Blog: Flexibility and adaptability, ingredients for transboundary success

Blog by Juan Carlos Sanchez. One of the key messages that came out of this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm is that climate change presents an opportunity for transboundary cooperation. After a series of seminars on this topic, there seemed to be several arguments supporting this.

Juan Carlos Sanchez Photo: IUCN

It is clear that a growing number of eco-regions and countries are experiencing increasing water stress exacerbated by climate change seen by higher variability, intensity and frequency of droughts and floods. In a transboundary situation, the additional pressure on water resources leaves two options.

States can either opt for unilateral action motivated by self-interest and competition over water which can heighten existing regional tensions and may eventually lead to conflict. Or they can see the essential commodity of freshwater as a key ingredient for cooperation. It is clear from the discussions at Water Week that transboundary water cooperation in relation to climate change adaptation takes place at various levels. These range from top level, formal discussions between government agencies, with diplomatic relations and treaties framing the terms of engagement, to community engagement in smaller parts of shared river basins.

What we’re finding is that negotiations often get ‘stuck’ at the high level over issues of sovereignty and treaties, when in fact, sharing of water resources is already taking place at the local level. Communities often engage with their neighbours across borders to find solutions to common problems.

Considering that the impacts of climate change are most felt at the local level, it is at this level that we see the importance of community and stakeholder participation. This ensures more effective implementation and enforcement of adaptation plans. It is also at this level that there is a greater understanding of livelihoods and how they are affected by climate change.

This does not mean that diplomatic methods of transboundary cooperation such as strengthening planning, legal and management frameworks and institutions are not also important to forming appropriate responses to the challenges brought by climate change. They include joint activities such as sharing data and coordinating major developments which may have an impact on the water quality or quantity across a river basin.
A key lesson we are learning is that things should not be set in stone. The landscape in which we operate is constantly changing: water demand, political situations, community reactions and so on, and we need to adapt accordingly.

This is why adaptive governance frameworks are an essential piece of the cooperation puzzle. But these frameworks only set up the ‘institutional architecture’. Ideally, what is being applied and discovered at the local level should feed into and build on the more conventional diplomatic approaches to transboundary water governance. This is one of the pillars of so called adaptive water governance.

The ‘response’ during Water Week was that conventional diplomatic approaches take time and that we cannot and should not wait for these ‘formalities’ as a requisite for water cooperation. Multi-level governance teaches us that we should be creative and even daring, framing the wills and positions of different stakeholders into strategies that best serve the interests of all and bring the broadest benefits possible.

Juan Carlos Sanchez is Legal Officer at the IUCN Environmental Law Centre in Bonn, Germany. Please contact

Work area: 
Environmental Law
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