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On Tuesday, November 2, the Science, Policy, and Advocacy Group and UNC Global Affairs hosted a panel discussion on water diplomacy. The panel featured Georgetown University Professor Mark Giordano, UNC Water Institute Director Aaron Salzberg and UNC Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems’ Rosa Cuppari. UNC Global Affairs Vice Provost Barbara Stephenson, a former U.S. ambassador, moderated the discussion.

Water flowing in rivers doesn’t know where one country ends and another begins. Water diplomacy seeks to manage this resource between nations and maintain its availability to those who need it, and ease any tensions that may arise.

The panelists explained that the relevance of water diplomacy has grown significantly in light of the increasing frequency and intensity of climate change-related water events, like floods and droughts. The availability and management of water resources is a central part of international relations and, for some nations, dependence on these transboundary resources can exacerbate existing tensions.

The panel addressed various issues within water diplomacy, including historical examples like the 1960 Indus River Treaty, which allocated certain river waters to Pakistan and India.  Now, this treaty is threatened by the effects of climate change.

Contrary to the notion that water disputes lead to wars, the panelists explained that there have been relatively few instances of water-related conflicts. In fact, the last confirmable “water war” was between Umma and Lagash in 2450 BCE. Still, water remains a potential source of tension, sometimes in a more covert manner. For instance, the recent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) incursions into Turkey were partly influenced by water scarcity issues in Syria.

One of the critical takeaways from the discussion was the evolving role of water diplomacy in the face of climate change and water scarcity. Cooperation becomes more challenging when water resources are scarce, necessitating a nuanced understanding of water cycles and ecology for effective diplomacy.

Success stories include the 1960 India-Pakistan agreement, mentioned above. Another success here in the United States is the Columbia River Treaty, which ensures that both Canadian and American communities in the Columbia River Basin can meet current and future water needs. Through this agreement Canada is responsible for managing the Columbia’s headwaters with the goal of greater hydropower generation and fewer floods on the U.S. side. The U.S. returns half of power generation benefits in energy capacity to Canada, known as “the Canadian Entitlement”. The Treaty has recently come under discussion again as questions around ecosystem management, the value of power generation benefits, and the land and water rights of indigenous groups in the basin are being considered.

In addition to ensuring water quality, ensuring water quantity is increasingly considered in agreements, according to the panel.

The panel concluded that while there isn’t a global water crisis, regional water crises are a reality and water diplomacy will become an increasingly critical tool in optimizing water usage, responding to climate change, and averting water-related conflicts in an increasingly interconnected world.

I think it’s important to define what water diplomacy is — the average reader may not know! I took a try at defining it, but feel free to edit based off what you learned at the event.

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