Category Archives: Transboundary Waters

How ‘Soft’ Power Shapes Transboundary Water Interaction



Save the Chidren CEO and President in Haiti after earthquake

This article shows that many transboundary basins exhibit a mix of cooperation and conflict that is embodied in a range of nonviolent, cooperative power manifestations collectively known as ‘soft power’. (Global Water Forum)

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The Legal Architecture for Transboundary Waters


The Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements identifies 400 water agreements adopted since 1820. Despite significant legal developments over the past 40 odd years the international legal architecture regulating international watercourses remains fragmented. The majority of basin-specific agreements cover multilateral rivers, even though 67 percent of the world international rivers are bilateral. Additionally, there has been a common trend to adopt bilateral agreements within multilateral river basins. Such a fragmented system means that 158 of the world 263 international basins lack any type of cooperative framework; and of the 106 basins covered by agreements approximately two-thirds do not include all basin states. While such statistics do not account for global and regional treaty regimes, or rules and principles of customary international law, they do demonstrate that governance frameworks at the basin level are often lacking or inadequate.

However, it should be noted that the legal architecture within different regions varies. Throughout Africa there are 59 transboundary river basins, which make up 62 percent of the continent’s land surface. Of these transboundary river basins, 16 are covered by basin-wide agreements, three are partially covered by agreements and 40 have no basin-specific agreements in place. Additionally, Angola, Botswana, Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe have ratified the Revised SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses Systems, which is applicable to the 15 international watercourses across the Southern African region and embodies much of the content of the UN Watercourses Convention.

Asia is home to 57 transboundary river basins, which account for 39 percent of the continent’s land surface. 10 river basins, constituting 3,270,600 km2 of the land mass, are covered by basin wide agreements. 15 river basins, representing 12,584,400 km2, are partially covered by basin agreements, and 32 river basins representing 1,933,060 km2, are not covered by any basin agreement.

Across Europe there are 64 transboundary river basins covering 54 percent of the continent’s land surface. 35 rivers are covered by basin-wide agreements, whereas 10 are partially covered, and 19 have no basin-specific agreements in place. However, most European states are also obligated to implement two relatively stringent regional agreements, namely the EU Water Framework Directive and the 1992 UN ECE Water Convention. These two regional instruments include commitments that go beyond the requirements of the UNWC.

In North America, there are 41 transboundary river basins that cover 35 percent of the continent’s land surface. There are 28 basin-wide agreements, and a further 4 river basins are partially covered by agreements. Only 9 river basins therefore have no basin-specific agreements in place, representing 76,000 km2.10

Last but not least, South America is home to 38 transboundary river basins, which make up 60 percent of the continent’s land surface. Of these river basins, 23 are covered by basin-wide agreements, whereas 15 basins are not subject to any basin agreements.

An analysis of the legal architecture would not be complete without recognition that in addition to the UN Watercourses Convention there are numerous global conventions that, at least in part, relate to transboundary watercourses. For instance, the Ramsar Convention was adopted in 1971, and currently has 158 contracting parties, who are obliged to promote the wise use of wetlands within their territory. In relation international watercourses, the Ramsar Convention stipulates that, ‘contracting parties shall consult with each other about implementing obligations arising from the Convention especially in the case of a wetland extending over the territories of more than one contracting party or where a water system is shared by contracting parties’. Around 30 percent of Ramsar sites are located in international river basins. Similarly, the Biodiversity Convention, ratified by 191 parties aims to promote the sustainable use of the world’s biodiversity. In relation to international watercourses, states are obliged to notify, exchange information and enter into consultations on activities in one state’s jurisdiction or control that are likely to significantly adversely affect the biodiversity of other states.

Pursuant to the Climate Change Convention, ratified by 192 contracting parties, parties are obliged to, ‘develop and elaborate appropriate and integrated plans for coastal zone management, water resources and agriculture, and for the protection and rehabilitation of areas, particularly in Africa, affected by drought and desertification, as well as floods’. Drought and desertification is also covered in the Desertification Convention, ratified by 193 contracting parties. In relation to international watercourses, contracting parties are obliged to develop, ‘long-term integrated strategies that focus simultaneously, in affected areas, on improved productivity of land, and the rehabilitation, conservation and sustainable management of land and water resources’ [emphasis added]. Burgeoning agricultural production due to greater demand for food within an ever increasing globalised world will also mean that trade and investment regimes, such as GATT will have a growing impact on legal arrangements concerning international watercourses.

In assessing the current legal architecture for transboundary waters, UN-Water – a body comprised of all UN agencies with a competence in water-related activities – observed that:

Existing agreements are sometimes not sufficiently effective to promote integrated water resources management due to problems at the national and local levels such as inadequate water management structures and weak capacity in countries to implement the agreements as well as shortcomings in the agreements themselves (for example, inadequate integration of aspects such as the environment, the lack of enforcement mechanisms, limited – sectoral – scope and non-inclusion of important riparian States).

It was for some of the challenges identified by UN-Water that the UN Watercourses Convention was first conceived.

For a comprehensive online database of materials regarding international laws and policies for transboundary freshwater resources, please visit the International Water Law Project.


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How to Respond to the Transboundary Water Crisis – Mekong River Nations


The concerns over hydropower development on Mekong River is leading to “unprecedented” reactions in the local and international communities.

The concerns over hydropower development on Mekong River and 3S – the name of three rivers Sesan, Sekong and Srepok which flows through the territory of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia before joining the Mekong River – is leading to “unprecedented” reactions in the local and international communities.

International Rivers called this the “transboundary water crisis”. ​With a basin area of 800,000 square kilometers, the Mekong River Basin is the largest inland fishery in the world, and is home to 65 million people from 6 countries: Myanmar, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Its steep terrain makes Mekong become very convenient for hydropower development. Due to increased electricity demand and robust economic development, 11 dams are being built on the main river and 41 others on the tributaries, which are expected to be completed within the next 4 years. About 10-37 other dams will likely to be built within the period from 2015 to 2030.

Another important area is the 3S river system in Northeastern Cambodia, Southern Laos, and Central Vietnam which is dominated by the three Mekong branches Sesan, Sekong and Srepok. On the 3S rivers, there are more than 20 dams in operation or in construction. In addition, 26 other projects on the territory of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are being planned to further subdivide the three rivers.

Despite that this hydropower system has many potential transboundary impacts on the biodiversity, ecosystems and livelihoods of various local communities, the implementation of those project was not adjusted and governed by the Mekong Agreement on the mainstream projects.

Also regarding this issue, a new study by Guy Ziv – an environmental scientist from Stanford University, California showed that the construction of another 26 dams on Mekong River’s tributaries will cause huge biodiversity damages to the entire Mekong River Basin and severely reduce the fish yield in Cambodia and Vietnam. If further studies confirm these initial results and are able to accurately determine the pros (increased power source) and cons (reduced fish yield) based on conversion to money, the countries should decide that the construction of dams on the tributaries, though within the national territory, must be subject to the same guidelines as for the mainstream dams.

A simple statement to the other countries must be considered insufficient. There must be compensation from the sale of energy resources for all the affected countries. A general code of conduct and a philosophy of economic and energy development, which value sustainability and respect the environment, are needed.

Realizing the great influence of the construction of dams on Mekong River and its three main tributaries to the local and international communities, on June 3-4, 2013, TERRA (Thailand) , Cambodian NGO Forum, 3S Rivers Protection Network (Cambodia), Buddhist Association for Environmental Development (Cambodia), Fisheries Action Coalition Team (Cambodia), Culture and Environmental Protection Association (Cambodia) and Vietnam Rivers Network have organized a local forum on “Dams on Mekong River and 3S: Voice of the people on the river crisis and the road ahead” in Cambodia. At the forum, Mrs. Omboun Tipsuna from the Network of Community Organization Council for seven Northeastern provinces of Thailand, said that there is no need for further assessment of the impacts from hydropower.

The lessons from Thailand’s hydropower are clear proof for the community and governments of the regional countries. Mr. Tek Vannara, Deputy Director of Cambodian NGO Forum, shared his hope that this forum will bring the voice of the people in the communities affected by hydropower dams to the various concerned parties, especially the government leaders. “The governments in the Mekong River Basin should respect the rights and decisions of the local communities regarding the hydropower dam projects and protect the livelihoods and ecosystems towards a sustainable development,” said Mr. Tek Vannara.


There is no evidence of coming ‘water wars’ – UNESCO


Strikingly, the territory of 148 nations falls within international basins and more than 30 countries are located almost entirely within these basins. In all, there are 276 international basins. These cover around 45% of the Earth’s land surface, host about 40% of the world’s population and account for approximately 60% of global river flow.

International river basins

The high level of interdependence is illustrated by the number of countries sharing each international basin (see table); the dilemmas posed by basins like the Danube, shared by 19 European countries, or the Nile, shared by 11 African countries, can easily be imagined.

The high number of shared rivers, combined with increasing water scarcity for growing populations, led many politicians and headlines to trumpet coming ‘water wars.’ In 1995, for example, former World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin claimed that ‘the wars of the next century will be about water.’ Invariably, these warnings point to the arid and hostile Middle East, where armies have mobilized and fired shots over this scarce and precious resource. Elaborate, if misnamed, ‘hydraulic imperative’ theories cite water as the prime motivation for military strategies and territorial conquests, particularly in the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

The only problem with this scenario is a lack of evidence. In 1951–1953 and again in 1964–1966, Israel and Syria exchanged fire over the latter’s project to divert the Jordan River but the final exchange, featuring assaults by both tanks and aircraft, stopped construction and effectively ended water-related tensions between the two states. Nevertheless, the 1967 war broke out less than a year later. Water had little, if any, impact on the military’s strategic thinking in subsequent Israelo-Arab violence, including the 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars, yet water was an underlying source of political stress and one of the most difficult topics in subsequent negotiations. In other words, even though the wars were not fought over water, allocation agreements were an impediment to peace.

While water supplies and infrastructure have often served as military tools or targets, no states have gone to war specifically over water resources since the city-states of Lagash and Umma fought each other in the Tigris−Euphrates Basin in 2500 BCE. Instead, according to FAO, more than 3 600 water treaties were signed from 805 to 1984 CE. Whereas most were related to navigation, over time, a growing number addressed water management, including flood control, hydropower projects or allocations in international basins. Since 1820, more than 680 water treaties and other water-related agreements have been signed, with more than half of these concluded in the past 50 years.

The historical record proves that international water disputes do get resolved, even among enemies and even as conflicts erupt over other issues. Some of the world’s most vociferous enemies have negotiated water agreements or are in the process of doing so and the institutions they have created often prove to be resilient, even when relations are strained.

The Mekong Committee, for example, established by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as an intergovernmental agency in 1957, exchanged data and information on water resources development throughout the Vietnam War (1955−1975). Israel and Jordan have held secret ‘picnic table’ talks on managing the Jordan River following the unsuccessful Johnston negotiations of 1953–1955, even though they were at war from the time of Israel’s independence in 1948 until the 1994 peace treaty. The Indus River Commission set up under the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan in 1960 survived two major Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965 and 1971. All 11 Nile Basin riparian countries are also currently involved in senior government-level negotiations to develop the basin cooperatively, despite continuing disagreement between upstream and downstream states.

In Southern Africa, a number of river basin agreements were signed when  the region was embroiled in a series of local wars in the 1970s and  1980s, including the ‘people’s war’ in South Africa and civil wars in  Mozambique and Angola. Although negotiations were complex, the  agreements were rare moments of peaceful cooperation between many of the  countries. After most of the wars and the apartheid era had ended,  water proved to be one of the foundations for cooperation in the region.  In fact, the 1995 Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems was the first  protocol to be signed within the Southern African Development Community.

Excerpt from an article by Annika Kramer, Aaron T. Wolf, Alexander Carius and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, published in A World of Science, volume 11, number 1, January 2013


Ethiopia Water Grabs: Creating ‘East Africa’s Aral Sea’?


01/17/2013 by Lori Pottinger

The destruction of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has been called the world’s worst environmental disaster. It’s not something we should be repeating, especially in a time of growing uncertainty about water resources on our warming planet.

So will the world stand by (and even underwrite the perpetrators) as Ethiopia builds projects that will suck dry one of Africa’s largest lakes, and create “water refugees” in two countries?

A new scientific study published by International Rivers documents how hydrological changes caused by the Gibe III Dam and large-scale irrigation projects, both now under construction in Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin, could turn Kenya’s Lake Turkana into “East Africa’s Aral Sea.” The study describes how these projects will dramatically reduce the amount of water flowing into Lake Turkana (Africa’s fourth largest), leading to a major drop in the lake’s level, a collapse of local livelihoods, and increased conflict in East Africa.

Gibe III Dam is about half complete, and the irrigation projects are just getting underway. These projects’ combined hydrological changes will harm fisheries upon which local people depend, reduce water quality, and have major implications for the region’s rich wildlife, among other impacts.

In an area where water is precious and local people are well-armed and willing to fight for the use of natural resources like water and land, the changes to the lake and river could foment insecurity in an already conflict-ridden region.

According to the report’s author:

If Ethiopia completes the Gibe III Dam, now under construction on the Middle Omo River, and continues to press ahead with large-scale irrigation developments in the Lower Omo Basin, the result will be a cascade of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands around Lake Turkana.

Lake Turkana gets 90 percent of its water from the Omo River. Filling the dam’s reservoir will significantly reduce the lake’s inflow for a number of years. The further impact of water diversions for large irrigated plantations being developed in the Lower Omo could lead to the lake level dropping by as much as 22 meters (the average depth is just 30 meters), the paper reports. The dam will also reduce the flow of sediments, which will “lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture,” according to the report.

The Ethiopian government tried for years to raise funds for the multi-billion dollar projects on the Omo River from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and other international financiers. None of these funders got involved. Only the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) stepped forward, eventually approving a loan for $500 million in turbines for the dam. In 2012, China Development Bank signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for another loan of $500 million for the construction of sugar factories in the Lower Omo Valley.

The Gibe III Dam and the sugar plantations threaten World Heritage Sites in the Lower Omo Valley and near Lake Turkana. In June 2011, the UN World Heritage Committee called on the Ethiopian government to “immediately halt all construction” on the dam, and encouraged the Chinese financiers “to put on hold their financial support” until the Committee’s next annual meeting. The Ethiopian government and ICBC both ignored this call.

David Hales, former Chair, UNESCO World Heritage Committee, and one of 16 prominent academics who endorsed the new study, states:

This paper raises fundamental issues that must be addressed urgently. It is time for the international community to pay serious attention to the impact on indigenous people in both Ethiopia and Kenya, and the potential loss of irreplaceable components of natural systems whose richness and uniqueness have been recognized as part of the common heritage of mankind through the World Heritage Convention.

There are many “wild cards” in this unfolding saga, but one thing is certain, says the author: “The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it.”

Perhaps the wildest card of all is that Kenya itself has tied its political fortunes to this project, despite the immense consequences to the lake. The Kenyan government has reportedly agreed to purchase power from the Gibe dam, and will benefit from a new World Bank/African Development Bank project to link its transmission system to Ethiopia’s, which enables the sale of Gibe’s electricity.

As Dr.William Oweke Ojwang, assistant director of the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (another of the paper’s endorsers), says: “The Omo-Lake Turkana ecosystem is a gift to our heritage. Lake Turkana fisheries have immense socio-economic importance to the country and the region. It would be suicidal for Kenya to ignore the impacts of these developments on this rich ecosystem.”

A number of groups — including International Rivers, Friends of Lake Turkana, Oakland Institute, and Human Rights Watch — are calling for international attention to the land- and water-grabs that are going on in the Omo River Basin. The most immediate goal is a halt to dam construction and water withdrawals until there is a complete accounting of the projects’ potential harm to Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.

Although not directly involved in funding these projects, the United States is Ethiopia’s most important donor. U.S. support for essential services has helped free up government money to complete the dam and associated irrigation infrastructure. The time is now for Western donors to press Ethiopia to stem human rights abuses and end development projects whose long-term environmental damage fuels conflict.

We are also calling on China to withdraw its support for this manmade disaster in the making. The World Bank, too, must assume responsibility for its power-pool investment in the region, and acknowledge its role in enabling Gibe III to proceed. Finally, Kenya should withdraw from an agreement to purchase power from the dam, and work with its neighbor to plan sustainable energy systems that will not lead to local war.

Ethiopia faces major development challenges, and should be empowered to build development projects that reduce poverty. But when its projects will have such disastrous consequences on its neighbors as these developments, then the conversation must be expanded. Clearly, it’s going to “take a village” to resolve this looming crisis.