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Understanding International Cooperation on River Basins

Water conflicts have been in the news recently. And given increased volatility in international food prices and energy supply, due in part to water availability, greater international cooperation on the 80% of the world’s rivers that cross national boundaries is more important than ever.

Riparian discussions, sometimes contentious, have made headlines in many international river basins including the Mekong, Nile, and Indus. Various scholarly reports note that such differences could, in fact, turn into disputes because of pressures on available water. While the planet is covered in water, less than 1 percent can be used for drinking, electricity, or other environmental, household, and livelihood uses. 

Fortunately, for the most part, dialogue and cooperation among countries have prevented disputes from erupting into conflict. But while cooperation has averted many approaching conflicts, there is no guarantee that this rule will hold true in the future, especially because of  increasing competition for water, concerns about water quality, and changing climate risks.

In our new report, “Reaching Across the Waters: Facing the Risks of Cooperation in International Waters,” we reviewed the experiences of cooperation in five international river basins, focusing on the perceptions of risks and opportunities by decision makers in countries responding to a specific prospect of cooperation. For each basin, the analysis centered on “tipping points,” or periods in time when policymakers in the countries involved were faced with a critical decision concerning water cooperation.

The report identifies five general categories of risk perceived by decision makers:
• Capacity and Knowledge:  Confidence in ability to negotiate a fair deal; having enough and the correct information and knowledge to do so.
• Accountability and Voice:  Deliverability of benefits by the regional entity and co-riparians, often related to trust; having a say in decision-making in the governing structures of the regional entity.
• Sovereignty and Autonomy:  Ability to act in the best interest of the country without constraints; making decisions independently.
• Equity and Access:  Fairness of (relative) benefits to country, including timing of benefits and costs and obtaining/retaining fair access to river.
• Stability and Support:  Longevity potential of agreement; in-country support of agreement, including ratification likelihood.

All five categories of risk were found to exert a significant influence on cooperation decisions. This has important implications for development partners’ engagement in shared international waters.

This publication offers lessons to help potential partners overcome invisible barriers to agreements and suggests conducting risk assessments in consultation with other countries involved and devising plans for reducing perceived risks.

Cooperation can take several years of planning and confidence building, often before negotiations even begin. Thus, a long-term time commitment by partners is required.

Also, it’s important to note that deals are dynamic. Once a deal is reached, the situation does not become static: deals are fragile and can evolve and grow into stronger and more sustainable arrangements.  Accordingly, periodic assessments are needed to reflect changing realities and as inputs for a revised strategy.

With water scarcity increasing in many parts of the world, we all, individuals and nations alike, must look increasingly to ways of maximizing shared benefits from each drop of water we use.

Related Content:Full Report | News Release

Photo credit: Leonard Abrams

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