Water Conflict and Cooperation

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Water management is, by definition, conflict management. Water, unlike other scarce, consumable resources, is used to fuel all facets of society, from biology and economics to aesthetics and spiritual practice. Moreover, it fluctuates wildly in space and time; its management is usually fragmented and is often subject to vague, arcane, and/or contradictory legal principles. Within a nation, the chances of finding mutually acceptable solutions to the conflicts among water users drop exponentially as more stakeholders are involved. Add international boundaries, and the chances decrease exponentially still further.1 Surface and groundwater crossing international boundaries presents increasing challenges to regional stability, because hydrologic needs can often be overwhelmed by political considerations. There are 263 rivers around the world that cross the boundaries of two or more nations, and an untold number of international groundwater aquifers. The basin areas that contribute to these rivers (Figure 1) comprise approximately 47% of the land surface of the Earth,

1 The Register of International River Basins of the World defines a 'river basin' as the area which contributes hydrologically (including both surface- and groundwater) to a first order stream, which, in turn, is defined by its outlet to the ocean or to a terminal (closed) lake or inland sea. Thus, 'river basin' is synonymous with what is referred to in the U.S. as a 'watershed' and in the UK as a 'catchment,' and includes lakes and shallow, unconfined groundwater units (confined or fossil groundwater is not included). We define such a basin as 'international' if any perennial tributary crosses the political boundaries of two or more nations.

Similarly, the 1997 UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses defines a 'watercourse' as 'a system of surface and underground waters constituting by virtue of their physical relationship a unitary whole and flowing into a common terminus.' An 'international watercourse' is a watercourse, parts of which are situated in different states [nations].

include 40% of the world's population, and contribute almost 60% of freshwater flow.

Within each international basin, demands from environmental, domestic, and economic users increase annually, while the amount of freshwater in the world remains roughly the same as it has been throughout history. Given the scope of the problems and limited resources available to address them, avoiding water conflict is vital because conflict is expensive, disruptive, and interferes with the efforts to relieve human suffering, reduce environmental degradation, and achieve economic growth.

A closer look at the world's international basins gives a greater sense of the magnitude of the issues: First, the problem is growing; there were 214 international basins listed in a 1978 United Nations study, the last time any official body attempted to delineate them, and there are 263 today. The growth is largely the result of the 'internationalization' of national basins through political changes, such as the break up of the Soviet Union and the Balkan states, as well as access to today's better mapping sources and technology. Even more striking than the total number of basins is a breakdown of each nation's land surface that falls within these watersheds. Twenty-one nations lie entirety within international basins; including these, a total of 33 countries have over 95% of their territory within these basins. These nations are not limited to smaller countries, such as Liechtenstein and Andorra, but include such sizable countries as Hungary, Bangladesh, Belarus, and Zambia. A final way to visualize the dilemmas posed by international water resources is to consider that 19 basins are shared by five or more riparian nations.

Disparities between riparian nations - whether in economic development, infrastructural capacity, or political orientation - add further complications to water resources development, institutions, and management. As a consequence, development, treaties, and institutions are regularly seen as, at best, inefficient, often ineffective, and, occasionally, as a new source of tensions themselves.

There is room for optimism, though, notably in the global community's record of resolving water-related disputes along international waterways. For example, the record of acute conflict over international water resources is overwhelmed by the record of cooperation. Despite the tensions inherent in the international setting, riparian countries have shown tremendous creativity in approaching regional development, often


Database: Basins at Risk Mollweide Projection Oregon State University October 2000


Database: Basins at Risk Mollweide Projection Oregon State University October 2000

Figure 1 International basins of the world.

through preventive diplomacy, and the creation of 'baskets of benefits' which allow for positive-sum, integrative allocations of joint gains. Vehement enemies around the world have negotiated water sharing agreements, and once cooperative water regimes are established through treaty, they turn out to be impressively resilient over time, even as conflict rages over other issues. Shared interests along a waterway seem to consistently outweigh the conflict-inducing characteristics of water.

Moreover, international organizations such as the UN International Law Commission, through its work on shared natural resources (see Transboundary Aquifers Resources), the International Law Association, and even the Government of Germany have hosted efforts to offer guidelines for the legal resolution of international water issues.

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