The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Transboundary Waters: Triggers of Conflict or Cooperation?

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on May 6, 2012

A recent report by the National Intelligence Council of the US State Department released on 22 March 2012 offered grim assessment on the state of future water security. The report “Global Water Security” predicted that as water becomes scarcer, shared river basins will increasingly be used as leverage, a weapon or even as a means to further terrorist objectives in the next 10 years.

Such observation however is not new. Scholars such as Gleick (1993), Homer-Dixon (1994) and Chellaney (2007) have long argued that transboundary rivers could act as potential triggers for inter-state conflicts in the 21st century. This is due, in large part, to the complicated nature of shared river basins. As of 2002, the UN identified 263 major international river basins. These basins accounted for 40 per cent of the world’s population and 60 per cent of global freshwater flows. Most importantly, a total of 145 countries are riparian states to one or more of these basins making transboundary rivers notoriously difficult to manage.

Despite this, scholars such as Libiszewski (1995) and Wolf (1998) argued for the possibilities (and historic evidence) of cooperation between co-riparian states. Wolf et al (2003) noted that the only recorded incident of an outright war over water occurred more than 4000 years ago between two Mesopotamian city-states, Lagash and Umma, in modern-day Iraq. Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts. This was evidenced in the more than 3600 water-related treaties that were signed between 805 and 1984.

Signing of water treaties, however, does not necessarily translate into greater cooperation. What matters is the quality and scope of the treaties. For example, countries in South Asia managed their shared waters primarily through bilateral agreements which focussed almost exclusively on issues such as water quality, water quantity, navigation, hydropower, border issues, economic development etc. Although bilateral treaties help reduce chances of conflict between riparian states, its narrow focus did little to help manage water sustainably and prevent conflicts in the long run. In eastern Africa, despite the formation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), member countries are still locked in a dispute over water sharing. Similar trends can also be observed in Central Asia where talks on water sharing among countries of the Aral Sea basin have come to a grinding halt.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Southeast Asia and the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) in Europe are one of the few existing examples of successful regional cooperation over shared waters. Both river basin organizations are established through legally binding treaties which embraces not only the socio-economic needs of riparian states but also the entire river ecosystems through the adoption of an approach known as the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). High degree of institutionalisation and engagement among riparian states makes the MRC and the ICPDR shining models of cooperation on transboundary rivers. The experiences of these river basin organizations showed that strong regional institutions are prerequisites for successful transboundary water cooperation. Most importantly, it demonstrated that sustainable management of water requires efforts that balances socio-economic needs of riparian states with river ecosystems.

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