Institutional Developments in Basinlevel Transboundary Water Management

The history of international water treaties dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma crafted an agreement ending a water dispute over the Tigris River, bringing an end to the first and only 'water war' in history. Since then, a large body of water treaties has emerged. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has identified more than 3600 treaties dating from AD 805 to 1984. While the majority of these relate to some aspect of navigation, a growing number address non-navigational issues of water management, including flood control, hydropower projects, or allocations for consumptive or nonconsumptive uses in international basins.

At least 54 new bilateral and multilateral water agreements have been concluded since the Rio Conference, representing basins in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and South America. As in the past 50 years as a whole, European water accords continue to dominate; however, agreements from Asia in particular, have grown disproportionately.10

In addition to greater geographic representation, a number of improvements can be seen in this more recent set of treaties compared with the last halfcentury as a whole. First, a growing percentage of treaties address some aspect of water quality, a finding consistent with Rio's obective of both managing and protecting freshwater resources. Second, a number of agreements establish joint water commissions with decision-making and/or enforcement powers, a significant departure from the traditional advisory standing of basin commissions. Third, country participation in basin-level accords appears to be expanding. Although few of the agreements incorporate all basin states, a greater proportion of treaties are multilateral and many incorporate all major hydraulic contributors. Finally, although the exception, a 1998 agreement on the Syr Darya Basin, in which water management is exchanged for fossil fuels, provides a

10 The fact that agreements representing European basins dominate the treaty record is not surprising given that Europe has the largest number of international basins (69) followed by Africa (59), Asia (57), North America (40), and South America (38).

Number of








Figure 2 Number of agreements per international river basin.

post-Rio example of basin states broadly capitalizing on their shared resource interests.

While a review of the past century's water agreements highlights a number of positive developments, institutional vulnerabilities remain. Water allocations, for example, the most conflictive issue area between co-riparian states, are seldom clearly delineated in water accords. Moreover, in the treaties that do specify quantities, allocations are often in fixed amounts, thus ignoring hydrologic variation and changing values and needs.11 Formal

11 The treaty record is replete with agreements which do not allow for the vagaries of nature and the scientific unknown, misunderstandings which often lead to tense political standoffs:

The waters of the Colorado were already overallocated between the upper and lower US states when a treaty with Mexico was signed in 1944, which also neglected the entire issue of water quality. After legal posturing on both sides as water quality continued to degrade, the US subsequently built a massive desalination plant at the border so that the water delivered would at least be usable. Currently, the fact that shared groundwater is likewise not covered in the treaty is leading to its share of tensions between the two nations.

In December, 1996, a treaty between India and Bangladesh was finally signed, allocating their shared Ganges waters after more than 35 years of dispute. In April 1997, however - the very first season following signing of the treaty - the two countries were involved in their first conflict over cross-boundary flow: water passing through the Farakka dam dropped below the minimum provided in the treaty, prompting Bangladesh to insist on a full review of the state of the watershed.

In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed one of the most creative water treaties on record. It has Jordan store winter runoff in the only major surface reservoir in the region - the Sea of Galilee - even though that lake happens to be in Israel; it has Israel lease from Jordan in 50 year increments wells and agricultural land on which it has come to rely; and it created a Joint Water Committee to manage the shared resources. But it did not adequately describe what would happen to the prescribed allocations in a drought. In early 1999, this excluded issue roared into prominence with a vengeance, as the worst drought on record caused Israel to threaten to renege on its delivery schedule, which in turn caused protests in the streets of Amman, personal outrage on the part of the King of Jordan, and, according to some, threatened the very stability of peace between the two nations before a resolution was found.

management institutions have been established in only 106 of the 263 international basins (see Figure 2), and even within these, few include all nations riparian to the affected basins, which precludes the integrated basin management advocated by the international community. Moreover, treaties with substantive references to water quality management, monitoring and evaluation, and conflict resolution remain in the minority. Enforcement measures and public participation, two elements that can greatly enhance the resiliency of institutions, are also largely overlooked.12 As a result of these circumstances, most existing international water agreements continue to lack the tools necessary to promote long-term, holistic water management.

Notably, the important hydrologic link between groundwater and surface water is recognized but understood only at a reconnaissance level even in the most studied basins in the world.13 Several experts underscore that current international law does not adequately define groundwater, much less the spatial flow of groundwater. The transboundary movement or 'silent trade' of hazardous wastes into Lebanon

12 A consensus is generally emerging that regional agreements, while proliferating, have less impact than bilateral agreements, precisely because they are unenforceable guidelines rather than detailed agreements. Likewise, bilateral agreements are, in general, easier to negotiate than multilateral agreements, simply because of the truism that, ''the more people (or interests) in the room, the more difficult it is for them to agree (or the less the final document will say). Oftentimes, however, even multilateral basins are effectively managed through sets of bilateral agreements. The Jordan comes to mind, where agreements exist between Syria-Jordan, Jordan-Israel, and Israel-Palestine, and, while no multilateral agreement has regional oversight, the basin is managed relatively effectively.

13 For a summary of international groundwater issues, see, Jarvis T, Giordano M, Puri S, Matsumoto K, and Wolf A. ''International Borders, Ground Water Flow, and Hydroschizophrenia.'' Ground Water. Vol. 43 #5, Sept.-Oct. 2005., from where this paragraph is drawn.


Unilateral action

• Communication and notification

• Information sharing

• Regional assessments

• Identify, negotiate and implement suites of national investments that capture incremental cooperative gains

• Adapt national plans to mitigate regional costs

• Adapt national plans to capture regional gains

Cooperation continuum



• Joint project assessment and design

• Joint ownership

• Joint institutions

• Joint investment

Joint action


Type 1 benefits

Type 2 benefits

Type 3 benefits

Source: Sadoff and Grey 2003.

Figure 3 Types of cooperation in a cooperation continuum.

Type 4 benefits provides an example of the need to increase 'global harmonization' of international water and waste treaties.Therefore, while the effects of groundwater use may be contained within national boundaries, the water laws of few states or provinces address ground-water management due to the 'invisible' nature of the resource, or the technical challenges in predicting spatial and temporal changes in the groundwater system with increased use. Of the nearly 400 treaties inventoried in the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database (TFDD) and UNEP, only 62 treaties have recognized groundwater; groundwater quality has been addressed only in the past few years.

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