Water cooperation: representation matters

The Power of Representation & the Representation of Power in Water Conflict and Cooperation’ was the theme of the 10th hydro-hegemony conference (The Hague 4-5 October 2019). In this collective post the conference organizers present a few of the insights shared by scientists, policymakers, practitioners and students from more than 25 countries. Among them, young scholars took a prominent role in presenting and commenting on the role of representation in water conflict and cooperation.

Representation matters in water cooperation. It relates to who sits at the table, and who decides what the problem is and how it should be addressed. It also relates to which perspectives are promoted and which are marginalized. In other words, if you or your interests are not present when decisions are being made, you may very well lose out! Different forms of representation therefore influence the process and outcome of negotiations over shared waters. The 10th hydro-hegemony conference focused on this theme: the representation of power, the power of representation. It also prompted a reflection on representation at the conference itself and what it means for scientific analysis and discussions.

Crazy about water cooperation!

The representation of power

Hydro-hegemony aims at bringing power to the centre of the debate on transboundary water cooperation and conflict. Power shows its face in multiple guises, from subtle interactions such as handshakes or by pushing or delaying decisions and resisting problem-solving, to military parades and the use of force. The sources of power are manifold, from geographical and economic advantages to a large number of followers on social media. Often power is more effective when it is invisible. At the conference, both subtle and overt representations of power were discussed. 

Narratives are an important tool to represent power and to legitimise certain practices by linking them to discourses. We’re highlighting two examples. Firstly, Jenniver Sehring showed how both confrontational as well as collaborative water diplomacy practices in Central Asia are justified by referring to certain ideas of masculinities: through narratives that wrap the concept of ‘strongmen’ as authoritarian form of power, or with the need for brotherly solidarity. One question that arose from the session is how alternative narratives can best be ‘present’ in the processes, and what is the effect if they are not?

The second example is how state-leaders and national government build narratives to represent their power. Sumit Vij presented how India’s foreign policy in the 1950s was based on the principle of strategic autonomy and bilateralism; building cooperative relations with countries of strategic importance and leading the non-aligned movement. India’s current foreign policy frame the country as a powerful nation  that does not shy away from using material (military strength) and ideational (hindu ideology) resources of power, branded proudly as the ‘Modi doctrine’ by India’s current leader. This rebranding and the narrative of ‘gaining the respect back’ brings domestic electoral advantages, yet negatively influence water diplomacy and negotiation  with Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. 

Indeed tracking these representations and their evolution contributes to the hydro-hegemony debate by moving from a rather static notion and – indeed! -, representation of power, towards more dynamic analysis and fluid understanding, allowing to think and contribute to changes and transformation in water conflicts and cooperation. In this spirit, Jeroen Warner, Naho Mirumachi and Mark Zeitoun presented their ideas that develop the framework of hydro-hegemony framework into transformative analysis, or research that supports structural change to inequitable transboundary water arrangements. Farhad Muktharov, Rawia Tawfik and Vakur Sumer duly critiqued the ideas, pointing out for instance that initiating change in an arrangement may lead to undesired outcomes (‘best to be careful what you wish for!’) all the while accepting the argument that unfair arrangements must (and will) change.

Transformation in Nile representation in Ethiopia. Credits: Michael Tsegaye for #EverydayNile

The power of representation

Information on transboundary water issues comes to us in various forms and shapes: from indicators and infographics to photos and films. Most of the time this information is produced directly by the state as official discourse and doctrine;  however other actors like journalists, artists, civil society and academia also play a role in influencing the debate on transboundary water issues, either by echoing and reinforcing government’s official discourses, or by foregrounding or marginalizing alternative n perspectives and representations.

Photos from three photographers from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt reunited in the #EverydayNile project, graced the walls of the conference venue. Media in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia reinforce collective emotions such as nostalgia, grievances, empathy, fear, anger and pride through different representations of the Nile river. The tendency is to highlight moments of escalation of conflict, to dedicate more attention to conflict over cooperation, with the effect of strengthening adversity across social and political scales. #EverydayNile has the ambition to portray the river and its people in a way that surprises, delights, informs and facilitates transboundary connections. Through the project, photographers, journalists and researchers from different Nile basin countries aim to challenge stereotypes like the ‘water war’ and whose power distorts our understanding of the Nile river and can have negative implications in terms of securitization of Nile water issues

The conference discussed the roles of a wide variety of stakeholders in creating, strengthening or challenging narratives and (re)presentations of water cooperation. From reports and representatives of the state, to local representatives sharing stories through dance. Considering the plurality and at the clashes between these different representations, or how they become hegemonic in a specific place at a specific time, also contributes to another point that has been long debated within the hydro-hegemony school of thought: to move beyond the state-centric approach that forcibly filters out presentation of sub-national communities or trans-national efforts.

In going towards that direction, the conference provided a great opportunity to critically reflect on the role of  academia and scientific reports and articles in influencing narratives over transboundary water cooperation and conflict. Two young researchers, Yomna ElSharony and Yasmine Hafez applied the hydro-hegemony framework to gain insights in how Gulf States influence the Eastern Nile Basin. They found too little information was available to draw strong scientific conclusions from, as most information was classified, hidden, or simply not translated from practices into documents. This led to asking themselves the question the extent to which they, as researchers, played a role in strengthening narratives on the position of the Gulf States in the region. Did main narratives influence the formulation of the research questions? Does the act of researching the influence of the Gulf attributes a bigger importance to this influence than it actually has? The researchers shared these reflections with the audience, challenging those who research power, water conflict and cooperation, and practices of diplomats, to reflect critically on their own role in strengthening and constructing narratives.

Reflecting on the Nile. Credits: Roger Ainis for #EverydayNile

Representation at the HH10 Conference

While discussing representation and power in water cooperation and diplomacy, we as conference organizers also find it worthwhile to reflect on who was represented in this conference as this mattered. Thanks to the financial support of the City of The Hague and the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs-IHE Delft Partnership for water and development travel grants could be awarded to more than 20 researchers coming from institutes without the financial power to pay for their flights. This resulted in a diverse crowd of participants – diverse in terms of age, professional experience and geographical background. Such plurality also allowed to pay attention to the specific challenges for water cooperation in different regions. Two sessions were devoted to the Nile. Another session on the Helmand basin shared by Afghanistan and Iran gave room to researchers and practitioners from the region and beyond to engage in critical discussions and learn more about the context-specific narratives, perceptions and contestations. The interaction between senior and junior researchers, between those who hold the institutional memory of hydro-hegemony and those who apply, adapt and reinterpret the framework to new topics and settings was definitely one of the most inspiring aspects of the conference.

This post has been collectively written by the organizers of the 10th Hydro-hegemony conference: Roozemarijn Ter Horst, Jenniver Serhing, Jeroen Werner, Sumit Vij, Naho Mirumachi, Mark Zeitoun and Emanuele Fantini.

You can see all the presentations made at the conference here .

And you can read more reflections on the conference in the Kings College Water Words blog by Veronica Horvath.  

In 2004, the London Water Research Group initiated conferences on hydro-hegemony, forming a platform for scientists, policymakers, practitioners and students to share new insights and information on ‘transboundary water interaction’. The discussions are based on the understanding that power matters and conflict and cooperation over water may happen at the same time or alternate. For a review of the evolution of this debate in the last ten years you can read  Warner, Jeroen, Naho Mirumachi, Rebecca L. Farnum, Mattia Grandi, Filippo Menga, and Mark Zeitoun. “Transboundary ‘hydro‐hegemony’: 10 years later.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 4, no. 6 (2017): e1242.

Since 2018, the HH conferences are held in The Netherlands upon the initiative of Wageningen University and organised in cooperation with IHE Delft, with the support of the City of The Hague and the Dutch Ministry of Foreing Affairs.


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