About the Author

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay
Civil Engineer (Kolkata)

Pabitra is an Honors graduate in Civil Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He has specialized in the field of River Hydraulics working for more than two decades training rivers, protecting banks and beaches and fighting erosion of the river banks/beds. He has worked with Bio-Engineering models involving mangroves using them as tools for cost effective and natural means of anti-erosion technology.His work is mostly concerning the extremely morpho-dynamic Hugly estuary with Bay of Bengal In course of his work, he got exposed to indegenious people of the Sunderban wetlands, who are fighting a losing battle against agressive Industrialization. Pabitra loves to read and write and he is full of crazy ideas. He believes that he has a tryst with the strange river-country south of Bengal.

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Can Water dissolve geo-political boundaries? Part 2

Published 04th February 2011 - 10 comments - 2835 views -

Blue Water Series - Environment and Politics Issues - Article 7

Transboundary Water Conflicts

Transboundary Water Conflicts are different from Water Conflicts. Water Conflicts are commonest of social and territorial disputes between ‘users’ of water in history. You can imagine the definition of ‘users’ as extensive as you want. Water is required for consumptive use (drinking, sanitation, washing, agriculture etc.) but it is also required for fishing, drainage, navigation, industry and ecology. The list of beneficiaries can be massive and for rivers at least the context of river basin can extend far from the flowing rivers. It is easy to understand that for such a valuable resource, different groups of people on account of their strategic locations of varying degrees of benefits will have differing interests which may conflict.

Further, the whole basin, from the perspective of use is divided into two extremes, which I shall call upstream and downstream. For my essay, upstream will mean the geographical area where people are more benefited than inconvenienced, whereas downstream will mean the exact opposite. No wonder, therefore, that the conflicting interests will keep the social tension alive for centuries. In more occasions than one, such tension is seen manifest in violent conflicts, military interventions or plain riot.

If you are interested about the history of such conflicts, a look into Peter Gleick’s Pacific Institute website The World’s Waters is worth the effort. In this website a chronological account of water conflicts all over the world is furnished in three formats: list (Showing 203 entries from 3000 BC to 2009), timeline (showing 203 entries from 2999 BC to 2010) and map (showing 203 entries from 2999 BC to 2010). Very interesting and informative.

While, an examination of such data makes it clear that water remained a hotbed of disputes and conflicts throughout history, transboundary water conflicts add a very different dimension to the problem on account of the geo-political concept of sovereign state. The dimension is imposed on practical human interests in the form of an ideology and makes the conflict complex beyond resolution. According to Aaron Wolf, et al (contributing writers to PCCP Project, UNESCO) there were 1831 water conflicts over transboundary basins from 1950–2000.

A little bit of description of such conflicts is necessary to make my argument relevant. According to UNESCO, the current interstate conflicts occur mainly in the Middle East (disputes stemming from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq; and the Jordan River conflict among Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestine territories), in Africa (Nile River-related conflicts among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan) as well as in Central Asia (the Aral Sea conflict among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Some analysts estimate that due to an increase in human consumption of water resources, water conflicts will become increasingly common in the near future. Recent Rwandan Genocide and war in Sudanese Darfur have been linked to water conflicts. [Wikipedia]

Global Response

How does the world respond to the transboundary water conflicts? Ronny Patz, fellow blogger of this platform does not sound too optimistic for River Danube: So, a lot of water will run down the Danube river, all across the EU and its neighbouring countries, before things will happen it seems. But we will have a strategy - and there is some water in it, that's for sure!”

I have a feeling that Asia, Africa, North and South America will not sound any more optimistic than Ronny.

We have this strange notion that whenever a plan fails, another plan with some more rules, stricter and more detailed will help us solve the problem. Plan B, as this is called popularly. What goes without much notice is the dynamics of the failure, the root of the problem. There appears to be no consensus about how transboundary waters influence riparian nations. We have at one side some experts stressing the increasing conflict potential of these transboundary waters, more so with increasing scarcity of it (Gleick 1993, Homer-Dixon 1994, Remans 1995, Westing 1986, and Samson and Charrier 1997) and on the other side some experts see possibilities showing historic evidences of cooperation between co-riparians (Libiszewski 1995, Wolf 1998, and Salman and de Chazournes 1998).   

For the sake of brevity, I cannot possibly discuss at length the lame and feeble global responses to transboundary water issues, be it conflict, crisis or plain management but here is my take on this.

Crux of the issue lies in the idea of Sovereign State

Geo-political boundaries came to exist much later than the creation of whole cultures, languages, societies dependent on river basins directly and indirectly. Moreover, the historical reasons and ideologies behind such boundaries were unrelated to such deep, almost philosophical links, which are only recently emerging with clarity as we continue to stress such shared resources. Experts talk about equitable sharing of benefits and costs of co-riparians, but in reality a regional power that enjoys upstream position tends to enjoy a liberty to implement projects (dams, irrigation canals, hydro-electric power and irrigation) without consultation with weaker downstream co-riparian nations. Turkey and India are such examples for Euphrates and Ganges respectively. On the other hand a powerful downstream nation can hold in check development plans of a weaker upstream nation. Egypt is an example of such hindrance to Ethiopia’s plans for Nile.

Anthony R. Turton, Head, African Water Issues Research Unit (AWIRU) University of Pretoria sees the current international political system as one of structured anarchy. It sounds a bit harsh but truths are often so. All nations jealously guard their independent sovereignty – they are endowed with the right of independent action to do as they think fit subject to their foreign policy capabilities as dictated by their perception of reality. If today Paraguay or Uruguay decide to sink giant deep wells into Guarani Aquifer and start extracting massive amount of water effectively depleting Brazil’s ground water source, there is no international mechanism, apart from soft pressure by the international community, to stop such action. Despite real and fundamental demographic differences between the countries of Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, in the UN each country has one vote each and independent sovereignty sanctions that no state can claim jurisdiction on another.

Turton also points out that this reality makes it obvious that there is no supra-national body that can moderate over the situation from a preferred position. The international law is weak since it cannot be enforced.

I am no scholar and I see no point in remaining silent about the failure of the current international political system over transboundary waters. It does not appear to me that the environmental degradation, Climate Change or Global Water Crisis are leaving humanity with the luxury of protracted international diplomatic and community persuasion. We are dangerously running short of time in an undecided treaty-loving world and pushing a huge section of population to such a stress where the idea of debate, discussion and remediation are not going to make much sense.

Unless the modern planners and implementers rethink the whole paradigm of global resource distribution, water being one most important such, and soften the rigid boundaries of geo-political divides by conscious choice, it appears to me that human civilization will realign itself on its own and that course may not be necessarily peaceful.

Water can dissolve geo-political boundaries, but it is not known if such dissolution will be gradual and easy or violent and miserable.

Reference: Trans-boundary River Basins - Proposed Principles and Discussion Papers

[Feature Image Credit: China Hearsay]

Category: Environment | Tags:


  • Ronny Patz on 04th February 2011:

    Fascinating article indeed. And I like the water conflict timeline that you have linked above, that’s a valuable source - well done stuff.

    Just to clarify one thing: I wouldn’t say that along the Danube we can speak about transborder conflicts, at least not systematically. And if you look into the Danube Strategy document it is not about solving real conflicts but rather about solving problems that result from a lack of coordination.

    I think that is still a huge difference compared to real conflicts due to the transnational nature of large rivers in other areas of the world.

  • Sylwia Presley on 05th February 2011:

    Transboundary water conflicts are really interesting from legal point of view - I used to go to the law department’s lectures just to get the idea about issues around them (and I studied communications;)) Thank you for posting!

  • Kevin Rennie on 05th February 2011:


    Australia’s Not-So-Civil Water War touched on an intra-national conflict over water. It’s even further away from resolution than when I posted on Th!nk 4.

  • Andrea Arzaba on 05th February 2011:

    Pabitra! Loved this post! And I very much agree with your “Plan B” thought…what if this time we do not have one? It is just scary

  • J.C. Moore on 09th February 2011:

    Excellent posts. You are certainly in your element. Almost everyone lives downstream from someone. We have problems even here in the U.S., Kansas is suing Colorado over use of the Arkansas river water, Texas is suing Oklahoma (OK) for rights to use water from lakes in OK, and OK is suing the Arkansas chicken farms for polluting the Illinois river that flows into OK. These are costly suits lasting for years, but they will will eventually be settled peacefully by court order. But, as you point out, how can we peacefully settle international disputes over water?

  • Pabitra Mukhopadhyay on 09th February 2011:

    Thanks J.C. American perspective of transboundary disputes is very interesting. I could not go into that because United States are a nation and the disputes are politically inter state in nature. I feel that the civil society values are strong in America and therefore the dispute resolution is mostly legal. That however, do not stop affecting people in the end because the state exchequer is basically tax money of citizens so you you end up spending.
    Thanks again for your comments.

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