Trends in transboundary water disputes and dispute resolution

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Aaron T. Wolf1 and Jesse H. Hamner, Oregon States University - USA


"Water" and "war" are two topics being assessed together with increasing frequency. The approximately 250 international watersheds cover more than one half of the land surface of the globe, and affect 40% of its population. Water is a resource which ignores political boundaries, fluctuates in both space and time, has multiple and conflicting demands on its use, and whose international law is poorly developed, contradictory, and unenforceable. As a consequence, recent articles in the academic literature (Cooley 1984; Starr 1991; Gleick 1993; and others) and popular press (Bulloch and Darwish 1993; World Press Review 1995) point to water not only as a cause of historic armed conflict, but as the resource which will bring combatants to the battlefield in the 21st century.

The historic reality has been quite different from what the "water wars" literature would have one believe. In modern history, only seven minor skirmishes have been waged over international waters -- invariably other inter-related issues also factor in. Conversely, over 3,600 treaties have been signed historically over different aspects of international waters, many showing tremendous elegance and creativity for dealing with this critical resource.
Despite the fact that countries seem not to go to war over water, the relationship between historic water scarcity and acute conflict still needs to be assessed. However, such an investigation should focus on more-subtle relations between water and its users: historic evidence does suggest, for example, a relationship between access to clean water supplies and political stability. No better example exists, perhaps, than the Bangladeshi relationship with the Ganges -- as the river's flow decreased as a consequence of Indian diversions, not only did severe environmental degradation result, but farmers and town-dwellers whose water supply became salinized formed a wave of environmental refugees, many thousands of whom flooded into India. This water-induced instability has recurred throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
Once cooperative water regimes are established through treaty, however, they turn out to be tremendously resilient over time, even between otherwise hostile riparians, and even as conflict is waged over other issues. International water regimes continued to function in the Mekong basin since 1957, despite the Vietnam War; the Jordan basin (between Israel and Jordan) since 1955, even as these riparians until only recently were in a legal state of war; and along the Indus, even through India-Pakistan warfare.
Given this critical role of transboundary water agreements, the processes which lead to their necessity, negotiation, and structure have been surprisingly poorly studied. This paper describes three components of transboundary water issues. The first section investigates the history of transboundary water conflicts and suggests that the "water wars" literature simply is not based on an historic reality. The second section offers insight into the much richer history of water dispute resolution as exemplified in water treaties which have been negotiated over time. The major findings of the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database are presented as evidence for the cooperation-inducing characteristics of transboundary waters. Nevertheless, and argument for the future based on the past would be disingenuous. Moreover, as Lowi and Shaw describe in the Introduction to this work, security issues are much broader than "simple" questions of war and peace. Lowi's chapter shows in detail how water, while not leading to warfare, has tremendous impacts on regional security issues. In light of this, the third section describes possible indicators to anticipate future water-related tension, based on fourteen detailed case studies of the Database.

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