International waters: Conflict, cooperation, and climate change


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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.

Evidence suggests that the likelihood of political tensions is related to the relationship between rates of variability or change within a basin and the institutional capacity to absorb that change, often exemplified by treaties or international river basin organizations (RBOs).

In my view, the most critical lessons learned from the global experience in international water resource issues are as follows:

  1. Water crossing international boundaries can cause tensions between nations which share the basin. While the tension is not likely to lead to warfare, early coordination between riparian states can help ameliorate the issue.
  2. Once international institutions are in place, they are tremendously resilient over time, even between otherwise hostile riparian nations, and even as conflicts occur over other issues.
  3. 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.
  4. The greatest threat of the global water crisis to human security comes from the fact that millions of people lack access to sufficient quantities of water at sufficient quality for their well being.
  5. The increase in future water variability forecasted by most climate change scenarios is one change that may alter current hydropolitical balances, affecting in turn the ability of states to meet their water treaty commitments. This may raise serious questions about the adequacy of many existing transboundary arrangements and lead to the need for new focus on resilient agreements.


Aaron Wolf

Professor of Geography

November 07, 2009

Hi Aaron, thanks for raising these issues re: the tenuous situation of water security. All of your points are well taken. I am wondering how you see the role of multinational corporations in this issue? There has certainly been cases demonstrating that multinational corporations are exasperating the problem in some countries where water resources are already being challenged. To further complicate the issue is the debate between water as a right (and a universal common) and water as a marketable commodity. I'm sure you are well aware of the problems privatization causes, particularly for the poor. Considering the lessons you present, are there any solutions?

November 13, 2009

Thanks for keeping up the dialogue. Your suggested approach is compelling, but there are enough cases where private capital has not been focused on ensuring access to the poor. The film FLOW challenges the role of companies like SUEZ and Vivendi in providing water and sanitation in developing countries, suggesting that in many cases they have been more detrimental to development. But I guess, there are other examples where companies are attempting to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility, like Coca Cola's commitment to sustainability and protecting/giving back to community watersheds. Still if market mechanisms are applied to water, what happens to those that can't participate in the market?

Aaron Wolf
November 11, 2009

Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. There is no question that the issues of privatization and globalization will, as you rightly point out, be growing potentials for conflict in the future. All the the grand debates over WTO and private capital in traditionally public sector domains have a water component as well, as we see in your probing question of whether we see "water as a human right versus as an economic good."

I guess I would ask the question a bit differently. Perhaps, "are there areas where private capital and/or market mechanisms may be implemented to increase investment and efficiency, while guaranteeing protection to the poor and the environment?" That's a much harder, and more nuanced, way to approach it but, ultimately, perhaps more productive.

Thanks for writing!