form of dominance or selective engagement by a riparian hegemon over transboundary water cooperation structures. Under-representation of marginalized basin communities or inequitable allocation agreements based on outdated hydrological data are further examples of structural violence. Conversely, institutional cooperation can also serve to strengthen existing power imbalances [6
]. Effective conflict prevention in transboundary water cooperation contexts requires the institutionalization of processes and policies that enable positive norms that enforce conflict prevention mechanisms to evolve and endure over time [7
How institutional mechanisms inform the legal, institutional, relational and outcome governance of transboundary water cooperation informs the extent to which peacebuilding can be facilitated between riparian nations. What differentiates negative and positive peace is important to note here. Whereas negative peace is singular in its goal of attaining the absence of direct violence, positive peace is understood as preventing violence through structural and social justice reform that addresses the inequitable distribution of power and resources. These dimensions of equitability and sustainability are central to what is considered effective transboundary water cooperation across the literature and existing frameworks [8
]. By addressing the underlying causes of conflict toward durable peace, institutional mechanisms can contribute to positive peacebuilding. For positive peace to be facilitated, political will and high-level diplomatic engagement must be cultivated and sustained by the institutions that govern transboundary waters.
This paper assesses three operational institutional mechanisms for transboundary water cooperation: the river basin organization (RBO), the transfrontier conservation area (TFCA) and the third-party inter-governmental organization (IGO) model used by the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC). By applying the Four Frames of Cooperation Framework, these institutional mechanisms are assessed for their ability to effectively facilitate transboundary water cooperation and water diplomacy [8
]. Although each institutional mechanism has been established for varying reasons, they are all multilateral institutions set up in support of transboundary water governance. The three mechanisms have been selected because they all have the potential to support conflict prevention and water diplomacy at an interstate level.
The study proceeds as follows: Section 2
presents an overview of the literature on transboundary water cooperation and diplomacy alongside the role prominent institutional mechanisms have played in supporting technical cooperation and environmental peacebuilding. Section 3
outlines the research questions that guide this assessment of institutional mechanisms and outlines the reasons and relevance for the methods used. Section 4
assesses RBOs, a TFCA and the MEDRC model through the Four Frames of Cooperation Framework. Section 5
discusses the qualitative findings and presents lessons learned and recommends future pathways.
2. Institutional Mechanisms in Transboundary Water Cooperation, Diplomacy and Positive Peace
For conceptual clarity, it is important to recognize that whilst transboundary water cooperation and water diplomacy are interrelated, they are separate concepts. Both water diplomacy and transboundary water cooperation link political and technical tracks of engagement between riparian nations [5
]. Whereas transboundary cooperation is more oriented towards technical engagement, water diplomacy is focused on the political track. Concerned more with the process of cooperation rather than the outcome, water diplomacy looks to prevent or peacefully resolve (emerging) conflicts through engaging with measures undertaken by state and non-state actors. In its broadest definition, water diplomacy refers to the potential cooperation that can be harnessed both in cross-border contexts and internal trans-sectoral issues about water [5
]. This complementary space means that transboundary cooperation works under a politically defined mandate, whilst water diplomacy becomes informed by the knowledge sharing that more technical transboundary cooperation advances.
Notwithstanding the complex space within which transboundary water cooperation exists, water is increasingly recognized as an essential tool for maintaining peace and security at international, national and sub-national levels [10
]. Effective water management can be used as an entry point to prevent conflict in transboundary water diplomacy and cooperation [9
]. There are several prominent examples of water cooperation taking place despite the presence of war and the absence of a peace agreement. For example, the ‘picnic table talks’ between Jordan and Israel in the 1950s, the resilience of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and the Indus Treaty, which has remained intact despite three wars between India and Pakistan. Coined ‘islands of cooperation’ [14
] (p. 1), these successes demonstrate that water can be effectively managed in conflict but that the spillover to a positive peace from such management is more challenging. Peacebuilding demands the development of functional institutional mechanisms that use water as a platform for potentially wider systemic and eventual whole-of-government cooperation and agreement.
Multi-track diplomacy pathways can strengthen capacity-building, financial, legal, and political coordination at national, sub-national and global levels. Typically, across the literature, diplomatic engagement is placed within three predominant categories of engagement: Track 1, Track 1.5 and Track 2 diplomacy. Track 1 references official governmental diplomacy that involves formal dialogue organized by and for the state. It requires high-level political will and engagement. Track 2, in contrast, is informal unofficial dialogue designed to improve communication and build trust between non-governmental actors such as influential academics or local and religious leaders. Track 1.5 typically constitutes informal dialogue organized by a non-state actor with state-level support and participation. At Track 1.5 diplomatic engagement level, both official and unofficial discourse take place [15
]. In practice, demarcating Track 2 and Track 1.5 can be challenging. The key element that differentiates these two tracks of diplomatic engagement is that in Track 1.5 state-level support toward the discourse is assured systemically, and there is potential for informal discourse to move into a state of formal discourse. In recent years, literature has also emerged looking at what has been referred to as Track 3 diplomacy, which encompasses people-to-people engagement and diplomatic mobilization [17
]. The classification of different levels of diplomatic engagement in this way positions high-level political engagement at Track 1 and Track 1.5 level. Although this paper recognizes that water issues affect all levels of society, it is particularly concerned with multilateral institutions at Track 1 and Track 1.5 level.
Within the conflict resolution literature, there is debate over whether cooperation is valuable in contributing to positive peace and whether it may also cause harm in certain contexts [18
]. Research conducted by Daoust and Selby [21
] highlights the need for a more nuanced approach to unpacking and understanding cooperation. A lack of conflict in a basin does not necessarily mean willful cooperation between riparian nations. Instead, it may be a sign of the regional hegemon asserting control, presenting domination as cooperation. [22
]. Similarly, at times conflicting interactions have also created enabling conditions for cooperative dialogue to take place thereafter [22
]. Where basin treaties do exist, these often reflect the status quo with regard to political power and hegemony. As Pohl [3
] argues, basin management is often secondary to intra-basin politics and established power asymmetries. Therefore, political engagement is crucial to ensure effective cooperation and coordination and ‘the absence of political will represents the key obstacle for materializing benefits of water cooperation’ [24
] (p. 4). Unilateral action tends to be more predominant in basins where neighbors do not have good relations or where a basin hegemon dominates [13
]. Moreover, many treaties lack specific conflict resolution mechanisms at their establishment and therefore, the existence of a treaty itself is not enough on its own to prevent conflict [27
]. Nevertheless, as Wolf et al. [29
] (p. 45) contend, basins without treaties in place are ‘significantly more conflictive than basins with treaties.’ In reality, it is fairly easy to compel states to cooperate if the political situation allows it because the benefits of cooperation often outweigh the gains of unilateral action. Basins with cooperative water agreements also tend to remain resilient, and cooperation in line with the treaty tends to continue even if there are hostilities between riparian countries on non-water-related issues.
Several benchmarks of equitability and sustainability have emerged as guiding criteria for determining whether transboundary water cooperation is constructive [8
] (p. 212). The 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Waters legally binds signatory states to cooperate within international law. Article 5 and Article 7 of the UN Convention call for equitable and reasonable use as well as the development and protection of watercourses. Equitability in transboundary water cooperation is achieved through addressing disparities in outcome and process that may exist among actors committed to a cooperative agreement. In addition, sustainability is considered achieved when ‘trade-offs between social, economic, and environmental dimensions can be made to meet desirable goals’ [8
] (p. 8). Achieving equitability and sustainability benchmarks in transboundary water cooperative arrangements, however, remains challenging. Ultimately, the UN Water Convention has been ratified by relatively few states and its framework does not provide much in the way of enforcement capabilities for those who are signatories.
An extensive analysis by McCracken [8
] illustrates why effective transboundary water cooperation and agency is difficult to ascertain by expanding on the variability in conceptualizing what effective cooperation looks like. This variability exists largely due to the normative nature of agreed-upon principles of effective water governance, which positions determining, measuring, and evaluating the extent of effective transboundary water cooperation in a problematic space [30
]. The study outlines that there are common aspects of effective transboundary water cooperation that emerged across different conceptualizations analyzed, including achieving outcomes, having and sustaining resilient institutional capacity and ensuring participation. Even in identifying these, however, it is noted how ambiguous the parameters can be when looking at practical transferable models for effective transboundary water cooperation.
The nuanced interplay between conflict and cooperation affirms that transboundary water interaction is an inherently political process determined by the changeable, broader external context. Such changes are dependent also on the many different actors involved in water diplomacy who all fulfil different roles, from states to companies, as well as non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and international organizations. Third parties in the form of international organizations or intergovernmental organizations have shown to contribute positively in their ability to mediate because of the lower sovereignty costs that they bear [31
As the existing literature attests, the international community has long grappled with what effective institutional arrangements for managing shared water resources entail [3
]. Successful multilateral institutions can maintain impartiality while carefully maintaining relationships with all core stakeholders [6
]. However, the effectiveness of multilateral institutions in contributing positively to conflict prevention depends on a myriad of elements. The lack of agency at the international level in this field is equally well established. However, the empirical evidence on whether different forms of institutional mechanisms that govern transboundary water cooperation reinforce negative or positive structural peace remains scarce [5
The exploration of the operational institutional mechanisms in transboundary water cooperation through the Four Frames of Cooperation Framework shows that majority of them are stronger in their legal and institutional frameworks than in operational practice. This highlights how crucial relational goal attainment is when harnessing water diplomacy.
presents an overview evaluation of the three institutional mechanisms extending from the assessment in Section 3
based on goal attainment as a parameter of evaluation. Refer to Appendix A
, Table A2
for the guiding questions that informed the evaluation.
The assessment of OMVS shows that genuine commitment has been leveraged by enabling both technical and political capacity through the multi-level governance framework. The centrality of joint ownership in OMVS advances equitability through high-level authority being granted in goal setting, decision-making, implementation, and adaption. Joint ownership that engages at a high political level means that any disparities between member states can be discussed on equal footing, thereby advancing shared understanding and reciprocity. Technical and diplomatic representation also enables resilient cross-sectoral governance and supports conflict prevention by facilitating sustainable and equitable use of water substantively as well as procedurally.
This multi-level governance has also enabled for a resilient cost-sharing financial mechanism to be institutionalized within the RBO. This cost-sharing mechanism has substantive and procedural potential for advancing economic, environmental, and social outcomes. Through this mechanism, common goals and actions could be activated as outcomes through OMVS at a project activity level. In effect, 20,000 hectares of irrigated land was developed, and disease and invasive species have been managed [49
]. Despite this progress, the 20,000 hectares of developed irrigated land falls far below the target of 375,000 hectares outlined in the OMVS goals in the 1970s.
Although the cost-sharing mechanism has supported shared understanding and decision-making around shared issues, there have been issues due to a lack of funding streams, particularly with hydropower production and watercourse navigational improvements like docks and channelization. Furthermore, there have been several drawbacks faced in water resources management over time when considering sustainability in particular. The operationalization of Diama Dam (completed in 1986) and Manantali Dam (completed in 1987) enabled greater water security and drought resilience but was criticized for causing social, environmental and economic damage. This damage arose primarily in the years after the operationalization of the Diama and Manatali Dams. Designed to maintain the minimum water levels needed for irrigation in times of dry seasons, the dams were used as sources of artificial floodwaters. The artificial floodwaters were released during the wrong seasons, however, which resulted in the forced relocation of farmers, destruction of crop fields and death of livestock as the prevalence of waterborne diseases rose with still waters. It is important to note that during the period of dam construction and operationalization, environmental impact assessment was not required. In light of these failures to support sustainable outcomes, OMVS signed the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention and the 2002 Charter of Senegal River Waters, which impose substantive obligations to protect the environment by developing an Environmental Action Plan aimed at evaluating water quantity, quality, distribution and use [49
]. This adaptability in legal and institutional dimensions highlights the resilience of the OMVS as an institutional mechanism [33
]. Despite some challenges, it is clear that the inter-sectoral governance that is built into the legal and institutional elements of OMVS has strengthened the relational and outcome dimensions according to the Four Frames of Cooperation Framework.
The Four Frames of Cooperation Framework assessment conducted on the MRC demonstrates limited advancement of equitable and sustainable transboundary cooperation and water diplomacy. This is perhaps unsurprising given the way in which the member states interact with the organization. Rather than promoting basin-wide ecological benefits, the agreements ‘often promote state-centric environmental securitization’ [45
] (p. 238). Although the MRC has provided significant amounts of data and information, it has done little to address the disparities in capacity, financial interest and political positions of member states, which has led to different goals emerging for the regime [50
]. This further reinforces that unless political will is ascertained and commitment to collective action reinforced through the institutional cooperation mechanism.
Despite incorporating technical and diplomatic representation into its structure alongside a seemingly good level of stakeholder engagement, some governments involved in the MRC prefer the organization to remain weak so that control over external funds and development remains the responsibility of the states themselves [35
]. Furthermore, the organization is challenged by China—not only the regional hegemon but also the upstream country—and its lack of engagement in the MRC. China’s absence makes consensus and mediation over potentially inflammatory decisions difficult to attain [41
]. Joint fact-finding missions or joint monitoring lack important information from the upstream country. As a result, the mechanism provided does not necessarily lead to the sustainable and equitable use of water as China has full control over the resource as the upstream country, leaving the RBO somewhat limited in its resource management.
In light of its institutional form not advancing equitable and sustainable transboundary water cooperation processes, it is perhaps unsurprising that the MRC does not have a particularly strong mandate for conflict prevention. Notwithstanding, Kittikhoun and Staubli [51
] contend the potential for the MRC to engage in water diplomacy has developed since its establishment. Despite the challenges, the four riparian states who are signatories continue to support the organization, electing officials and engaging in the day-to-day operation of the organization. The organization has undergone a series of reforms and changes in strategy in recent years, suggesting that the previous failings or challenges have been recognized and that there is a renewed interest in cooperation between riparian countries.
Whilst RBOs can provide a starting point for broader peacebuilding, by offering the benefits of cooperation [52
], there should be a direct and decisive effort to use RBOs for water diplomacy as the spillover between water cooperation and peacebuilding is not guaranteed. RBOs do not tend to have strong peace mandates despite stability and development often being highlighted in their establishing agreements. RBOs tend to be designed as tools for transboundary cooperation and, dependent on their composition, may not be effective mechanisms for water diplomacy. Furthermore, by engaging in water diplomacy where the prerequisite features are not evident, RBOs risk securitizing water.
To adapt to the stresses of climate change, the most recent (2015–2020) Integrated Development Plan [40
] developed by the Secretariat of the TFCA prioritized the development of six wildlife dispersal areas, each with varying priorities based on the situational needs. All the development projects, however, have to be designed in compliance with the TFCA objectives as outlined in the KAZA-TFCA treaty and are administered, managed and developed under the auspices of the TFCA’s Joint Management Committee. This institutional adaptability that the TFCA has been able to cultivate is constructive. Nonetheless, resilient systemic processes that advance positive peace through inclusion, legal robustness and political legitimacy still fall short. This can be seen in the poor manner in which human–wildlife conflict has been addressed through the TFCA as an institutional mechanism.
Across several of the wildlife dispersal areas human–wildlife conflict has been identified as a strategic area to address that also overlaps with water resources management. The stresses of climate change, population growth of human and wildlife populations, inappropriate land-use planning and conflicting sectoral policies have been identified as key drivers to human–wildlife conflict. This shows that the TFCA, as an institutional mechanism, has been effective in diagnosing shared concerns around transboundary waters. Yet in terms of effective institutional responses, the TFCA has been weak. With poor local-level planning integrated into regional wildlife management through the KAZA-TFCA, drivers to human–wildlife conflict become exacerbated. For water diplomacy to effectively continue to take place as a means of conflict prevention, value creation and context-specific management approaches need to be established that will prevent conflict related to water resources management and cooperation. This also shows that when considering transboundary water management and cooperation across the TFCA, it is important to ensure that institutional mechanisms are extended on through actionable project activities.
Being part of the KAZA-TFCA and SADC water mandate places ZAMCOM and OKACOM within a regional water framework that contributes to sustaining dialogue toward positive water cooperation. SADC has also helped to drive the direction of transboundary cooperation toward regional environmental security in the form of joint water management, peace and security initiatives, and efforts to combat drought and increase food supply and cooperation on infrastructural developments. In addition, SADC’s Protocol on Shared Water Courses has created a vital institutional framework that has further supported the norm of cooperation on transboundary waters.
The institutional arrangements that established the KAZA TFCA demonstrate the potential for TFCAs to contribute to conflict prevention through the water diplomacy they enable across a multilateral platform. It is evident from the treaty that the riparian nations had sufficiently aligned interests. Through engaging in shared resource management diplomatically as well as technically, the KAZA TFCA is a multilateral platform that allows for informal problem solving and consensus-seeking to take place. Subsequently, formal institutional mechanisms have been put in place to create more resilient transboundary cooperation processes. This has had a spillover effect on transboundary cooperation processes adopted regionally, thereby contributing to conflict prevention through sustaining peace in the form and function by which natural resources are managed. Despite the multiple actors involved in the governance of transboundary water cooperation in the KAZA TFCA, the institutional arrangements have enabled water cooperation and water diplomacy to complement one another.
The institutional design of the MEDRC model reinforces Track 1 and Track 1.5 engagement by ensuring state-level support is always present. MEDRC was explicitly set up against the backdrop of the peace process and therefore its primary mandate is one of supporting peace and stability, with water cooperation initiatives and opportunities coming second. This foundation for water diplomacy is cultivated through the core parties to conflict acting as co-equal partners and joint guarantors of the organization. Relational development as such enables conflict states to engage in dialogue around technology that stands to mutually benefit and advance reciprocity in communication and exchange. This relational dimension highlights the potential of third-party intergovernmental organizations to advance peacebuilding and conflict prevention measures. As much as its institutional set-up has enabled strong relational dimensions to evolve, its potential weaknesses lie in the legal dimensions of the model. With member states being able to withdraw at any point in time with a six-month written notice, MEDRC’s legal dimension does not hold members accountable to financial or participatory commitments beyond what they volunteer. Whilst in practice this has not proven to be an issue to date, more robust financing commitments would enable better forward planning. Furthermore, the voluntary nature of participatory commitments risks MEDRC becoming a ‘talking shop’ or not reaching its full potential due to a lack of engagement from member states. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, MEDRC can be viewed as a resilient pipeline wherein a wide range of activities can be undertaken if that outside context allows including joint monitoring, dialogue, and data sharing. On the other, the context of the Middle East Peace Process makes this challenging as in the absence of a peace process, the level of activities relating to cooperation on the management of the water resource is heavily limited. Despite this, however, the MEDRC model has proven to be durable with it being the only fully operational organization remaining from the Working Group on Water from the Madrid Peace Process.
The MEDRC model’s durability, despite the volatile political and security situation, can be attributed to a strong level of political support and a robust, clear mandate. As shown by the Four Frames of Cooperation Framework assessment, stakeholder representation is clear and at a high political level across the legal, institutional, and relational frames. This strength in relational commitment through MEDRC’s organizational structure was achieved by using desalination as a uniting technology to provide the core parties with a reason to meet. The participation of a diplomatic official alongside a technical expert ensures that politics and diplomacy are central to the organization. Track 1 and Track 1.5 are engaged through trilateral dialogue programs and development cooperation capacity-building activities that complement each other. These activities are designed and implemented to ensure that civil servants at the deputy director level and above are continuously involved in programing. Focus issues such as climate change or transboundary cooperation models are selected through a needs assessment and joint gap analysis of the core parties that is undertaken on an annual basis. The fact that participation in the MEDRC model is voluntary and yet has been participated actively across by the core party states is telling of its success in advancing equitability. Its capacity to advance sustainability through directing trade-offs between social, environmental, and economic dimensions for shared goals to be met cannot be assessed and evaluated within the scope of this paper.
The institutional dimension of the MEDRC model is therefore constructive in advancing transboundary water cooperation between conflicting states through technical channels of participation that remain active even if political tensions result in a stop of relational engagement at the high political level. As a third-party entity engaged with its member states on a shared environmental issue, MEDRC bears low costs of sovereignty, which allows for disparities in representation to be addressed through resilient relational engagement between core states.
From assessing three institutional mechanisms according to the Four Frames of Cooperation Framework, it is highlighted that the institutional mechanisms typically used to facilitate or mediate transboundary water cooperation are limited in their ability to move beyond transboundary cooperation toward more sustainable positive peace processes through water diplomacy. To actively utilize water diplomacy in the service of conflict prevention, cooperative frameworks must move beyond the idea of cooperation as an end goal. Instead, cooperative frameworks should deliberately include activities where cooperation on water may spill over to equitable and sustainable water diplomacy to enable positive peacemaking efforts.