Management and sharing of waters are said to provoke conflicts in the world between States sharing the vital resource. A look on the concept of water conflicts with Stephen McCaffrey.

Does sharing of waters really provoke conflicts between States having to manage the vital resource? More accurately, it awakes underlying tensions between States. For Stephen McCaffrey, lawyer specialized in watercourses management, zones of hydroconflicts exist but conflicts there are not only related to water. Explanations.


When did water become a scarce resource?

The amount of water on Earth has been the same for billions of years and is not likely to change. What has changed is the planet’s human population. It has multiplied many times even only since even the mid-20th century.

In the second half of the 20th century, water specialists and international organizations, such as the United Nations, began to realize that the amount of water per capita was decreasing sharply. And the link between water-borne diseases and poor (or no) sanitation also were better understood during this period.

Perhaps oddly, severe famines during this period, such as that in Ethiopia, received much coverage in the media, but were actually, for the most part, brought on by droughts that prevented growing crops. So, water scarcity was manifested in food scarcity. Finally, it must be said that we have much better information now than we did fifty years ago on these matters.



What is the extent of the water crisis?

It is estimated that 700 to 800 million people lack sufficient clean drinking water. The water crisis concerns water pollution, over-use of rivers and lakes, depletion of underground waters. Internationally, problems often arise when one State sharing a river with another State changes the way it uses the water. It can be by building a dam, diverting some of the water for irrigation purposes or allowing new industrial activities to discharge their waste into the river.


What is the peculiarity of water compared to other resources?

Water is characterised by more complicated problematics than other natural resource issues: it is vital to human life and is also used for a wide range of purposes, from drinking and generating electricity to powering mills and irrigating agricultural lands. And it is also essential to the maintenance of a healthy environment as demonstrated by the conclusions of the Kishenganga case which opposed Pakistan to India. The Permanent Court of Arbitration found that India had the right to use the waters of the Kishenganga River for the production of hydroelectric energy, but it must do so while ensuring a minimum environmental flow to protect water resources, even though the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty made no mention of such an obligation.


How are problems of water management dealt with internationally?

The legal framework for management of transboundary aquifers and watercourses is reflected in the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This treaty is generally accepted as a codification of the rules of customary international law on the subject. There are over 300 treaties between countries sharing freshwater resources, and those treaties often establish their own implementation mechanisms, generally in the form of joint commissions. The implementation of treaties such as the UN Watercourses Convention and other bilateral and regional water agreements will help and bring a sustainable and peaceful management of transboundary waters.


Are water-based conflicts increasing?

Based on the number of disputes submitted to the International Court of Justice, one could conclude that water-based conflicts are increasing. But most water-related disputes are not submitted to the Court, hence this number is only the tip of the iceberg. Only two cases (River Oder, 1929, and Meuse, 1937) concerning the use of shared freshwater resources had been submitted to the World Court until the 1990s. After 1997, year of the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Project case opposing Hungary and Slovakia, there had been a succession of cases, concerning various aspects of the use of rivers through which, or along a bank of which, borders run between countries (Navigational and Related Rights, 2009, Pulp Mills, 2010, Certain Activities, 2015, Construction of a Road, 2015) and dispute over the status and use of the waters of the Silala (Chile v. Bolivia, 2016) were filed to The Hague. Not counting the important Kishenganga Arbitration (2013).


Can water diplomacy contribute to build peace?

Of course, it can. Because, it is fundamentally in the interest of States to cooperate with States they share natural resources with. Conflict is always more expensive than cooperation and its outcome more uncertain. Cooperation can increase the basket of benefits available to all riparian States, getting away from what is otherwise likely to be a zero-sum game where one’s gain is always the other loss. In most cases, wars are not fought over water. Water-based conflict almost always reveals an underlying problem, or problems, between the States concerned, giving rise to tense relations between them, that water or any other trigger can set off.



Are there some international examples of successful water management?

Examples of successful water management include cooperative efforts of European countries concerning the Rhine and the Danube, both of which are governed by treaties that establish joint commissions. We can also think of treaty arrangements between the United States and its neighbours, Canada and Mexico, which also establish joint management commissions. However; power asymmetries can skew equality of participation in the management of shared freshwater resources as illustrated by the relationship between Israel and its neighbours, Lebanon, Jordan, and especially, Palestine.


How climate change is aggravating water crisis?

Severely. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long predicted that arid areas of the world will become even more dry, while humid or well-watered areas will experience unprecedented, torrential rainfall and accompanying floods; and this has been borne out recently. The IPCC has also predict that for each degree of global warming, approximately 7% of the global population is to be exposed to a decrease of renewable water resources of at least 20%.

The uncertainties and changes in water distribution and timing of availability brought about by climate change make it urgent to build regimes for sustainable water management. It will be difficult for even the most advanced countries to cope with these developments alone, and to the extent that shared freshwater resources (including groundwater) are involved, it will be virtually impossible. Thus, cooperation will become even more important as the effects of climate change, already observable, intensify.


In a context of decreasing freshwater availability, how to make a human right to water effective?

A human right to water is not contained in any of the basic human rights instruments. It has emerged, only in the early 1990s, with the realization that governments were often not doing enough to ensure that their populations had access to safe, clean water. In 2003, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment 15, The Right to Water, recognizing that such a right was included in articles 11 and 12 of the ESC Covenant on the rights to an adequate standard of living and health. According to the Comment, the right to water entitles everyone to “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”

The major challenge is in implementation of the right, especially – but not only – in developing countries. International donors, both multilateral and bilateral are supporting the implementation of this right, but it will take time. The difficulties are underscored by the fact that the US State of California, 6th largest economy in the world, recently had as many as 250,000 inhabitants for whom the human right to water was not realized.


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