Water Conflict and Cooperation/Indicators

From WaterWiki.net

Jump to: navigation, search
edit  ·  ToolkitWater Conflict and Cooperation
History of Humanity and Water | Shared Waters and Ethics | Legal and Institutional Approaches | Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms
Emerging Trends | Public Participation | Indicators | Means and Tools | Basin Management | Lessons Learned
Organisations and Projects | Publications | Glossary | Bibliography
Case Studies: Incomati | Nile | Columbia | Lempa | Lake Titicaca | Mekong | Aral Sea | Rhine | Jordan I | Jordan II
Events | Contacts


This article is based on Water security and peace - A synthesis of studies prepared under the PCCP-Water for Peace process, compiled by William J. Cosgrove, as part of a UNESCO-IHP, PCCP Series Publication (2003).

Why Indicators?

International Conflict Indicators

The international community cannot act everywhere at once. It would therefore be useful if one could identify those places where action can head off potential conflict and build the capacity of enduring institutions. Much research has already been done that has identified the factors that should be included in such indicators. There is an impressive body of literature that deals with the questions of international conflict and indicators of conflict in general.[1]

However, there is currently little empirical work being done to bolster any of the common conclusions being so widely reported. Most literature suggests that competitions for limited freshwater lead to severe political tensions and even to war. Water resources are described by some as military and political goals, using the Jordan and Nile as examples. A smaller body of work argues more strongly for the possibilities and historic evidence of cooperation between co-riparians. It has even been suggested that this can be a training ground for civilization.

Weaknesses of Past Approaches

There are several problems with the approaches of much current literature and, as a consequence, questions about their conclusions as well [2]:

  • Loose definitions. Terms such as conflict, dispute, tensions, and war are regularly used interchangeably. So too are several types of incidents all relating to water but otherwise vastly dissimilar, such as water as a tool, weapon, or victim of warfare.
  • Exclusion of cooperative events. An entire branch of the conflict–cooperation spectrum is missing from almost all studies relating water to international relations, such that any tests of causality are, by definition, incomplete.
  • Lack of consideration of spatial variability.Such popular measures as “water stress” are regularly determined by country (e.g. population per unit of water), whereas political interactions over water are generally precipitated at the basin (watershed) level. The variability of spatially diverse parameters such as population, climate, water availability, and national groups are either ignored or their significance is generalized.
  • Selected case studies only from the “hottest” basins. Most studies of trends in international basins tend to focus on the world’s most volatile basins – the Jordan, Tigris–Euphrates, Indus, and Nile, for example – making general conclusions concerning international basins as a whole incomplete and questionable.

Conditions Favorable to Adoption of Bilateral Water Treaties

One recent approach looked at the conditions that seem to lead from conflict to the adoption of bilateral water treaties, and those that make these treaties more explicit and hopefully more durable. [3] This study examined the influence of socioeconomic and political variables on the existence of bilateral water treaties between countries sharing international water basins. It also estimated what factors influence the contract structure of bilateral water treaties.

This study was based on the theoretical assumptions that ill-defined property rights may lead to externalities, and that assigning property rights internalizes these externalities. It accepts too that transaction costs lead to inefficiencies (and hence costs) in the markets. It is also based on the argument that cooperative behavior is likely when there is repeated interaction, and finally, that cooperation may be the result of “spontaneous order” or “organization.” Underlying economic theories are that physical, economic, and political geography define hydro-politics in river basins. As a consequence the variables examined were economic, geographic, hydrologic and socio-political.

International basins and the number of associated treaties
International basins and the number of associated treaties

  • A probability analysis showed that a treaty is more likely to be concluded if:
    • The countries are economically similar.
    • The river basin is large.
    • There is high per capita water withdrawal.
  • A treaty is less likely to be concluded when :
    • There is reliance on international trade.
    • Countries are socio-politically similar.
    • At least one country is large.
    • One country controls a high percentage of the river basin.
    • Countries use most water for agriculture and/or domestic purposes.
  • The study also indicated that a treaty is likely to be more explicit if:
    • Countries are economically/politically dissimilar.
    • Countries have non-water linkages.
    • Countries have similar per capita water use.
    • The principal focuses are water supply, hydropower, and/or flood control.

These results lead to the conclusion that economics and politics play an interactive role in determining whether agreement can be reached. They also indicate that geographic characteristics do define constraints and that linkages facilitate an enforcement mechanism. Their analysis showed that renegotiations or mediation by a third party can enhance cooperation. Finally, a free flow of information is a prerequisite.

Developments in Basin-Level Transboundary Water Management

A closer look at the world’s international basins gives a greater sense of their significance in terms of area and conflict potential. Their growing number is one indication of this. There were 214 international basins listed in 1978 (United Nations, 1978), 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 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. A total of 145 nations include territory within international basins. Twenty-one nations lie entirely within international basins, and, including these, a total of thirty-three countries have more than 95 percent of their territory within one or more international basins. These nations are not limited to small countries, such as Liechtenstein and Andorra, but also include, for example Hungary, Bangladesh, Belarus, and Zambia.

Beyond their importance in terms of surface and political area, a look at the number of countries that share individual watercourses highlights the precarious setting of many international basins. Approximately a third of the 263 international basins are shared by more than two countries, and nineteen involve five or more sovereign states, while the Danube receives runoff from eighteen nations. Five basins – the Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine, and Zambezi – are shared by between nine and eleven countries. The remaining thirteen basins – the Amazon, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Lake Chad, Tarim, Aral Sea, Jordan, Kura-Araks, Mekong, Tigris–Euphrates, La Plata, Neman, and Vistula (Wisla) – have between five and eight riparian countries. Another way to think of possible transboundary competition for water is to consider the extent to which some countries are dependent on neighboring countries as their source of water.

Conflict, Cooperation, and the Importance of Resilient Institutions

The complex dynamics of managing international waters can be seen through a review of co-riparian relations. The largest empirical study of water conflict and cooperation, completed in 2001 at Oregon State University, documents a total of 1,831 interactions, both conflictive and cooperative, between two or more nations over water during the past fifty years. An analysis of the data yields the following general findings.

First, despite the potential for dispute in international basins, the record of cooperation historically overwhelms the record of acute conflict over international water resources. The last fifty years have seen only thirty-seven acute disputes (those involving violence) while during the same period approximately 200 treaties were negotiated and signed. The total number of water-related events between nations of any magnitude are likewise weighted towards cooperation: 507 conflict-related events versus 1,228 cooperative, implying that violence over water is not strategically rational, effective, or economically viable. (incl Map 8.1. International basins of the world)

Second, nations find many more issues of cooperation than of conflict. The distribution of cooperative events shown in Figure 8.1 indicates a broad spectrum of issue types, including quantity, quality, economic development, hydropower, and joint management. In contrast, almost 90 percent of the conflictive events relate to quantity and infrastructure. Furthermore, looking specifically at military acts, of which there were only twenty-one (eighteen of them between Israel and her neighbors), almost all events fall within these two categories.

Third, at the sub-acute level, water acts as both an irritant and a unifier. As an irritant, water can make good relations bad, and bad relations worse. Threats and disputes have raged across boundaries with relations as diverse as those between India and Pakistan and between the United States and Canada. Water was the last issue resolved in negotiations over a 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. An interim agreement on water between Israel and the Palestinians was reached in Oslo II (1995), while the permanent agreement was relegated to “final status” negotiations, along with other of the most difficult issues such as Jerusalem and refugees.

Some of the most vociferous enemies around the world have negotiated water agreements or are in the process of doing so, and the institutions they have created frequently prove to be resilient over time and during periods of otherwise strained relations. The Mekong Committee, for example, has functioned since 1957, exchanging data throughout the Vietnam War. Secret “picnic table” talks were held between Israel and Jordan from the early 1980s, a decade prior to the initiation of the Madrid Process that led to the peace treaty of 1994. The Indus River Commission survived through two wars between India and Pakistan. All ten Nile riparian states are currently involved in negotiations over cooperative development of the basin.

In the absence of institutions, however, changes within a basin can lead to conflict. To avoid the political intricacies of shared water resources, for example, a riparian, generally the regional power, may implement a project that impacts at least one of its neighbors. This might be to continue to meet existing uses in the face of decreasing relative water availability, as for example Egypt’s plans for a high dam on the Nile or Indian diversions of the Ganges to protect the port of Calcutta. Or it might be to meet new needs and associated policies such as Turkey’s GAP project on the Euphrates. When projects such as these proceed without regional collaboration, they can become a flash point, heightening tensions and regional instability, and requiring years or, more commonly, decades to resolve. Evidence of how institutions can diffuse tensions is seen in basins with large numbers of water infrastructure projects (e.g. in the Rhine and Danube Basins). Not surprisingly, co-riparian relations have shown to be significantly more cooperative in basins with high dam density that have treaties than in similarly developed basins without treaties. Thus, institutional capacity together with shared interests and human creativity seem to ameliorate water’s conflict-inducing characteristics, suggesting that an important lesson of international water is that as a resource it tends to induce cooperation, and incite violence only in the exception.

The international community faces a choice. On the one hand is a traditional chronology of events, where unilateral development is followed by a crisis and, possibly, a lengthy and expensive process of conflict resolution. On the other hand, there is a process whereby riparian states are encouraged to avoid the crisis through preventive diplomacy and institutional capacity building, as is being done under the Nile Basin Initiative. It feels both counterintuitive and precarious that the global community has often allowed water conflicts to drag on to the extent they often do. It is unfortunate, but the reality is that these processes take time. The Indus treaty took ten years of negotiations, the Ganges thirty, and the Jordan forty – and during suchprotracted arguments the water quality and quantity degrades to the point where the health of dependent populations and ecosystems is damaged or destroyed. A re-read through the history of international waters suggests that the simple fact that humans suffer and die in the absence of agreement apparently offers little in the way of incentive to cooperate, and even less so the health of aquatic ecosystems. This problem gets worse as the dispute grows in intensity. While the Jordan–Israel Treaty contains stipulations for protecting the ecology of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, and there are projects to stabilize the delta of the Aral Sea, which has come to world attention, one rarely hears talk about the ecosystems of the lower Nile; they have effectively been written off to the vagaries of human intractability.

Identifying Indicators of International River Basins Requiring Attention

Little exists in the environmental security literature regarding empirical identification of indicators of future water conflict. The most widely cited measure for water resources management is Malin Falkenmark’s 'Water Stress Index', which divides the volume of available water resources for each country by its population. Though commonly used, Falkenmark’s index has been criticized on a number of grounds. It does not account for either spatial variability in water resources within countries, or the technological or economic adaptability of nations at different levels of development. To account for the latter critique, but not the former, Ohlsson developed a “Social Water Stress Index,” which incorporates “adaptive capacity” into Falkenmark’s measure, essentially weighting the index by a factor based on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. While Ohlsson’s is a useful contribution, he also misses the spatial component. Similarly, neither Falkenmark nor Ohlsson suggest much about the geopolitical results of scarcity, focusing instead on implications for water management.

The only author to explicitly identify indices of vulnerability that might suggest “regions at risk” for international water conflicts is Gleick. He suggested four:

1. ratio of water demand to supply
2. water availability per person (Falkenmark’s water stress index)
3. fraction of water supply originating outside a nation’s borders
4. dependence on hydroelectricity as a fraction of total electrical supply.

Gleick’s indices, like Falkenmark’s and Ohlsson’s, focus on the nation as the unit of analysis and on physical components of water and energy. These indicators were neither empirically derived nor tested.

Indicators: Empirical Methodology

In order to identify indicators of water conflict/cooperation as completely as possible, researchers at Oregon State University took the following approach in a recent three year study:

  • They identified the set of basins to be assessed as all of the world’s international river basins; their period of study was from 1948–99.
  • Utilizing existing media and conflict databases, they attempted to compile a dataset of every reported interaction between two or more nations, whether conflictive or cooperative, that involved water as a scarce and/or consumable resource or as a quantity to be managed. Water was to have been the driver of the event. Using these events, they were able to compile a seamless, systematic database for water conflict/cooperation of 1,831 events – 507 conflictive, 1,228 cooperative, and ninety-six neutral or non-significant. Each event included a brief summary and source of information, and was coded by date, country pair (dyad), basin, issue area, and intensity of conflict/cooperation measured on a scale of –7 to +7.
  • They also developed a geographic information system (GIS) including approximately 100 layers of global and/or regional spatial data falling into one of three general categories: biophysical (e.g. topography, surface runoff, climate), socioeconomic (e.g. GDP, dependence on hydropower), and geopolitical (e.g. style of government, present and historic boundaries). They backdated relevant parameters so that the GIS is both uniformly formatted and historically accurate (e.g. 1964 boundaries coincide with 1964 GDPs and government types). They used each international watershed, subdivided by national boundaries, as the unit for analysis.

With this GIS in place, the team was able to assess the historical setting within which each event of conflict/cooperation took place. By hypothesizing the relevance of sets of parameters, and by testing each set by running single and multivariate statistical analyses of the events against the parameters that define their historical settings, they were able to cull factors that seemed to be indicators of conflict/cooperation.

Basins under observation
Basins under observation

In general, the team found that most of the parameters regularly identified as indicators of water conflict are only weakly linked to dispute. However institutional capacity within a basin, whether defined as water management bodies or treaties, or generally positive international relations are as important, if not more so, than the physical aspects of a system. Very rapid changes, then, either on the institutional side or in the physical system, are at the root of most water conflict, as reflected in three sets of indicators:

1. “Internationalized” basins, i.e. basins that include the management structures of newly independent states
2. Basins that include unilateral development projects and the absence of cooperative regimes
3. General hostility over non-water issues.

By taking their parameters of rapid change as indicators – internationalized basins and major planned projects in hostile and/or institutionless basins – they were able to identify the basins with settings that suggest potential conflicting interests and/or lack of institutional capacity over the coming five to ten years.

These basins include: the Ganges–Brahmaputra, Han, Incomati, Kunene, Kura-Araks, Lake Chad, La Plata, Lempa, Limpopo, Mekong, Ob (Irtish), Okavango, Orange (Sengu), Salween, Senegal,Tumen, and Zambezi. The map bellow shows these basins, as well as the four that have been subject to recent dispute (all of which are currently in various stages of negotiations): the Aral, Jordan, Nile, and Tigris–Euphrates.

Monitoring for Indicators

Two indicators are suggested for identifying basins at risk: tenders for future projects and countries with active nationalist movements. Almost more important than helping identify the basins at risk themselves, these indicators allow us to monitor for “red flags,” or markers that may suggest new basins at risk as they arise.

Tenders for Future Projects

The best sources for cutting through the rhetoric and wishful thinking inherent in public pronouncements of development projects are the public calls for project tenders. Tenders are not put out until project funding has been ascertained, so countries must be fairly certain that a project will actually be developed. However they still can give three to five years lead time (more for large projects) before impact will be felt in neighboring countries – enough time to exercise preventive diplomacy. There are two good print sources for water development tenders: the Financial Times’ Global Water Report (biweekly) and the Global Water Intelligence (monthly). Also, the website of Water International Publishing Ltd (http://www.e-waternews.com/) provides daily updates of water project tenders and contracts in developing countries.

Countries with Active Nationalist Movements

If internationalizing a basin provides a setting of potential dispute, one might monitor the world’s nationalist movements and ethnic conflicts and, if one wanted to be proactive, one could assess the potential impacts of a successful drive for independence. Two sources might be monitored to gauge these movements: first, Armed Self Determination Conflicts, as identified by Professor Ted Gurr’s Minorities at Risk Project, at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management; and second, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organizations (UNPO). Participation in UNPO is open to all nations and peoples who “are inadequately represented as such at the United Nations and who declare adherence to the Organisation’s Charter.” Since these principles espouse non-violence, the conflict level associated with many of these movements is lower. Data on unrepresented nations and peoples are drawn from the UNPO website.

This new approach to identifying and monitoring basins at risk, while holding promise, is still to be tested in practice. If an international institutional approach is taken to identifying and monitoring hotspots and providing mediation services, this organization could undertake further development of the indicators.


  1. See Water Resource Scarcity and Conflict: Review of Applicable Indicators and Systems of Reference; Pal Tamas in the PCCP Series. There is a growing literature, although still weak on water and conflict.
  2. The main source for this section is the PCCP Series Volume International Waters: Indicators for Identifying Basins at Risk, Aaron T. Wolf, Oregon State University.
  3. Socio-economic Analysis of International Bilateral Water Treaties by Basman Towfique and Molly Espey; presented at the International conference From Conflict to Cooperation in International Water Resources Management at IHE Delft, November 21 2002.

See also

External Resources


3713 Rating: 2.8/5 (68 votes cast)