Water Conflict and Cooperation/Lessons Learned

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This article is based on UNESCO-IHP, PCCP Series volumes Water security and peace - A synthesis of studies prepared under the PCCP-Water for Peace process, William J. Cosgrove; and Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of International Freshwater Resources: A Global Review, Erik Mostert.

An Overview

Examination of experience in sharing water, especially transboundary water, has taught us many lessons. Examples from several basins studied, including those of the case studies that were part of the PCCP program, show that cooperation is an iterative process that begins with sharing information and getting to know each other in order to build trust and confidence. In the end though, institutions must be created for the efficiency and effectiveness of management of transboundary waters and sustainability of peaceful cooperation.

Conflict, Cooperation, and Effective Institutions

As demonstrated in the Toolkit section on Indicators through comparisons of the number and nature of conflicts with the number of agreements, water is more often a catalyst for cooperation than a source of conflict. The many case studies carried out directly, reviewed by desk study, and serving as references in the different Toolkit Sections have enabled us to identify certain critical lessons learned from global experience in international water resource issues:

  • Water that crosses international boundaries can cause tensions between nations that share the basin. While the tension is not likely to lead to warfare, early coordination between riparian states can help prevent potential conflicts.
  • More likely than violent conflict is a gradual decreasing of water quantity or quality, or both, which over time can affect the internal stability of a nation or region, and act as an irritant between ethnic groups, water sectors, or states/provinces. The resulting instability may have effects in the international arena.
  • Once international institutions are in place, they are tremendously resilient over time, even between otherwise hostile riparian nations, and even as conflict is waged over other issues.
  • An approach to creating institutions to share of the benefits of water in a basin rather than focusing on allocating the limited water resources is proving useful in some cases (e.g. Nile, Mekong) and offers hope for the future.

Effective Transboundary Water Resource Management

The centrality of institutions, both in effective transboundary water management and in preventive hydro-diplomacy, cannot be over-emphasized. Twentieth-century water management offers lessons for the conception and implementation of international transboundary water institutions. In combination with the existing efforts of the international community, the following lessons may help shape future policy and institution-building programs directed specifically to the world’s international basins.

  • Adaptable management structure. Effective institutional management structures incorporate a certain level of flexibility, allowing for public input, changing basin priorities, and new information and monitoring technologies. The adaptability of management structures must also extend to non-signatory riparian states, by incorporating provisions addressing their needs, rights, and potential accession. The International Joint Commission (United States–Canada) has been particularly successful in dealing with such an evolving agenda of issues.

  • Clear and flexible criteria for water allocations and quality. Allocations, which are at the heart of most water disputes, are a function of water quantity and quality as well as political fiat. Thus, effective institutions must identify clear allocation schedules and water quality standards that simultaneously provide for extreme hydrological events, new understanding of basin dynamics, and changing societal values. Additionally, riparian states may consider prioritizing uses throughout the basin. Establishing catchment-wide water precedents may not only help to avert inter-riparian conflicts over water use, but also protect the environmental health of the basin as a whole.

  • Equitable distribution of benefits. This concept, subtly yet powerfully different from equitable use or allocation, is at the root of some of the world’s most successful institutions. The idea concerns the distribution of benefits from water use – whether from hydropower, agriculture, economic development, aesthetics, or the preservation of healthy aquatic ecosystems – not the raw resource of water itself. Distributing water use benefits allows for positive-sum agreements, whereas dividing the water itself may create winners and losers. Multi-resource linkages may offer more opportunities for creative solutions to be generated, allowing for greater economic efficiency through a “basket” of benefits. The Colombia River Basin Treaty (United StatesCanada) provides an example of such an approach.

  • Detailed conflict resolution mechanisms. Many basins continue to experience disputes even after a treaty is negotiated and signed. Thus, incorporating clear mechanisms for resolving conflicts is a prerequisite for effective, long-term basin management. The Rhine River basin is a good, example of a case where treaties are in place but disputes still arise from time to time.

As most examples of hydro-diplomacy involve support from the international community, one may have to conclude that encouragement and participation by them is an essential ingredient for success.

Some Functioning Institutions

There are many functioning institutions with a range of mechanisms and practices. These vary from meetings of the stakeholders to discuss issues to a high level of integration of water resources management. The Permanent Indus Commission and the Permanent Water Commission for Namibia and South Africa have little power to allocate water resources and basically run regular consultative meetings.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) between Canada and the United States and the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) between the United States and Mexico both have dedicated but separate staffs. The IJC monitors developments in the basins for which it is responsible and responds to questions referred to it by the two governments. The IBWC has somewhat more authority.

While their powers differ, both influence individual and joint decisions in the United States and Canada. In the end it is the degree of joint functions such as joint diagnosis, joint planning, joint operations, and joint monitoring that really determines the level of integration.

The OMVS, IBWC, the Niger Basin Authority, and Kagera Basin Organisation have some authority to plan development and some degree of authority to execute the plans. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) while not international, is a good example of a highly integrated organization.

Others, like Lake Chad Basin Commission, are limited to technical committees that gather data and information, and make but do not implement plans. The Intergovernmental Coordinating Committee of River Plate Basin and the Elbe Commission gather technical data and have limited authority to make plans and recommendations. But, as noted earlier in the case of the IJC, even an organization limited to gathering data and information can achieve a great deal of authority and influence over decisions to allocate resources, implement policies and construct infrastructure. A Joint River Committee established for the Ganges has, among other mandates, to seek to resolve disputes. Its main mechanism is the use of Joint Expert Committees. These committees have equal numbers of Indians and Bangladeshis. Unlike some other expert commissions, these committees do not include a neutral party from outside the region.

The realities of water flows required to meet increasing economic development, interdependence, sustainability, and population growth seem to push many water professionals to prefer institutions with as much power to manage the resource as possible. Legitimate and important political realities generally create resistance to such regional water management notions. The flexibility of organizations to respond to water flow fluctuations and to accommodate future uses has been central to recent successful negotiations of international environmental regimes.

Key Messages

1. International freshwater management is becoming increasingly important for meeting basic water needs and providing food security.

Due to population growth, water scarcity will increase drastically in the coming decades. Effective water management is needed in order to meet the needs of present and future generations and protect the environment on which we depend. Since many freshwater resources transcend national boundaries, a great deal of international cooperation is needed. Only then can we prevent serious international conflicts and provide the services that society needs.

2. There is no single best way to manage international freshwaters.

The best way to manage international freshwater resources depends on a large number of factors such as hydrology, the national and international political situation, the cultures of the countries concerned, and the types of management issues. Consequently, what may work in one context does not necessarily work in another context.

3. Commissions or other platforms should be constructed internationally and nationally where the main actors can meet: national governments, lower level governments, water users, local populations, and NGOs.

International freshwater management requires first and foremost that the main actors meet and discuss issues. International river basin commissions or authorities offer good platforms for this. However, links with lower level governments should be maintained or established as well since effective implementation of international agreements often depends on actions at such levels. Similarly, links should be established with government sectors such as agriculture and power production and with NGOs and individual industries, farmers, and consumers. This could be done for instance through national water councils, informal consultations, and water users’ associations.

4. International agreements should have a sufficiently broad scope.

In theory, international agreements should have a comprehensive scope and cover all aspects of international freshwater management. This would facilitate optimal utilization and protection of the resource at stake. In practice, agreements often have a narrow scope because they are usually developed in response to pressing individual issues, and agreements with a narrow scope are often easier to reach and implement. Nonetheless, there are limits to this form of pragmatism. Agreements regulating surface water use may result in groundwater over-exploitation, agreements allocating water quantities without referring to the quality may result in serious problems if water quality does deteriorate, and agreements furthering one water use sector may harm other water use sectors even more. A possible way out of this dilemma is a combination of a broad framework agreement and more specific agreements for individual issues.

5. The single most effective strategy for reaching agreement is the wish to develop and maintain good relations and reciprocity.

Reaching agreement can often be difficult as interests usually differ. Strategies such as issue linkage may help. By far the most effective strategy is the wish to maintain good relations and reciprocity. If relations are good, countries will be willing to compromise on points that are more important for the other countries concerned than for themselves, as they can expect the other countries to respond in kind. There is less need for strict compliance mechanisms and management can react more flexibly and quickly to changing circumstances. If relations are good, all freshwater management issues can be solved, or at least serious escalation can be prevented.

6. Joint or internationally coordinated research can improve the scientific–technical quality of international agreements; unilateral research usually cannot.

The countries concerned should not only agree upon international agreements, they should also make sense. They should be based on sound knowledge. Research conducted or controlled by one country may not be very useful in this respect. Even if scientifically perfect, such research is unlikely to be accepted by the other countries concerned as they were not involved in defining the terms of reference and cannot be certain of its quality. The only way out of this is to conduct joint or internationally coordinated research. International commissions can play an important role in this. The research may want to focus on the best feasible solution rather than the optimal solution, since some solution is often better than no solution at all.

7. All stakeholders should participate in institutional development.

All stakeholders should participate in institutional development, directly or indirectly, including lower level governments and civic society. In this way different points of view and more information can be incorporated in the resulting institutions, fewer negative side effects will occur, and the legitimacy and effectiveness of the institutions will be enhanced.


See also

External Resources


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