GPO 2023

Dissolving tensions through water-peace diplomacy

Using water to advance political goals can be an effective way for Geneva to increase its international influence. The first step would be to take on water at (m)any of the events planned for 2023.

Geneva Policy Outlook
Jan 30, 2023
5 min read
Photo by L.L. Sammons / Unsplash

By Mark Zeitoun, Christian Bréthaut and Caroline Pellaton

Why water-peace diplomacy?

Summer 2022: Hundreds of children and twice as many adults drown in floods in Pakistan while gorged rivers devastate much of Europe. State tensions rise to a feverish pitch over dams along the Nile, Tigris, Helmand and Amu Darya rivers, to name just a few. Cholera rips through covid-torn Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, as water systems come under fire in all active conflict zones, with such predictability that it is almost monotonous.

Often hailed as a source of life, water becomes a genesis of misery.

International Geneva can stem the suffering and transform the relations by taking on water-peace diplomacy. To get to peace through water, however, the community will have to dive deep in 2023.

A pragmatic way-in

The work could begin by impressing the Geneva footprint on New York in March 2023 at the Mid-Term Review Conference of the UN Water Action Decade – the first UN-sponsored water conference since Mar del Plata in 1977. That conference put water ‘on the map’, and also set a global water policy community so firmly in place that it has spent most of the last half-century talking to itself.

Global order has fractured and re-assembled more than a few times since then. Warfare technology has developed in leaps and bounds. Nonetheless, cleavages over international waters remain depressingly steadfast, while the use and abuse of water during military or economic warfare is as crude today as it was in 1914 (when the Yser River was used to flood the trenches in Belgium).

Conventional diplomacy can draw on relevant norms to improve the situation, including the relevant aspects of international humanitarian law and international water law. More creative state diplomats can welcome the new generation of hybrid hydrologists and water lawyer diplomats, as well.

Water forces people together. A river suddenly spewing heavy metals from a chemical spill or collapsed dam obliges the down streamers to confront the up streamers, regardless of the relations their capitals have, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Environmentalists have a great ability to see beyond their borders.

However, there is a more compelling, more pragmatic reason for International Geneva to get serious about water as a new form of diplomacy, as Maurer and Mohamedou point out in this volume. Water forces people together. A river suddenly spewing heavy metals from a chemical spill or collapsed dam obliges the down streamers to confront the up streamers, regardless of the relations their capitals have, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Environmentalists have a great ability to see beyond their borders. Likewise, the technicians on either side of a city under siege engage in remarkably resilient coordination to keep the water flowing when the source of the water is controlled by one side and the taps by another. Not always, but surprisingly often – as any humanitarian engineer will tell you.

If the dialogue is happening anyway, the logic goes, it might as well be built upon to further other political ends. Relations can be reinforced well before the trust is built, and action can be taken even prior to that. For being interdisciplinary, multi-scalar and multi-level by nature, Track 1, 1.5 or 2 water-peace diplomacy serves détente and rapprochement efforts particularly well.

Why International Geneva

This is exactly why the peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian worlds are beginning to collide with water, using water as an entry point to provide joint solutions to complex issues way beyond the water sector. With cutting-edge international organisations, critical higher-education institutions, and a more operational diplomatic community than New York, Geneva is where it should happen.

The intensely networked multilateral biosphere that Geneva nurtures is priceless in this regard. Just as water has become central to the progressive climate and health programmes of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), World Health Organisation (WHO), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Geneva is where it is also being integrated into peacebuilding and diplomatic processes.

There are plenty of opportunities to take on water in 2023. It can feature prominently at the February discussions of the UNSG’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism. Under Slovenia’s chair, the Geneva Group of Friends on Water for Peace can prod states towards common goals at their meetings in April and September. The status of water systems in war can be put to the Social Forum of the Human Rights Council. And, of course, peacebuilders and humanitarians can showcase the potential of water for peace at the big water conference in New York in March or by engaging in water-peace diplomacy with those who are already doing it. Finally, the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform can test the limits of water-peace diplomacy at the Geneva Peace Week 2023 in November even further.

To put it bluntly, the communities in Geneva that talk about dialogue should discuss how to use water for peace together. The droughts, floods, tension and disease, will not dissolve on their own, and International Geneva has what it takes to transform the situation. The more that it develops water-peace diplomacy as an effective response, the more effective Geneva can be.

About the Authors

Prof Mark Zeitoun is the Director General of the Geneva Water Hub and is Professor of Water Security at the University of East Anglia. His research focuses on international transboundary water conflict and cooperation and the influence of armed conflict on water services. He has led multiple research and water supply projects, supported water negotiations throughout the Middle East and Africa, and consulted for a wide range of humanitarian and development organisations. He studied engineering at McGill University and human geography at King’s College London. He is the author of “Power and Water: the Hidden Politics of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Conflict” (IB Tauris 2008), Water Conflicts: Analysis for Transformation (OUP 2020, with Naho Mirumachi and Jeroen Warner), and “Reflections: Understanding our use and abuse of Water” (OUP 2023).

Prof Christian Bréthaut holds a PhD in Geosciences and Environment from the University of Lausanne. He has led the Geneva Water Hub’s Education and Knowledge component since August 2014. His area of expertise is the analysis of water policies and the issues associated with the management of cross-border rivers. Prof Bréthaut’s particular focus within the domain of water management is the capacity of institutions to adapt, the water-food-energy-ecosystems Nexus and the exploration of the link between science and policy.

Caroline Pellaton holds a PhD in Earth Sciences from the University of Geneva. She joined the Geneva Water Hub in June 2018 as Corporate Operations Administrator. Her work consists of managing administrative issues as well as monitoring the achievements and implementation of the objectives, and contributing to some operational activities. She is also in charge of fundraising activities and donor relations. Over the last ten years, she worked as a country-level water program manager in emergency and post-conflict environments in various contexts, such as Sri Lanka, Niger, the Republic of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Yemen and Jordan.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Geneva Policy Outlook or its partner organisations.