Negotiating conflicting claims over shared inland water resources

Rivers have been crucial as means of communication, the formation of political units and stimulating trade. At the same time, joint dependencies on the water moving through a river basin creates conflicts of interest.

Many, if not most, of the world's 261 international rivers pass through developing regions with strong driving forces at work: population growth, urbanization, industrialization etc. These forces generate, on the one hand, water depletion due to increased consumptive use of water for intensified food production and, on the other, increasing pollution loads from human waste, intensified industrial activities and growing application of agricultural chemicals.

Issues of water quantity and water quality most often underlie water disputes. Issues other than direct water use but needing the presence of water, may enter the scene, such as transportation and energy needs (most developing countries have rapidly increasing needs for electricity). A water conflict may also start from reasons that have nothing to do with water, but the control over water sources becomes a weapon or the conflict-driving element. Alternatively, certain land areas may have particular hydrostrategic value as part of efforts to improve a country's water security, as was demonstrated by the Israel occupying the Golan Heights to gain control of the water divide.

As driving forces tend to exacerbate the conflicts of interest in many transboundary river systems, the costs of not cooperating are growing. Cooperation is equivalent to increasing the options for converting water into wealth; it also reduces the vulnerability of a country to natural hazards. Moreover, the opportunity cost of no cooperation is high. There are plenty of conflicts by primarily on the local level where various users and interest groups are close to each other. Even if a "water war" were contemplated and won, it is hardly conceivable that water security could be achieved. At the same time, cooperation is likely to generate a number of advantages, by reducing the vulnerability to natural hazards, opens up for the realization of joint development projects, attracts donor support, and facilitates trade and exchange of ideas and solutions.

Without doubt, there is a huge amount of irritation between co-basin countries, some of them even developing into diplomatic crises. On the other hand, only one case has gone into the International Court, indicating that in some way or other countries are muddling through. The opportunity costs are probably seen as too high to proceed into a full-fledged conflict. Even if public statements like the "classical" one by Boutros Gali that the next war will be about water, it was pointed out that such statements are meant for a particular target group to achieve a particular objective.One lesson learnt is that it seems easier to arrive at an agreement in cases where the co-basin countries are sharing an interest of water resources development of the joint river. Cooperation between co-basin countries may then produce win-win situations. One good example was the agreements reached by the Mekong Committee, formed in the 1950's, and generating the so-called Mekong spirit concept. It is symptomatic that in times of conflict of interest, like in the case of the later dispute between Thailand and Vietnam in the 1990's, this spirit was not enough and exterior support was needed to remediate the dispute.

The crucial role of "disaster events", such as floods, droughts, water pollution accidents, and the like, produce a type of "shock therapy" that tends to be helpful in generating willingness to cooperate closer. This was demonstrated by the Sandoz catastrophe on the Rhine river. The beneficial impact of disasters is linked to the need for political momentum, which is difficult to generate without a crisis mentality. The ideal would be to generate "crisis mentality" without a real crisis.

External intervention and assistance can sometimes facilitate the negotiation of water resource sharing agreements. International funding agencies have generally declined to provide loans for the development of international waters in recent years, until and unless the countries concerned have signed a mutually acceptable agreement. The World Bank, in the case of Indus, played the role of "honest broker". Its carrot was the offering of finance. In the case of Ganges, however, the Bank's own idea for the solution was closer to the one advocated by Bangladesh. As a consequence, India did not trust the Bank, and rejected its offer to mediate. In the case of Mekong, UNDP played the role of "godfather" and fund-raiser, but its main strength was to stress joint development plans, the importance of data sharing and transparency.

1. The fact that there have been relatively few water conflicts in the past in no way suggests that there will be few or none in the future. The socio-political effects of rapid development increases potential for disputes rather than reduces them.

2. The fairly widespread contention that growing water scarcity and unilateral attempts by single riparian countries to utilize a larger share of the water in international rivers will result in armed conflicts and "water wars" is not borne out by facts.

3. Water is too important to be monopolised by water scientists, engineers, major companies in the water sector, diplomats, military strategists and politicians.

4. In the negotiations between the different co-basin countries, not only current water interests have to be taken into account but foreseeable changes in water demands, water resources development and land use conversions. These changes will be driven by population growth, urbanization, industrialization, income generation needs etc. Furthermore , a land use decision is also a water decision, so that the foreseeable consequences of land use conversions must be brought into the discussions.

Rivers and lakes
Type Classification:
G: Very Specific strategies