5. Transboundary Water Conflicts

Learning Objectives

  • Elaborate some of the main water types of transboundary conflicts.
  • Describe major advances in dealing with these conflicts.
  • Analyze other case studies and suggest how these conflicts can be addressed.

Key Concepts

Equitable use, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, sources of conflict

1. Introduction to transboundary conflicts

There are hundreds of international conflicts over transboundary resources, including rivers, lakes, and more recently underground aquifers. The history of some of these conflicts are new, as dams or polluting factories are build. But, others are centuries old tensions, often by co-riparian who depend on the same rivers. International law which is directly concerned water resources has been  undergoing significant evolution in the last 125 years. Taking the nineteenth century Harmon Doctrine (that a state has the right to control all water resources in its territory, regardless of other states rights) as a starting point, the present field of customary international law principles represent significant changes. However, these changes have done little to solve persistent tensions between a state’s ability to exploit resources within its territory without interference from neighbors against the broader global need to allocate and share resources equitably.

Key to these issues is understanding the substantive and procedural rights and responsibilities that riparian states have. Substantive rights focus on the broad principles that guide the legal process answering, “how should uses of the water in a transboundary…river be allocated between the two or more states in the watershed.” Procedural issues are more specific and focus on how states can impact their shared watercourses. Combined, the answers provided by international law help provide a roadmap to help all states access this necessary resource, plan their development, and prevent and settle disputes.

The body of international water law has been propelled forward by the work of the International Law Commission, which codified existing principles of international water law in Watercourses Convention. This instrument was designed as a framework agreement and some drafters believed it could form the basis for future regional agreements, such as the Nile’s Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).

The two main readings for this section frame transboundary conflicts in terms of real world international law. Mr. Kinna starts with a socio-historical framing of the river, then outlines the types of conflicts that have arisen there. He then discusses how specific legal instruments have been used to address these conflicts and how international law in the form of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) has been used to improve and address the river’s governance. The text of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UNWC) also makes a outstanding introduction to the material because it is a key international legal instrument for transboundary disputes.

2. Further understanding major transboundary water conflicts and how are they addressed

The following radio broadcast by National Public Radio’s Planet Money discusses the hydro-political relationship between South Africa and Lesotho.  As this radio broadcast discusses, long-term legal agreement has been reached which has both financial benefits and material disadvantages for the residents of Lesotho.

3. Applying the UNWC to a major transboundary water conflict

This video by Dr. Salman Salman discussing the Nile river further explores how the UNWC and international law can be used to address potential conflict on one of the world’s most contested shared water resources.

4. Thinking outside the river

Many people think of trans-boundary water conflicts as applying only to rivers, which form national boundaries, such as the Nile. However, the concept can be applied to many different scales in different contexts.

For example, there’s increasing work being done on the role of conflict around and cooperation around trans-boundary aquifers. These underground water resources can be extremely difficult to govern because of complications arising from measurement, and even knowing their precise boundaries. Similarly, these questions can be applied to other scales. For example, water resources which are shared between two or more states, such as in the United States, where numerous states (such as Georgia, Alabama, and Florida) have have had a war of words over the sharing of water resources important for their cities and agriculture.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

  • There are a number of factors provided to help settle trans-boundary disputes. Which do you think are most important? Are there any other factors, not listed, that you think are important?
  • Do you think there should be more significant involvement from international parties to settle transboundary disputes? Should the states themselves be left to settle any conflict?
  • How do international conflicts impact the daily lives of people? How can farmers and city dwellers become involved?

Key Readings

Further Readings

Other related International Waters Lessons


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