from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Navigating Rough Waters: The Limitations of International Watercourse Governance

Zaki El-Dine pours water from the Nile river onto a patch of mud to make bricks on Khartoum, Sudan on February 12, 2020.
Zaki El-Dine pours water from the Nile river onto a patch of mud to make bricks on Khartoum, Sudan on February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Recent events are straining the global watercourse governance system. Countries need to articulate and abide by universal norms and standards on sustainable and equitable water resource use to secure safe access to water.

September 2, 2020

Zaki El-Dine pours water from the Nile river onto a patch of mud to make bricks on Khartoum, Sudan on February 12, 2020.
Zaki El-Dine pours water from the Nile river onto a patch of mud to make bricks on Khartoum, Sudan on February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The following is a guest post by Ania Zolyniak, intern for International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As temperatures and populations continue to rise in many parts of the world, water scarcity is becoming an increasing threat to human security. Among the chief obstacles constraining global efforts to manage freshwater resources sustainably and peacefully is the weak and fragmentary nature of existing arrangements governing shared international watercourses. Although the current web of bilateral and regional water-sharing agreements addresses some water-related tensions, it fails to universally ensure the human right to water and promote sustainable water use.

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The challenge of effective transboundary water management is not a new one, but it has become more daunting. Recent events in Ethiopia, China, and the Middle East highlight how bilateral and regional geopolitical dynamics are straining the current system of global watercourse governance and jeopardizing safe and secure access to water.

Weaknesses of Bilateral and Regional Water Agreements

The current framework of watercourse governance relies on the willingness of riparian—or watercourse-sharing—states to negotiate directly with one another without basic universal standards. Water’s status as an essential resource often complicates cooperation and compromise, particularly when would-be negotiating parties are not on the best of terms. Such dynamics are currently at play in the Nile and Brahmaputra river basins.

In late July, Ethiopia began filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)—the largest dam in Africa. The water used to fill the reservoir travels from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands to Egypt via the Blue Nile and Nile rivers. Egypt, which relies on this water to meet over ninety percent of its freshwater needs, sees the GERD as a national security threat and has consistently called for Ethiopia to stop the project. Egypt and Sudan, through which this water also passes, contend that the dam violates the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. That accord allocates all of the Nile’s water to Egypt and Sudan, which are the only riparian states party to the agreement, and grants Egypt sole veto power over development projects on the river. Unsurprisingly, Ethiopia—as well as other upstream states in the Nile Basin like Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—reject the agreement. With tensions riding high as Ethiopia continues to fill the GERD, thereby restricting the amount of water flowing into Egypt, the execution of a regional agreement governing the Nile seems highly unlikely.

While academic studies have shown that transboundary water treaties can mitigate freshwater-related conflict, good bilateral and regional relations also allow for effective water management in the absence of such a treaty. Unfortunately, relations among upstream and downstream nations are often fraught. A case in point is the deteriorating relationship between China and India. The two countries do not have an agreement governing the waters of the Brahmaputra or the Indus rivers, which both originate in Chinese-controlled Tibet. China’s upper riparian status affords it the power to alter and restrict water flowing from its territory into India. Earlier this year, China exerted that leverage by diverting the flow of the Galwan River—a tributary of the Indus—in response to border clashes with its neighbor. Such moves by Beijing to restrict India’s access to freshwater resources could exacerbate an already tense situation. Given that China sees water as a critical resource in achieving its national, regional, and global ambitions, near-term prospects for hashing out an agreement with India that might constrain Chinese access to shared water resources appear remote.

China’s involvement in Southeast Asia likewise underscores the challenge of getting parties to agree upon terms for shared watercourse access and use. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) governs water relations among four riparian states: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. China, despite being the source of the Mekong, is conspicuously absent from the MRC, participating only as a Dialogue Partner. Showing complete disregard for the responsibilities of upper riparian states under the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC), China has built eleven mega-dams along the Mekong—and plans to build more. These dams have had disastrous environmental consequences and have contributed directly to severe droughts and food shortages in lower riparian states. The dams and their effects have also inhibited downstream coronavirus mitigation efforts.

More on:

Global Governance

Food and Water Security

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International Law

Treaties and Agreements

China regularly leverages its upper riparian status in its relations with Southeast Asian nations. The United States has recently tried to counter Chinese pressure on downstream countries in the Mekong basin, but it is difficult to outbid China when Beijing can use something as fundamental to life as water as a bargaining chip. China’s leverage as an unrestrained upper riparian state enhances its geopolitical clout and reduces the likelihood of a comprehensive multilateral agreement for managing the waters of the Mekong.

Water insecurity is even more dire for non-sovereign entities around the world that have no recourse under bilateral or regional treaties and only weak protections for water rights. The plight of Palestine is stark in this regard. Prior to the deal recently negotiated between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Palestinians living in the West Bank faced a tremendous peril in light of Israeli plans to annex territory in Area C. Israel’s move would have effectively cut Palestinians off from the Jordan River, severely compromising Palestinian water and food security. Although that annexation is now on hold, there is no guarantee that this situation will last. Should annexation proceed, nothing in the current decentralized system of international watercourse governance would prevent Palestinians from losing nearly all access to the region’s main freshwater source. Elsewhere in the region, critics have also accused Turkey of weaponizing water against the Kurds—another stateless nation in the Middle East—in the Syrian civil war.

The Limited Potential of International Agreements

In theory, international conventions and treaties could help address water use and access issues where bilateral and regional legal institutions fall short. The UNWC, for instance, covers both surface and groundwater water resources and reaffirms the basic international water law principle of “no significant harm.” If universally accepted, this principle could protect the interests of downstream states that would be harmed by certain upstream activities—such as excessive damming. 

Unfortunately, the UNWC enjoys neither wide-spread adoption nor strong, enforceable language. It has only thirty-six contracting states, and its weak language regarding environmental protections and conflict resolution renders it a thin reed for international watercourse governance. Any effort to strengthen the treaty, much less win universal acceptance for it, faces strong nationalist and geopolitical headwinds in the near to medium term. Growing anxieties about water scarcity could, in the meantime, dissuade many states from entering any negotiations that would potentially limit their access to water—or even embolden unilateral action to acquire these resources.

Forging Forward

In order for international legal institutions to provide a framework for effective global watercourse governance, countries need first and foremost to articulate and abide by universal norms and standards regarding sustainable and equitable water resource use. Although a number of challenges stand in the way, the situation is not hopeless. Historically, global crises often lead to new, creative thinking about international cooperation. The current pandemic is a case in point. While the multilateral response to this global health emergency has been haphazard at best, it has also stimulated international deliberations on multilateral priorities in a post-COVID-19 world. Rising global water insecurity could stimulate similar dynamics. The history of the past century also offers grounds for hope: While the challenge of managing shared water resources is real, and has led to diplomatic frictions, it has been far more likely to result in peaceful resolution and cooperation than violent conflict among nations.

The deepening global climate emergency may also advance cooperation on water issues. Rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns are exacerbating water insecurity in many nations, rich and poor. Water scarcity is not a threat limited to one country or region. This environmental reality creates incentives for nations to cooperate in reaffirming the human right to water, identifying basic universal principles for responsible water use and access, and fixing the holes in the current system of global watercourse governance that hinder sustainable transboundary water management. Until greater cooperation within a renewed multilateral platform becomes plausible, parties afflicted by the shortcomings of the current system of watercourse governance should utilize non-water related tools—such as human rights law, which is a more established sphere of international law—to safeguard water resource interests.

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