19 March 2024

Climate change will test transboundary water cooperation

We must invest in them now to prevent conflict

Peace makes for poor headlines, but serves as a testament to the hard work of River Basin Organizations. Around the world these organizations have helped to avoid water and other conflicts escalating. This is some of the best news on this world water day that does not feature in any newspapers, and is a reflection of the dedication of riparian countries to cooperation and dialogue.

You need to fix the roof when the sun is shining”, is an expression I have heard in many languages.

The same applies to transboundary water cooperation. More than 60% of the world’s freshwater flow is shared by two or more countries. It is essential in riparian areas to have a dialogue, agree on conflict resolution mechanisms, and build trust, even in times of peace.

I have worked on transboundary water cooperation in many basins among which include the Nile, Indus, Ganges, Bamaputra, and the Gambia. In all these basins, policymakers of various riparian countries have invested a lot of time and energy in establishing relationships even in the absence of conflicts. Not related to water or other issues. It is tedious work to agree on these detailed rules and regulations.

In most of these basins, conflicts emerged at some time. Sometimes these conflicts are centered around water, about an upstream country building a dam, about water allocation, but more often about issues that had little to do with water. About a border intrusion, trade, political disagreements. Suddenly water allocation issues are raised by one riparian country as part of a broader conflict.

In all these basins the investments we made in peace time paid off. We had means to deescalate. The riparian countries continued to talk. The conflict did not turn into war.

It was never perfect. The transboundary basin committees never worked exactly as planned. But they kept talking. They kept looking for solutions together. Once in a while a party would walk away from the table but they would always return. Because we had invested in procedures and  trust in times of peace. Sometimes it was as simple as key people sending a Whatsapp as they had each other’s mobile number.

According to the Pacific Institute water can be a trigger, a weapon, or a causality of conflict. Disputes over water can trigger broader violence. Water can be a weapon of conflict, for instance as an army interrupts water supply to communities. And water can be a causality of war, as water resources and water systems are destroyed.

Climate change increases the chances of water being a trigger of conflict or war. People feel the impacts of climate change through water. Houses flood, Harvests fail, water scarcity and drought increase competition for water resources.

For the first time in history, mankind has pushed the global water cycle out of balance. As the Global Commission on the Economics of Water stresses, countries are interconnected not only through transboundary rivers or streams of groundwater, but also through atmospheric flows of water vapor. Climate change will put transboundary water cooperation under pressure. It will elevate the risks of water conflicts. But we have learned a lot about building trust and establishing basin committees in peace time, these investments will be important in the coming years. The Netherlands is happy to work with the United Nations, the Global Environmental Facility , the World Bank, and the Water, Peace and Security Initiative and others on transboundary water management.

With climate change, we know it is going to rain. It is time to fix the roof before it starts pouring.


This op-ed was written for the World Water Day by Meike van Ginneken, Water Envoy and Programme Director Climate Adaptation and Water International at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Internationally renowned water expert with 25 years of experience in the field of policy and financing of water, climate, energy and food, Meike worked for the World Bank from 2002 to 2017. Subsequently, she was the Chair of the Board of Directors of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation and was UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategy and Knowledge at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Photo credit: Gary Lloyd-Rees/Flickr