Tag Archives water politics

From ‘merchants and ministers’ to ‘neutral brokers’: how the Dutch do water diplomacy

The Netherlands has been a leading participant in water diplomacy efforts due to a self-proclaimed water management expertise. An extensive discourse analysis of an advisory report finds that the Netherlands in framing itself as a ‘neutral broker’ pursues multiple objectives in its water diplomacy efforts. The article shows that these include much self-interest, and that this small nation’s mercantilist ambitions are alive and well. It also illustrates how to apply a linked series of discourse analysis methods to key policy texts in a way that is feasible for non-specialists.

Water diplomacy as a geopolitical tool

“An old cliché about who the Dutch really are – a mix of merchants and [religious] ministers – applies to foreign policy as well.” (Lechner 2008: 247)

Water conflicts loom large in the present world. Think about Israel/Palestine/Jordan, India/Pakistan, Turkey/Syria/Iraq, US/Mexico and conflicts in the Mekong and Nile basins. There are many more on a smaller scale. Water diplomacy seems to be the only solution to prevent bloodshed and ensure regional stability.

Two things are essential for understanding water diplomacy:

  1. There is no multilateral and universally accepted system in place to manage transboundary water conflicts and tensions. The two UN conventions (New York 1997 and Helsinki 1992) failed to build a global regime, although they partly succeeded in advancing some governance norms. This gave space for so-called ‘third-parties’ – states, NGOs, foundations – to try to mediate and resolve conflicts, including far away.
  2. Third parties explicitly pursue self-interest when engaging in water diplomacy. This means pursuing the goals of enhancing their own international prestige and authority, facilitating exports of goods and services, and shaping global governance norms. Merrill Lynch and the Bank of America estimated that the water industry market could be worth US$800–1,000 billion annually by 2030.Water diplomacy is one of the areas where countries compete to get a share of that huge pie. They do so by promoting their own private sector through technical cooperation and also promoting their own image through promoting and using venues and mechanisms of conflict resolution. The Netherlands is one such country with global aspirations in the water sector, including water diplomacy.

In search of a ‘niche’ for water diplomacy

Third-party water diplomacy offers opportunities for the Dutch water sector. It may win a lot of good will internationally and especially from some powerful riparian actors if successful mediation or prevention of conflicts in transboundary basins occurs. In some cases of strategic importance, such as the conflicts in the Nile and Mekong basins, technical cooperation is an important element of transboundary cooperation through services such as dam construction and maintenance, flood early warning systems or extraordinary releases, and exchange of monitoring and water flow information. Setting up these systems can generate revenues.

Furthermore, there are indirect ways of wielding influence internationally — for example through setting global norms of ‘good transboundary governance’ that would be more accepting of private involvement or that would allow for an internationally-funded river basin organisation to play an active role.

Another possible pathway to influence is by promoting particular venues where transboundary disputes can be discussed, such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice, both conveniently located in The Hague. If these courts can wield authority over transboundary conflicts and the Dutch government has some influence over the two courts (by virtue of being a host country), then there is a clear interest for the Netherlands.

Analysing seemingly contradictory objectives

However, aggressive promotion of own self-interest in water diplomacy raises questions. The aims of helping achieve peace on the one hand and pursuing economic self-interest and geopolitical influence on the other may, at least in some cases, be conflicting. This observation led us to research how the acceptance of the Netherlands as a third-party actor in water diplomacy by the riparian parties as well as the wider international community can be furthered despite such seemingly contradictory objectives.

We looked at an advisory report (van Genderen and Rood, 2011) to the Dutch government on water diplomacy, from a key phase of policy reorientation, to find out how the Netherlands positions itself as a leader in water diplomacy efforts globally in relation to its objectives to benefit economically. We looked at the different rhetorical tools used in the report to manage the seeming contradiction by applying a series of discourse analysis techniques: 1) content analysis (word frequency tables plus collocations for key terms, showing the terms that accompany them); 2) text and argumentation analyses, following the approach of Scriven-Toulmin-Gasper (e.g. Gasper, 2000; Gasper and Roldan, 2011); 3) metaphor analysis in the formats by Schmitt (2005) and Steger (2007); and 4), growing out of the previous three steps, a  frame analysis using the WPR format developed by Bacchi (2009).

We used these methods in sequence. The content analysis helped in initial orientation and sharpening questions, the argumentation analysis investigated key sections in detail, the metaphor analysis explored then how the central issues are finessed, and the frame analysis synthesised the findings that emerged from the preceding stages.

Here are some of the things we found:

The Netherlands frames itself as a water diplomacy expert. The word “diplomacy” (152 counts) featured more than the word “conflict” (112 counts); “the Netherlands” (138 counts) was mentioned more frequently than the “UN” (86 counts). Also using collocation analysis and concordance analysis, we concluded that the report is not focused on a deeper understanding of the conflicts in specific river basins and ways of resolving them. Instead, its primary concern is the promotion of the Netherlands as a diplomacy agent with a specific ‘niche’.

The detailed text and argumentation analysis confirmed that there is an effort to establish the Netherlands as a credible, authoritative, capable and willing actor to be involved in conflict prevention. We examined the meanings communicated and the logic in the report’s ‘Conclusions’ section where it turns to recommendations for the Dutch government. There, the authors openly but carefully contradict the Minister of Development Cooperation (in 2011 this was Ben Knapen, now Minister of Foreign Affairs) and argue that the Netherlands is better suited to engage in conflict prevention than conflict resolution.

One of the possible benefits of this, along with smaller risks compared to mediation, is the larger role for the Netherlands water sector in all kind of activities that may go under ‘conflict prevention’. We also observed that the water engineering and management prowess of the Netherlands at home is treated as a prerequisite to engage in water diplomacy internationally – which is not self-evident.

Most importantly, neutrality is presented as a key enabler of the Dutch water diplomacy efforts. Using a metaphor analysis, we explored the report’s presentation of the Netherlands as a “neutral broker” in water diplomacy efforts. We looked at three key types of metaphors in the report – “neutral broker”, “conductor of an orchestra”, and games metaphors such as “win-win”, “zero-sum game” and “player” – and observed that the “neutral broker” metaphor (11 uses) dominated. This metaphor links from a source domain of business deals to a target domain of promoting peace (Kövecses, 2002). “Neutral broker” aptly hints at a desired combination of minister/preacher and merchant: a state that will act as an ”international hub”, “enabler”, “norm entrepreneur” and “mediator”, promoting peace (roles that are all suggested for the Netherlands in the report) while at the same time actively promoting its own country’s business.

Finally, we performed a frame analysis to synthesise findings and understand how the report frames the problem that it addresses, what solution it offers, and how this solution is legitimised. The earlier three techniques provide inputs and background to this. We use the format designed by Carol Bacchi called “What is the Problem Represented to Be?”. We found that the report produces three key effects of representation:

  1. The representation of attempted water conflict resolution as risky prompts a focus on conflict prevention. This steers the Netherlands’ external involvements away from conflict mediation towards a larger field with more economic opportunities, both technical and governance-related, namely conflict prevention.
  2. The perception that there are many developing countries in the world without technical knowledge and expertise in water governance and diplomacy leads to the promotion of Dutch assistance – with ‘economic spin-offs’ for the Netherlands.
  3. The presentation of the Netherlands as having a reputation for neutrality, which is foundational to use of the “neutral broker” concept, facilitates the efforts to secure its participation in water diplomacy.


The report that we studied framed the Netherlands as capable, neutral and willing to engage internationally (with partners in the Hague and around the world). At the same time, it implicitly framed the world (Global South river basins) as lacking expertise and in need of third-party mediation/involvement — hence the ‘niche’ for the Netherlands that has something to gain from such involvement. No serious engagement with counterarguments on these fronts was detected. The report’s orientation is in line with a business-oriented world order within which globally competing nations are there to uphold self-interest (in the competition between “Global Hydro-hubs”). The report seems to continue the historic trajectory of Netherlands’ foreign policy by combining its two paradigmatic roles: the “merchant” (pursuit of self-interest) and the “(religious) minister” (provision of advice and aid).

This post presents findings from our recent article in International Journal of Water Resources Development. The article is open access and can be accessed via the link.


Bacchi, C. (2009). Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to Be? Pearson Press.

Gasper, D. (2000) “Structures And Meanings – A Way To Introduce Argumentation Analysis In Policy Studies Education”. Africanus 30(1), 49-72.

Gasper, D., and Roldan, B. (2011) “Progressive Policy Framing: Kofi Annan’s Rhetorical Strategy for The Global Forum on Migration and Development”. African Journal of Rhetoric, vol.3, pp. 156-195.  https://repub.eur.nl/pub/77719

Kövecses, Z. (2002) Metaphor: a Practical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lechner, F. J. (2008). The Netherlands: Globalization and National Identity. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Mukhtarov, F., Gasper, D., Alta, A., Gautam, N., Duhita, M. S., & Hernández Morales, D. (2021). From ‘merchants and ministers’ to ‘neutral brokers’? Water diplomacy aspirations by the Netherlands–a discourse analysis of the 2011 commissioned advisory report. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 1-23.

Schmitt, R. (2005). Systematic metaphor analysis as a method of qualitative research. The Qualitative Report, 10(2), 358-394.

Steger, T. (2007). The Stories Metaphors Tell: Metaphors as a Tool to Decipher Tacit Aspects in Narratives. Field Methods, 19(1), 3-23.

Van Genderen, R., and Rood, J. (2011). Water diplomacy: A niche for the Netherlands. Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Water Governance Centre.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dr. Farhad Mukhtarov is Assistant Professor of Governance and Public Policy at International Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Des Gasper is professor of Human Development, Development Ethics and Public Policy, at ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

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EADI ISS Conference 2021 | For the redistribution of water, framing matters!

In the face of increasing pressure on global water resources, a degree of inventiveness in finding just and sustainable ways to ensure access to water is required. The redistribution of water is one possible way in which this could be done. But ongoing research on elite responses to a recent water scarcity crisis in South Africa shows that the redistribution of water resources will not go uncontested by water elites and that existing narratives on the sharing of water are not creating the extent of solidarity needed. We need to frame this action differently, writes Lize Swartz.

Water is intricately linked to development, both to ensure or improve people’s quality of life, as well as to help secure livelihoods such as subsistence farming. But increasing pressure on water resources due to a changing climate, as well as an increased demand for water, amongst others, is making it difficult to even sustain current access to water, let alone provide new access to populations that are not yet connected to formal water networks.

Millions of people around the world are still waiting for the moment they can turn on a tap and watch water gushing from it, to be able to flush a toilet, or to bathe under running water. In light of the need to keep an expanding access to water and sanitation facilities, but also with the realisation that less and less water is available per capita, new ways of thinking about ensuring access to water are needed.

‘Sharing is scaring’

During a recent panel session on inclusive development and water governance linked to the 2021 EADI ISS Conference, the likelihood of having to share water came up toward the end of the discussion. Emanuele Fantini[1] suggested that it’s not as straightforward as ‘sharing is caring’ when it comes to water, pointing to the many complexities that would affect the governance of water redistribution by using the term ‘sharing is scaring’. Joyeeta Gupta[2], one of the panel convenors, observed that it is likely that “there will be no win-win situation; it will be a win-lose situation” when it comes to sharing water. As one of the main challenges, she recognised the need to convince water elites of the necessity of sharing water.

My ongoing research on elite responses to water scarcity shows exactly how difficult it will be to get ‘buy-in’ from those who are able to share water: I  investigate the way in which elite water users navigated the collapse of three urban water supply systems in South Africa in 2016. With ‘buy-in’ I mean that those who have sufficient water agree to share it, provided that they still have enough water to meet their own basic water needs. ‘Elite water users’ in the context of South Africa can be considered those who either have water and sanitation connections within their own homes, or who have access to non-municipal water resources such as groundwater (through boreholes) that can replace or supplement municipal water.

Some of the preliminary conclusions of my research are that:

  • Basic water needs are different for different socio-economic groups in South Africa. For example, irrigating private gardens to ensure that lawns remain green and plants continue to grow may be considered a basic need by those owning gardens, but not by those without gardens. This may be linked to the pride that is taken in being able to maintain ‘life’ by tending to an urban nature.
  • The way in which water is used is closely linked to the socio-economic and cultural identity and status of water users; water is much more than a product linked to hygiene, for example – having abundant water is a reminder of a high standard of living and prosperity. Swimming pools, fountains, and running water in general is considered part and parcel of a ‘good life’.
  • Water is closely linked to emotional and mental health; having sufficient water creates a sense of peace and safety among water users, which turns into anxiety when the threat of water scarcity or shortages looms. My research found that retaining a sense of water security seems to trump other considerations that may inform how water is used and whether and how it is shared.

Allegations of mismanagement stand in the way of viewing water scarcity as collective problem  

In addition to the symbolic importance of water that moves beyond the idea of water needs as largely material, political factors may also affect the willingness of water elites to share water. My research found, for example, that specific interpretations of the collapse of urban water supply systems as being caused by municipal mismanagement and water losses through leakages in general may prevent water users from seeing water scarcity as a collective problem and responding to it in a similar way. Those who hold such views are unlikely to cooperate with local governments to ensure that those without water are helped out of own accord. My research also shows that water is hoarded by households out of fear of not being able to access it in the future and is mostly shared with those elites’ own social networks.

Also, in the communities studied, distrust stretches beyond the local level and is rooted in perceptions regarding the legitimacy and accountability of the national government. A certain level of mistrust is based on its perceived disability to govern in the interests of water elites, who in South Africa for the most part are also socio-economic elites. This also affects the extent to which water scarcity is considered a collective problem requiring collective action, similar to the above observation.

Capping the water use of elites?

Thus, ensuring elite buy-in of the need to redistribute water will not be a simple task. The sharing of water may involve the limiting of water use for elites by imposing a maximum daily or monthly limit (‘holding back’ water) and making greater amounts of water available for other water users who have used less water. Another example is the redistribution of groundwater by pumping it into municipal water tanks that are accessible to all. But limiting the water use of some households and not others is likely to cause dissatisfaction and perhaps even resistance.

What complicates matters further is that the amount of water used in informal urban areas is generally far lower than that of the amount used in formal urban areas – while the redistribution of water is likely to reduce the amount of water used by water elites, water use may not increase in areas where there are different water needs and priorities and where the majority of residents still share taps and toilets. This may thus not create the impression that water has been distributed more equitably so that everyone gets ‘more or less the same’.

The overall reduction of water on the other hand may be beneficial in countries like South Africa where the water supply is under severe stress. But convincing water users that it is possible – and desirable – to use less water will be a challenge.

In light of this difficulty, the redistribution narrative – and indeed a narrative of ‘sharing is caring’ – will need to be reconsidered. A reduction in the amount of water used by water elites that frees up water for a municipal ‘reserve’ may be achieved more easily if it is framed in light of the need for a water reserve to prevent the water scarcity and corresponding water use restrictions – the idea of ‘using less water now so that there will be water in the future’. This de facto would free up water that is needed elsewhere in urban areas. Elite water users may have to be convinced that limiting their water use will benefit them in the future, and that this sacrifice is worth making.

[1] Senior Lecturer in Water Politics and Communication at IHE Delft

[2] Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam and IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in Delft

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is the editor-in-chief of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she researches political dynamics of socio-hydrological systems. She is part of the newly formed Transformative Methodologies Working Group situated in the Civic Innovation Research Group

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.