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]
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.
[Feature Image Credit: China Hearsay]