What Switzerland is Doing to Prevent Disputes Over Water


Water can be a source of conflict between states, but it can also encourage cooperation. Switzerland sees water diplomacy as a long-term, incremental strategy for peace. 

Will there be wars over water in the future? Dystopias evoke this as a possible scenario. After all, water is a limited resource facing mounting pressure around the world from population growth, pollution and climate change. 

Water knows no borders. As well as international lakes, there are more than 280 cross-border rivers worldwide. Underground water reserves do not observe borders either. So cross-border water management is often a key issue in cooperation between states – and historically also one of the oldest. 

As Europe’s water tower, Switzerland has a lot of experience with this: 6% of Europe’s drinking-water resources are located in the country, as are the sources of the rivers Rhone, Rhine and Inn, which flow from there through several countries. Switzerland negotiated the joint use of water bodies with its neighbours a long time ago – in 1890 it agreed with Germany, for example, to build the Rheinfelden hydroelectric power plant along the Rhine river, not far from Basel in northern Switzerland. 

Lengthy processes with no guarantee of success 

The Alpine nation has experience with water in another international context – that of international cooperation. Agriculture and water are traditional areas of activity for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.  

“When we started work in this area 60 years ago, there were only half as many people in the world,” says Simon Zbinden, who is in charge of water matters at the agency. While the focus in the past was mainly on building sanitary facilities such as latrines, it has since changed, he says: “Today, it’s mainly about protecting water sustainably.” 

Water diplomacy is an integrated approach that aims to use diplomatic means and international cooperation to secure peace. “The goal is clear – to seal deals that ensure the peaceful use of resources for the benefit of all,” Zbinden says. Even if dystopias give a different picture, water is rarely the cause of interstate problems, even if it can exacerbate them, he adds. 

But this also means that the will to cooperate is a prerequisite for diplomacy to come into play. Central Asia shows what can go wrong. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, five new states emerged that had to regulate water management. Although there were agreements from the Soviet era on how the resource should be distributed between them, there were also a number of inherited problems. The Aral Sea, which has almost completely dried up, serves as an example of how the problematic handling of water reserves can be damaging. On top of that comes the impact of climate change. 

In 2014, Switzerland was asked by these states to support their dialogueExternal link on cross-border cooperation. This came in part because it already had development aid projects in some of the countries concerned for some time; and in part because of its experience in multilateral forums dealing with water issues, such as in West Africa and the Middle East, where it had helped to establish similar platforms. 

Unlike classic development aid – for example, building latrines, which is visible with measurable results – water diplomacy is a long-term process that does not produce quick, high-profile results. 

“You have to be realistic,” says Zbinden. “Natural resource management is a sovereign matter that doesn’t work if the parties involved are not willing to cooperate.” This was the case in Central Asia: Islam Karimov, the long-time authoritarian ruler of Uzbekistan, was opposed to closer cooperation. Momentum has come only since the partial opening of the country after his death in 2016. 

Between altruism and self-interest 

All of this raises the question of what Switzerland hopes to achieve through its contribution. Development cooperation always has an altruistic motive, but it also carries expectations. The country’s involvement in Central Asia again serves as an example. In the early 1990s Switzerland wanted to join the Bretton Woods institutions – in 1992 it founded the so-called Helvetistan Group, which Central Asian states joined. To this day, they help Switzerland to wield more clout at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among others. 

But in the end there is no direct link, Zbinden insists. “Water diplomacy is part of an overall package that should lead to good relations,” he says. For small states like Switzerland, discussion and diplomacy are central to, and essential for, shaping their international relations. 

The Taliban and the canal 

Another example from the region shows the consequences of failing to talk. The Taliban government has started building the Qosh Tepa Canal, which will divert 280 kilometres of water from the Amu Darya River to the barren north of Afghanistan. It started the project independently, without securing agreement from neighbouring countries and without foreign funding. This has led to anger in the countries downriver – and to fears that the Taliban will not be capable of carrying out such a complex and delicate undertaking properly. 

Due to its geographical location, Afghanistan should also be represented in discussions on water in Central Asia. However, since the Taliban government is not internationally recognised, it is not a member of any international forum, not even the one that Switzerland is represented in. So far, it has regularly dismissed protests from abroad, despite its attempts to win international recognition and lead the bitterly poor country out of isolation. 

But in the end, it cannot act entirely on its own authority: Afghanistan gets part of its electricity from Uzbekistan, so it has no interest in a lasting disruption of relations. An Uzbek delegation travelled to Kabul in spring to raise the issue of the canal – evidence that no state can circumvent the need to settle water issues with its neighbours. 

Source : SWI