Becoming a water diplomacy influencer

Finland is renowned for its water and its technical expertise in the water sector. A recent evaluation calls for Finland to decide what kind of operator it would like to become in water diplomacy.

Henkilö laskee vesihanasta vettä muovipulloon.
Studies show that children living in a conflict environment are 20 times more likely to die from complications arising from contaminated water than to become victims of the actual armed conflict. Photo: Liisa Takala

Finland’s international water sector strategy seeks a water-secure world by the year 2030. This means ensuring that water suitable for each particular purpose is always available everywhere and for everyone in the world. It’s an ambitious goal, but Finland has lessons to draw from.

One of the three packages in the strategy focuses on issues of peace and water. This theme is highly important: even though water resources are rarely mentioned in peace agreements, water has been part of the background to at least half of all conflicts since the end of the 1990s.

Solid expertise …

Published at the end of October, the evaluation examines how Finland’s water diplomacy has successfully resolved and prevented water-related tensions – and what could be done better in the future. Commissioned by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the independent evaluation focused on Finland’s work at the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), cross-border co-operation with Russia, and Finland’s support for transboundary water issues on the Mekong and Nile rivers.

The overall assessment is highly favourable: Finland earns praise for its long-term support for the participatory management and use of water resources, and for developing international co-operation in the water sector. The evaluation finds that one special strength of Finland is its highly motivated and competent network of operators. Finland’s agreement with Russia on transboundary watercourses has been rated the best in the world. The evaluation finds that Finland has continuously demonstrated its capacity to respond to water-related tensions, and to apply evidence-based diplomacy and technical assistance.

… for others to note as well

Finland accordingly has the capacity, the will and the operators – so what is missing? According to evaluation team leader Rens de Man, international operators remain too unfamiliar with Finland’s expertise. Finland must accordingly draw up a clear plan of how it can become a leading player in water diplomacy. To support implementation of the strategy, an interdepartmental organisation is needed to bring together the best expertise of various operators.

“Conflict prevention calls for thorough knowledge of the operating environment. This, in turn, requires research institutes, civic organisations, businesses and Finnish missions to have clear roles, incentives and opportunities to serve as providers and mediators of the information that is needed in water diplomacy. It is already too late to gather information when the conflict has already erupted,” de Mans observes.

Communication, preparation and smooth co-operation of the water diplomacy network are of paramount importance for Finland to be recognised as a credible and approachable partner.