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water management

International waters: Conflict, cooperation, and climate change

Aaron Wolf's picture

Almost all human and ecosystem activity relies on a safe, stable supply of water resources.  And since the resource needs to be allocated to myriad uses, from drinking to agriculture to instream flows to transportation, industry, and spiritual transformation, water management is conflict management.  Moreover, when surface basins or aquifer systems cross international boundaries the unifying principles of integrated watershed management and all the attendant centripetal forces within a basin directly contradict the centrifugal needs of state separation and sovereignty. 

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There are 263 basins, and 265 aquifers, which cross the political boundaries of two or more countries.  International basins cover 45.3 percent of the earth’s land surface, affect about 40percent of the world’s population, and account for approximately 80 percent of global river flow. Ninety percent of the global population lives in countries with international basins. While the potential for paralyzing disputes is especially high in these basins, history shows that water can catalyze dialogue and cooperation, even between especially contentious riparians. Moreover, as we move from thinking about rights to thinking in terms of equitably sharing “baskets” of benefits, opportunities to cooperate become palpable.