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Hydropolitics: Transboundary River Basins and Political Tensions

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

The impacts of new dams and diversions are felt across borders, and the development of new water infrastructure can increase political tensions in transboundary river basins. International water treaties and river basin organizations serve as a framework to potentially deescalate hydro-political tensions across borders.

The availability of freshwater in the right quantity and quality at the right times for dependent systems is required for human security, environmental security, and economic growth. As populations and economies have grown, water has become scarcer and more variable in certain locations, leading to concerns over how water may lead to conflict. Though violent conflicts over water occur more often at the local level, disputes over water are also possible at the international level, particularly as impacts of water use spill across international borders.

Dams and other water infrastructure help manage water variability—providing water in times of drought and dampening the effects of floods. With these benefits come ecological impacts as large-scale water infrastructure effects the hydrologic function of the basin in which they are built. This includes altering the timing and/or magnitude of flows, altering aquatic migratory patterns, and preventing sediments from moving downstream. Thus, the construction of large-scale water infrastructure such as dams and water diversions can become significant sources of tension between countries sharing a river basin.

The significance of new dams and water diversions is increasing across the world as many countries have begun construction on large infrastructure projects in internationally shared river basins. This is evident in places such as the Nile Basin, where the Ethiopian government’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been occurring without an agreement with downstream Egypt, and the news of its construction has been met with violent protests and strong rhetoric from Egyptian politicians. Water diversions are not the only factor potentially creating tension between countries over shared waters.

Other factors including high population growth, urbanization, increasing water pollution, over-abstraction of groundwater, climate change and water-related disasters can contribute to tensions.

Building institutional capacity (treaties and river basin organizations) is a crucial factor in decreasing the likelihood of conflict over shared waters – particularly if the agreements contain mechanisms that reduce uncertainty and increase flexibility in water management. Past research suggests that a basin will be more resilient to conflict if a basin has international mechanisms able to manage effects of rapid or extreme physical or institutional change. However, the mere presence of institutions does not necessarily indicate that a basin is resilient, nor does it indicate that water-related conflict will be absent.

Countries can exploit treaties since they are not easily enforceable. Treaties can also be structured in a way that exploits (or worsens) already-existing inequities between countries. Treaties can not only solidify power imbalances, but can also lock out public participation or even become a source of conflict themselves. This can lead to a lack of participating by some countries.

Previous studies in analyzing potential future conflict in river basins at a global scale have identified basins at future risk through predictive and forecasting methods, treaty analysis, and climate change. Our recent study aims to contribute to those types of analyses through examining multiple issues – stressors on political relationships due to the development of dams and water diversions, how treaties/river basin organizations can mitigate these stresses, and external socio-environmental factors that could exacerbate these tensions in the near future. We integrate these multi-faceted data to map the risk of potential tensions regarding water and politics in transboundary basins across the globe.


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