Four Ways Open Reservoir Data Can Support Transboundary Peacekeeping

Here are four ways we hope Global Water Watch can support collaboration and peacebuilding activities between countries in transboundary basins.

Liz Saccoccia

Lead Water Security,

Rivers often make their way through many countries on their way to the ocean, as 52% of the world’s population lives in river basins that include more than one country. The countries these rivers flow through often have their own intended water uses that can lead to competition for water resources between countries, as in the Nile River between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt; the Colorado River between the United States and Mexico; and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran to name a few.

The United Nations recommends actions to ensure this competition for transboundary water resources is solved peacefully. One of these recommendations is to address data gaps for transboundary water management: “Governments in many countries urgently need to improve their systems for monitoring transboundary waters […] and sharing information with other governments as part of cooperation arrangements.”

In response to this call, Deltares, WRI and WWF teamed up, with funding from, the European Space Agency and the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership to address data gaps worldwide and launched Global Water Watch (GWW) during the UN Water Week in March 2023. Countries can use GWW to monitor water resources stored in over 70,000 reservoirs around the world, using satellite remote sensing data both within their borders and beyond. The platform uses modern AI and EO algorithms to map dams and produce near-real-time, high-resolution spatiotemporal information on the amount of water stored in reservoirs. This data is transparent to all because GWW is an open access platform.

Surface area measurements from the Merowe Reservoir in Sudan, part of the Nile River Basin

Surface area measurements from the Merowe Reservoir in Sudan, part of the Nile River Basin

Source: Global Water Watch

Source: Global Water Watch

The goal is that GWW can give agency to those that have not had access to this water data and increase data trust to enable peaceful negotiations over water resources. The authors of a literature review on transboundary water management found that generally “Data sharing builds trust between riparian states, aids in mitigating conflict and improves environmental, economic and social outcomes.” But what is the impact on transboundary negotiations when data sharing becomes redundant because the data is freely accessible to all?

Here are four ways we hope Global Water Watch can support collaboration and peacebuilding activities between countries in transboundary basins:

  1. Establishing a common truth on water resources.  Droughts often transcend national borders, meaning that upstream and downstream neighbors are likely suffering from a similar lack of water during hard times. By establishing a common truth with GWW — that there are less water supplies at a given time — we hope to avoid distrust between negotiators or the sense that neighboring countries are not also facing these challenges.

  2. Simplifying and economizing data collection.  By using remote sensing to accomplish a portion of water monitoring tasks, countries can more consistently and frequently monitor their water resources and therefore have this data available to share under transboundary agreements. The Water Resources Management Authority in Zambia has piloted using GWW to more efficiently ensure compliance on water permits, monitor climate change impacts on water resources, communicate with clients on reservoir storage and resolve water related conflicts in their basins.

  3. Monitoring transboundary agreements. In the Murray Darling basin of Australia, researchers have found that remote sensing improves transparency and accountability in water sharing plans. They particularly highlight that remote sensing can be used to support monitoring activities such as ensuring volume storage compliance. We hope that new reservoir volume measurements on GWW can support this remote monitoring between countries sharing water basins.

  4. Improving the negotiating positions for transboundary countries. After the United States Geological Survey equipped Iraqi water managers with training in remotely sensed water data, they were able to bring their own information on Turkey’s water resources to the negotiation table with Turkey over releases from dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  Now, when countries come to the negotiating table with information from GWW, they will share a common truth of upstream and downstream water resources. 

Though this technology will support transboundary data sharing, transboundary peace and cooperation will require more than just technological innovations. In addition to addressing these data gaps, strengthening river basin organizations and ensuring cooperation on transboundary resources between governments is needed for transboundary peace especially with the uncertainty of changing precipitation patterns due to climate change.

In addition to diplomats and transboundary water negotiators, we are actively engaging end users in the water management, humanitarian, disaster relief, and media sectors to ensure the tool and data meets their needs — including launching volume measurements at World Water Week in Stockholm, updating more frequently and we plan to provide seasonal forecasts. We hope this data will additionally support water, food, and energy security development goals through improved water resources management.

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