As part of the ‘Transboundary Freshwater Security Governance Train’ online series of events, a recent MOOC session, on 12 December, focused on effective ways of using water data for water negotiations and water diplomacy in transboundary basins. The event showcased stories from data-rich and data-poor regions, and what the presence or absence of data has meant for water negotiations. The second part of the event featured experts from the world’s newest river basin organization in the Buzi-Pungwe-Save basin.
At the opening of the session, Professor Aaron Wolf, a Geography Professor at Oregon State University, talked about how data informs negotiations and the significance of collaboration in managing transboundary rivers. The central theme revolved around the interplay between data sharing and water diplomacy. While acknowledging the intuitive need for data, especially among those with technical backgrounds, Professor Wolf highlighted the potential downside of incessantly seeking more data as a tactic to defer challenging decisions.
Drawing from examples in the US and peace talks between Arabs and Israelis, he advocated for joint scientific efforts, even if less precise, as a means to foster agreement. The importance of adapting institutions to incorporate new data and the proposal of a water data bank were also emphasized. Professor Wolf challenged the notion that secrecy is a barrier, citing satellite data and citizen science, but stressed that collaboration remains essential for a comprehensive understanding of complex systems such as aquifers.
In conclusion, he underscored the political nature of data collection decisions and quoted a British statistician, stating that ‘while all models are flawed, some are useful’. Wolf encouraged using available data to facilitate dialogue and decision-making.
The session continued with a focus on specific case studies where data has been used in water negotiations. A presentation by Elisha Madamombe, Regional Coordinator of the Management of Competing Water Uses and Associated Ecosystems in Pungwe, Buzi, and Save Basins Project, offered a detailed overview of transboundary cooperation in the Buzi-Pungwe basin. The discussion covered key river basins—Pungwe, Buzi, and Save—shared by Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Madamombe delved into the cooperative efforts triggered by the Revised SADC Protocol, emphasizing sustainable management of shared river basins. He provided insights into historical events, focusing on extreme occurrences like floods and droughts that prompted negotiations and the subsequent signing of agreements between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Challenges were acknowledged, particularly data gaps, prompting a discussion on the importance of addressing these issues. Madamombe emphasized critical factors for successful negotiations, such as trust-building, joint monitoring initiatives, consensus-building, stakeholder engagement, and the imperative of evidence-based decision-making.
Madamombe concluded by highlighting the significant milestones achieved through the signing of agreements in 2016, 2019, and 2021. These agreements marked notable progress and contributed to the establishment of the Pungwe, Buzi, Save River Basin Commission. The comprehensive overview provided by Madamombe underscored the complexity and importance of collaborative efforts in managing transboundary water resources in the region.
Next speaker focused on a specific country-level case study from Afghanistan. Idrees Malyar, a Graduate Research Assistant at Oregon State University and former Deputy Minister for Policy and International Affairs at the National Environmental Protection Agency of Afghanistan, presented on the challenges of transboundary water management in Afghanistan, focusing on the case of the Helmand River. The presentation shed light on the significance of water diplomacy, especially in a landlocked country where approximately 98% of water resources are shared with one or more neighboring countries.
Malyar highlighted the historical context, emphasizing the limited number of treaties and the prevailing political nature of negotiations between Afghanistan and neighboring countries. He stressed the importance of data availability and transparency in water resource management. Despite having only one treaty, the Helmand River Basin Treaty in 1973, Malyar discussed the positive impact of the Helmand River Delta Commission's joint efforts in producing crucial data that led to the treaty.
The presentation delved into the ongoing challenges between Afghanistan and Iran, emphasizing the political nature of negotiations due to the lack of shared and accepted data. Malyar underscored the need for accurate measurements and data agreed upon by both countries to build trust and overcome longstanding issues. He concluded by demonstrating the potential impact of shared and accepted data in resolving water disputes, emphasizing the role of science and collaboration in achieving diplomatic solutions.
After a group exercise, where participants were invited to brainstorm solutions to a theoretical situation of negotiating an agreement in a transboundary basin where there is little or no data and information on e-flows, the GWP Southern Africa team presented a specific case of the BuPuSa basin where data scarcity was a real challenge but nonetheless the negotiation team managed to overcome it successfully. Speakers from the basin reflected on the negotiations leading up to the BuPuSa agreement and establishment of the basin commission.
Dra Alda Maunde, Regional Water Authority - South of Mozambique (ARA-Sul, IP), Mozambique, highlighted the challenges arising from a language barrier and different legislative frameworks for water management. Despite these challenges, she underscored the importance of using regional water instruments like the SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses and international water law to establish common ground. The intricacies of water allocation regimes and data sharing, embedded in Technical Annexes, demanded longer deliberations, further complicated by upstream-downstream disputes over agreed figures.
Gilbert Mawere, Director of Water Resources Development and Utilisation in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development, Zimbabwe, emphasized the foundational role of trust in facilitating successful negotiations. Drawing on a longstanding relationship cultivated since 2000 and boosted by consistent support from SIDA, negotiators were better equipped to respond to challenges, ensuring a smoother collaboration. Transparency and the use of joint methodologies for determining water generation and conducting joint gauging exercises contributed to the effectiveness of negotiations.
Agostinho Vilanculos, Head of the River Basin Management Department at the National Directorate of Water Resources Management (DNGRH), Mozambique, presented specific challenges encountered during negotiations, such as language barrier and differences in data collection methodologies. These obstacles required mutual learning and understanding over time. Joint analysis of various water transfer situations aimed to address challenges in areas with high mean annual runoff and low development. The critical challenge, however, lay in establishing a common methodology for data collection, prompting the need for ongoing dialogue to resolve discrepancies in allocation methodologies.
Norris Ndawana, Deputy Legal Advisor, Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development, Zimbabwe, also emphasized the collaborative history between the two nations dating back to the early 2000s. Echoing the intervention by Mr Vilanculos, trust-building and familiarity among negotiators played a pivotal role, allowing three agreements to be initiated even with inconclusive data. The inclusion of amendment clauses provided flexibility for adjustments based on emerging data or developments. Stressing the importance of reducing agreements into written documents with clauses anticipating future issues, Ndawana underscored the indispensable role of political will in ensuring effective transboundary water cooperation.
The full recording of the event and speaker presentations are available via the link.