Resources & Climate
Project Note

Joint Working Group Series on EU’s Water Diplomacy: The Himalayan Region

Setting the stage for the “International Hydrodiplomacy—Building and Strengthening Regional Institutions for Water Conflict Prevention" conference

This research product was originally published by the EastWest Institute. This project was relaunched at the Stimson Center after EastWest discontinued operations in January of 2021. 

On November 12, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and the EastWest Institute (EWI) launched an exclusive Joint Working Group (JWG) series on EU’s water diplomacy with respect to three key water-stressed regions: the Himalayas, Central Asia and the Euphrates-Tigris. The aim of this series is to set the stage for KAS and EWI’s conference next year on “International Hydrodiplomacy—Building and Strengthening Regional Institutions for Water Conflict Prevention.”

The inaugural session on November 12 was devoted to the Himalayan region—home to 1.9 billion people and the “water tower of Asia,” from which flows the majority of the continent’s great rivers, including the Indus, Ganges and Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. The session brought together regional water experts along with representatives from the European External Action Service (EEAS), Slovenian Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, to jointly assess the current challenges to Himalayan transboundary water governance and reflect upon EU’s role as a potential synergistic force in advancing greater intra-and inter-regional cooperation on water issues.

Participants highlighted that water governance in the region has traditionally employed a reductionist approach—limiting the scope for greater multi-stakeholder engagement and inclusive decision-making. Following this approach, policymakers have failed to efficaciously address the needs of the region’s diverse ecosystem, navigate the manifold effects of climate change and contract the existing knowledge gaps, which, in turn, constrain prospects for regional water cooperation. To further exacerbate matters, frequent political tensions between neighboring countries result in water being transformed into a national security issue.

Reflecting on China’s role in the region’s hydrodiplomacy, participants agreed that China’s position as an upper riparian allows it extensive leverage over the Himalayan waters. In recent years, China’s dam-building and water-diversion projects, coupled with an apparent reservation in sharing hydrological data, have all been a major cause of concern for its downstream neighbors.

The participants further emphasized that conventional Track 1 mechanisms have failed to deliver on water cooperation ambitions in the region. Instead, the region’s shared waterscape requires a proactive deliberation towards adopting a more multi-disciplinary approach—one which binds together inclusive hydrodiplomacy initiatives, institutional frameworks, resource abutment and greater ecological integration in the region. The discussion also allowed for an intellectual discourse on how the EU could play a greater role in facilitating a more cooperative and coordinated enterprise towards shared water governance in the region. Participants agreed that the EU has the potential to act as an important third-party solicitor by bringing forward its constructive experience in transboundary water management and empowering integrative approaches towards water research and governance on various scales.

Hydrodiplomacy in the Himalayan region lacks the required impetus and cooperative incentives that are needed to ensure a better water future. There is an urgent need to periodically convene relevant regional and international stakeholders vis-à-vis a joint institutional platform, along the lines of River Basin Organizations (RBOs), in order to curate effective management methods and devise viable long-term solutions to tackle the looming threat of water scarcity and subsequent economic pressures in the region.

In the future, EWI and KAS will continue to mobilize and engage experts and stakeholders from key water-stressed regions, like the Himalayas, in an effort to address the global water challenges against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving security and environmental context.

Click here to view the JWG agenda.

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