Avoiding a Disaster: The Urgent Need for Hydro-Diplomats


It is important to understand the complex world of managing trans-boundary
water resources and proposing appropriate solutions. But it is also crucial to have
leaders who practice hydro-diplomacy techniques in order to achieve needed

Imagine a hot Greek summer day in August 2021. Costas, the owner of one of the
biggest mussel farms in the Thermaikos Gulf, steps off a narrow wooden bridge
in order to take a small boat to the nearest group of mussel nests. The baskets
should be now ready for harvest. But as he approaches the first pole, his heart
drops. The black, unhealthy color of the basket reveals deadly findings. The
mussels are contaminated. The same thing is true for the next pole and the next
one. Costas lost everything he had worked for that entire year. However, he is not the only one. On the same day, he discovers that the rest of the farms in the area – 1000 families-
had also lost their livelihood. Just 36 hours earlier in Methodi, a worker at a
chemical plant not far away from Veles in FYROM opened the tap at the wrong
moment and millions of liters of poisonous chemicals spilled into the
Axios/Vardar River, causing the disaster at Thermaicos Gulf.
The mussels industry may not be the most crucial component of the Greek
economy, but it is a fine example which reflects the vulnerability of Greece as a
downstream riparian country in the context of its trans-boundary water resources.
Indeed, at least 25% of its fresh water resources originate in other
countries. The Axios, Nestos, Aliakmonas and Strymonas Rivers and of course
Evros are of the most important basins. In all of them Greece is downstream
from FYROM and Bulgaria, while Evros is also a natural border with Turkey.
However, the bilateral agreements and declarations in force between Greece and
the other riparian countries are not practiced efficiently in a way that could prevent the
occurrence of the imaginary yet realistic scenario described above.
Situations similar to Greece's dependency on trans-boundary water resources are common around the
world. There are almost 280 river basins and approximately 300 aquifers which are
shared between at least two countries. Even though cooperation agreements
exist for many of the basins, the relations between the riparian states are still a
sensitive and potentially volatile issue. One hot spot we are observing with some
concern is the Nile Basin, and more specifically the relations between Ethiopia and
Egypt in the context of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The first stage of
this huge dam is ready to begin operation. However, Egypt feels it threatens the
crucial water flow of the Nile into Egypt.
Managing these types of water resources is a challenge as competing interests
prevail among the users. However, at the same time, users highly depend upon  one another. It is also important to remember that shared water resources are
part and parcel of the overall political relations between riparian states. As such,
they can produce tension or play a constructive role in international relationships. The Evros
Basin, shared by Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece is a good example of such a
complex reality. The EU Water Directive provides a framework for the relationship
between Bulgaria and Greece, but very limited assistance in terms of the
relationship between these two states and Turkey.
The twenty-first century has brought further pressures on water resources as a
result of population growth, climate change and the rise in demand for water for
economic development. In fact, as we look towards the near future, we wonder if
this century will be witness to a war waged over water. In the mid 1990's, while serving as a senior diplomat in the Israeli Foreign Service,
I was given the task of heading the Israeli delegation in regional negotiations on
water issues. Our track brought together a unique group of people from Israel,
Palestine, Jordan, the Gulf, and North African countries.  Americans and
Europeans served as facilitators. At the time, many of my colleagues were water
professionals – engineers, hydrologists or water economists. As the professional
"diplomat" I was viewed with some suspicion and some wondered
"What can he bring to the table?" However the process provided the answer. For
the first time in the Middle East, we established a practical approach to water
issues with the aim of fostering cooperation on this shared resource. We
understood that negotiating the division and control of fixed quantities of
water would only result in one option, dictated by the volume of water in a
specific water resource. But we also learned that by expanding the
negotiations and searching for ways to cooperate in terms of the uses and the
economic benefits of the water, the added value to service needs could be
increased tenfold. So, we first defined the aims, width and scope of the
negotiations. We then implemented a very long list of techniques to build confidence in
the process such as multi-stake holder negotiations, joint fact-finding
missions or a consensus model of decision making. In practice, we were using universal
experience based upon thousands of years of diplomacy, learning to achieve
one's interests not unilaterally or by force, but by respecting the interests of all
sides. In other words, we were practicing "Hydro Diplomacy". Today, the term
"hydro-diplomacy" has become iconic and has taken its natural place in the
world of trans-boundary water resources management. One can see it presented vividly in
the latest publication of Berlin’s respected Adelpi Institute entitled: "The Rise of
"Hydro diplomacy" requires "hydro-diplomats." These are not necessarily
professional diplomats (though we look for a good number of such qualities and
experience) – since it is an interdisciplinary profession. In fact, they can come
from different backgrounds as long as they want to practice "hydro diplomacy."
The "hydro-diplomats" must look at numerous elements to formulate policies
and strategies including the hydrology of the body of water, the socio-economics
of the communities living in the basins, the structure of water institutions and
the political interests between states – both in their own countries as well as the
riparian regions. A good hydro-diplomat also needs to master negotiating techniques
like power game, game theory and the ability to pursue arguments in a wise
manner, in order to achieve agreement and cooperation. The “art of hydro
diplomacy” requires this undefined mix of charisma, interest in the subject, belief
in the mission and the ability to think and act creatively.
We began by presenting a realistic negative scenario concerning Greece's shared
water resources with FYROM. But Greece and FYROM have been working towards an early warning system and if this is put in place, the pollution
might be mitigated on time. We can see why Greece's hydro diplomacychallenges on the Evros River are so complicated for we know that even in the beginning of the twenty-first century, no trilateral agreement between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey is


The stage of hydro-diplomacy​

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