As water quality degrades or the quantity available has to meet rising demands over time, competition among water users intensifies. This is nowhere more destabilizing than in river basins that cross political boundaries. But experience shows that in many situations, rather than causing open conflict, the need for water sharing can generate unexpected cooperation.
Despite the complexity of the problems, records show that water disputes can be handled diplomatically. The last 50 years have seen only 37 acute disputes involving violence, compared to 150 treaties that have been signed. Nations value these agreements because they make international relations over water more stable and predictable. In fact, 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 along the Tigris River – often said to be the first treaty of any kind. Since then, a large body of water treaties has emerged. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, more than 3,600 treaties related to international water resources have been drawn up since 805 AD. The majority of these deal with navigation and boundary demarcation. The focus of negotiation and treaty-making in the last century has shifted away from navigation towards the use, development, protection and conservation of water resources.
Source: Human Development Report 2006. Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis. Chapter 6. UNDP, 2006
Legal agreements on water sharing have been negotiated and maintained even as conflicts have persisted over other issues. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, have been able to cooperate since 1957 within the framework of the Mekong River Commission, and they had technical exchanges throughout the Vietnam War. Since 1955 Israel and Jordan, have held regular talks on the sharing of the Jordan River, even as they were until recently in a legal state of war. The Indus River Commission survived two wars between India and Pakistan. A framework for the Nile River Basin, home to 160 million people and shared among 10 countries, was agreed in February 1999 in order to fight poverty and spur economic development in the region by promoting equitable use of, and benefits from, common water resources. The nine Niger River Basin countries have agreed on a framework for a similar partnership. These cases reflect two important elements of international water resources cooperation: the need for an institution to effectively develop a process of engagement over time; and well-funded third-party support trusted by all factions.
The more than 3,600 agreements and treaties signed are an achievement in themselves, but a closer look at them still reveals significant weaknesses. What is needed are workable monitoring provisions, enforcement mechanisms, and specific water allocation provisions that address variations in water flow and changing needs. The 1997 United Nations Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is one international instrument that specifically focuses on shared water resources. It established two key principles to guide the conduct of nations regarding shared watercourses: “equitable and reasonable use” and “the obligation not to cause significant harm” to neighbours. However, it is up to countries themselves to spell out precisely what these terms mean in their watersheds.
There is a consensus among experts that international watercourse agreements need to be more concrete, setting out measures to enforce treaties made and incorporating detailed conflict resolution mechanisms in case disputes erupt. Better cooperation also entails identifying clear yet flexible water allocations and water quality standards, taking into account hydrological events, changing basin dynamics and societal values.
•Water Without Borders. Backgrounder. United Nations Department of Public Information, 2004
•Human Development Report 2006. Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis. Chapter 6. UNDP, 2006.