Factbook News: New Cases on Transboundary Water Conflict and Cooperation

Transboundary Waters: A Source of Conflict or Cooperation?

Fresh water is an indispensable resource for human life and ecosystem health. A considerable amount of fresh water resources accessible for human use are shared between two or more countries. Around the world, there are 286 transboundary river basins, and 148 countries include territory within one or more of these basins. Contrary to expectations, internationally shared water resources have long acted as a source of cooperation rather than conflict between riparian states.

However, as water resources are dwindling due to population growth, industrialization and urbanization, the future may look nothing like the past. In the years and decades to come, challenges such as water scarcity, water pollution and extreme weather events (floods and droughts) are likely to be further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Taken together, these combined pressures might act as a destabilizing force in transboundary relations, especially if institutional mechanisms in the form of treaties or basin organizations are weak.

New Transboundary Water Cases in the ECC Factbook

Signs of destabilization and resulting disputes are already visible in a number of transboundary river basins, as illustrated by a series of new cases in the ECC Factbook. In the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia, for example, the combined effects of economic development, population growth and climate change have resulted in tensions between riparian states. In particular, dam-building activities in China and Laos have alarmed downstream countries highly dependent on Mekong waters for local livelihoods. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), established in 1995 by the lower Mekong states, has so far only partly managed to act as a strong cooperative counterweight in Mekong hydro-politics, especially due to China’s reluctance to join the MRC as a full member.

In another part of Asia, post-conflict reconstruction efforts, economic development aspirations, population growth and climate change have combined to pose challenges to inter-riparian relations. In the Helmand River Basin and the Harirud-Murghab River Basin in Western Asia, mutual distrust and tensions have increased between upstream Afghanistan and downstream Iran. While Afghanistan is trying to revive its war-stricken economy through the construction of hydro-electric dams, such moves are perceived by Iran as a direct threat to water security in its eastern and northeastern provinces. Without a functioning water treaty in place, bilateral relations have become increasingly volatile since reconstruction efforts started in Afghanistan.

Post-conflict developments, coupled with the expected impacts of climate change, have also affected the management of water resources between Sudan and South Sudan. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, several water-related issues remain to be resolved between the two countries. These concern the sharing of Nile waters, water conservation projects, and South Sudan’s stance towards the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Cooperative Framework Agreement. In the absence of binding international law and institutionalized mechanisms for cooperation, and due to Egyptian concerns, these outstanding issues could spill over into broader Nile Basin politics.

The Importance of Institutions in Dealing with Rapid Change

Water-related challenges have also emerged further south on the African continent, namely in the Orange River Basin, which is shared, amongst others, by South Africa and Namibia. Disagreements include the demarcation of a common border, water allocation and water pricing, and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Existing water scarcity in the lower Orange River Basin is likely to be further aggravated by a changing climate.

Despite the conflict potential harboured by existing disagreements, however, the basin’s high level of institutionalized cooperation (through the SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses, the basin organization ORASECOM and other mechanisms) has so far helped alleviate bilateral disagreements over shared water resources. While the possibility of water conflict has thus appeared on the horizon in river basins around the world, this case underscores the importance of institutional resilience in maintaining transboundary peace and stability in the face of rapid change.

To learn more about the transboundary water series and other cases, please visit the ECC Factbook.