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Water and Climate Diplomacy – Integrative Approaches for Adaptive Action in Transboundary River Basins

Climate change will impact water flows, including in unstable regions. adelphi sheds light on how the international community can best combine climate and water diplomacy to tackle the challenges.


Many transboundary water basins around the world are facing climate-related challenges that will intensify in the decades to come. Successful adaptation will be an important precondition for ensuring sustainable development and political stability in these basins. At the same time, stability and cooperation are preconditions for successful adaptation. How can riparians best achieve these interrelated objectives? And with the international community seeking to support both processes, how can water and climate diplomacy strengthen each other?

This report* outlines key water governance instruments that support climate change adaptation in trans- boundary basins. An increasing number of river basins use such instruments, for example data and information sharing mechanisms or flexible water treaties, to address the impacts of climate change and build adaptive capacities. Yet, this report also shows that in many basins such instruments are not employed at all or only to a limited extent. In identifying existing shortcomings, the report asks how such weaknesses could potentially be ameliorated by climate policy instruments.

This report further illustrates that the impacts of climate change are not only a threat to socio-economic development but can also contribute to (re-)emerging conflicts in transboundary river basins. It is therefore important to build capacities to adapt to climate change and increase resilience in internationally shared water basins to strengthen environmental protection, economic and social development as well as regional political stability.

*download available from the right-hand column of this page. An overview of the contents of the report and summary of the recommendations are provided below. See the report for much more detail and case study examples.

In the report

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Climate change: Impacts on transboundary river basins and security implications
  • Supporting adaptation at the transboundary level: the role of water governance instruments
    • Legal provisions and procedures – the basis for successful adaptation
    • Data and information sharing – a prerequisite for informed adaptation
    • Dispute resolution – resolving water disputes to cope with change
    • Sustainable funding – financing river basin adaptation
    • Contextual factors
    • Water governance and transboundary climate adaptation: challenges and opportunities
  • Supporting Adaptation at the transboundary level: the role of climate policy instruments
    • Vulnerability assessments
    • National Adaptation Planning
    • Climate finance
    • Climate policy and transboundary climate adaptation: challenges and opportunities
  • Recommendations: entry points for supporting climate change adaptation
From page 7 of the report: Shipwreck in the Dried-up Aral Sea by Milosz Maslanka / The report provides several case study examples, including on Water AllocatIon Under CondItIons of Climate Change in the Ural Sea.


Climate policy provides a number of tools, including vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning, that could further strengthen adaptation in transboundary basins, especially if they were applied at basin scale. Moreover, international climate finance can provide much-needed additional resources for adaptation activities. If well designed, these tools can also generate co-benefits by building trust between riparians over shared challenges and identifying mutually beneficial opportunities for managing change and uncertainty. However, achieving such synergies needs mutual cognizance and proactive engagement of the water and climate communities, in order to harness existing experiences and to transfer them to the transboundary level.

With this objective in mind, and drawing on empirical examples from transboundary river basins from around the world, the report concludes with a number of recommendations for national, transboundary and international actors. In response to the inter-related challenges of successfully managing environ- mental, socio-economic, and political change, they should:

  • promote and support the incorporation of basin-wide, transboundary thinking in national adaptation planning and, simultaneously, the integration of climate change adaptation policies into existing and newly established basin institutions;

  • support activities to strengthen linkages between regional and national river basin governance through the establishment of specific organizational units or standardized communication procedures;

  • promote transboundary and, where possible, basin-wide data and information sharing, including specific climate change activities (e.g. vulnerability assessments), and facilitate their simultaneous use for confidence-building and ideally the elaboration of joint adaptation responses;

  • ensure sufficient funding for the core tasks of river basin institutions through reliable membership contributions and facilitate access to bilateral and multilateral climate funding to cover additional costs of adaptation;

  • support riparian states in establishing new basin institutions and strengthening existing ones by ensuring the integration of governance mechanisms that help dealing with change (such as flexibility mechanisms, dispute resolution provisions or standards for transboundary environmental impact assessments).

Further potential entry points for closer and more integrated cooperation, at the national, regional and international level, are provided on pages 25 and 26 of the report.

From page 10 of the report: Senqu River behind Mohale Dam in Lesotho by Sabine Blumstein. The report provides several case study examples, including on Improving the Knowledge Base on ClImate Change in Onorange-Senqu RIver.

The climate diplomacy initiative is a collaborative effort of the Federal Foreign Office in partnership with adelphi, a leading Berlin-based think tank for applied research, policy analysis and consultancy on global change issues.

This publication by adelphi research gemeinnützige GmbH is supported by a grant from the German Federal Foreign Office.

Suggested Citation

Blumstein, S.*, Pohl, B. and Tänzler, D. (2016) Water and Climate Diplomacy – Integrative Approaches for Adaptive Action in Transboundary River Basins. Climate Diplomacy report. Adelphi: Berlin, Germany.

*lead author

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