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The issue of water in International Relations

Matilde de Souza and Victor Nascimento

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This article reflects on the theme of water in international relations. Water security is a challenge involving the actions of States and IOs, aiming at cooperation and strategies for development, especially in the face of issues such as population growth and climate change.

March 23 is World Water Day, a date celebrated since 1993, based on a proposal by the United Nations General Assembly to promote awareness and the sustainable use of water resources (WORLD…, 2023). Access to clean water is essential for human survival and the maintenance of all life on Earth. It is such a fundamental resource for preserving life that Agenda 21 dedicated an exclusive topic to it, chapter 18, in which we can read that fresh water is an essential component of the Planet’s hydrosphere and an indispensable part of all terrestrial ecosystems. Like other elements, water also has a global natural cycle called the hydrological cycle, which is its movement between the continents, the oceans, and the atmosphere (DE SOUZA, 2005). In addition, water is one of the nine elements of the planetary boundaries, considered from the global use of this resource (ROCKSTRÖM et al., 2009).

Access to water has always been a cause of conflict, and the theme of negotiations between actors in international society since shared water use has always placed the demand for cooperation among users. Three hundred ten international rivers were identified, shared by two or more countries, representing 47.1% of the surface of the Planet (MCCRACKEN & WOLF, 2019). So, because it is a shared resource, it is necessary to consider the possibilities of cooperation and conflict in its management at the national level and between different countries that share rivers or watersheds. Therefore, it is understood that preserving freshwater resources and its problems must be treated as domestic and international relations issues (DE SOUZA, 2003). In addition, the problems caused by the impacts of global climate change on freshwater resources also pose challenges that require joint actions to be resolved (PATTBERG; ZELLI, 2015).

In this sense, it is essential to note that the geographic distribution of the resource is uneven, as well as the water availability and access to good quality water. There is a significant increase in the volume of water withdrawn annually from springs, mainly in emerging countries. This increase is related to several factors, but as agriculture is the sector that most demands water, the volume withdrawn from springs for this purpose has also increased yearly, with China and India being the largest consumers. About 69% of global water withdrawals are for activities related to agriculture, irrigation, and livestock; power generation and industry account for 19% (UNWATER, 2021).

The global water demand is projected to grow by around 55% by 2050. Among the causes of this expansion are the increase in the world population and the consequent increase in the demand for food and energy, accentuating the pressure on water resources. UN Water’s Valuing Water report, published in 2021, states that over the past 100 years, global water use has increased sixfold and has continued to grow at 1% since the 1980s. However, when considering access to drinking water, it is currently observed that it is challenging to guarantee it for a quarter of humanity. Moreover, 3.6 billion people do not have access to safe sanitation, and around 1.4 million people die annually due to diseases related to water quality, water scarcity, and poor sanitation. Higher mortality rates due to the problems associated with water and sanitation are found mainly in African countries, South Asia, and some islands in Oceania. Given these conditions, this year, the focus of World Water Day is on finding a solution to the water and sanitation crisis (UN, 2023).

Regarding the populations’ vulnerabilities related to the guarantee of access to potable water and sanitation, water security is a central concept in the recent debate on the governance of water resources. According to UN Water, it is the “capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, […] and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability (UNWATER, 2013, n/p). Therefore, a possible way to reduce the water insecurity of thousands of people in different regions of the Planet is the adoption of more adequate measures for the governance and management of freshwater resources and the implementation of policies aimed at sustainable development.

With a view to the promotion of international cooperation for the preservation and management of water resources, initiatives such as the United Nations Convention on the Law for Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) stand out, which is an international treaty adopted in 1997 by the United Nations for International Watercourse Governance (UNWC, 2023). In addition to this Convention, some international conferences were held for thematic discussion, its relationship with the health conditions of the population, with the protection of the environment, and the need to incorporate society in the treaties for the governance of freshwater resources, both local, cross-border and international (DE SOUZA, 2005).

Thus, indications for suitable forms of water governance were being established, and the connection between human rights and the right to water and sanitation was being built. Several of these elements were observed in policies aimed at sustainable development. Many led to the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, of 2000 and, later and more visibly, to the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, of 2015. Although water did not have an objective entirely dedicated to it among the eight MDGs, this theme is present in Objective 7 — Quality of Life and respect for the environment. Among the 17 SDGs, the topic gained prominence, represented by Goal 6 — Clean water and sanitation (NAÇÕES…, 2023; SDG, 2019). The goals projected in SDG 6 contain, in general, the aspects that must be observed with a view to promoting local and international cooperation for water governance, the preservation of its quality and quantity, guaranteeing people’s access to good quality water, enabling a greater degree of water security, better coordinating the use and appropriation of the resource, to preserve it for future generations.

Thereby, responses to water security are also responses to the challenges of local and international cooperation, the challenges posed by overcoming poverty, and the challenges of development. The achievement of water security assumes, therefore, overcoming collective action dilemmas that involve changes in domestic policies in the means and mechanisms of governance of international waters. It is a possible path for further deepening the debates about the relevance of waters to the theory and practice of international relations.


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This article was produced within the scope of the research “A gestão dos recursos hídricos em Brasil, China e Índia: a atuação dos países emergentes em bacias transfronteiriças dentro do arcabouço internacional de governança hídrica e mudanças climáticas” linked to the Department of International Relations of PUC Minas.

About the authors

: Doutora em Ciências Humanas pela UFMG. Professora do Departamento e do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Relações Internacionais da PUC Minas.

: Doutorando em Relações Internacionais pelo Programa de Pós-Graduação em Relações Internacionais da PUC Minas.



Mundorama é uma publicação do Centro de Estudos Globais da Universidade de Brasília

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