19 October 2012
The number of international water conflicts is increasing, raising questions about how governments can effectively manage them. In today’s podcast, Salman MA Salman shares his insights on this issue from more than 30 years of working as a water lawyer.
Prepared by: ISN staff
Editor's note: Due to the bad quality of the phone line, we have published a transcript of the interview.
Managing the use of trans-boundary waters is probably one of the oldest issues on which states have had to cooperate. In most cases cooperation has prevailed. But, if we are to believe certain analysts, conflicts over water resources will increase in the future. On the one hand, the demand for fresh water will rise. On the other, the supply will decrease, at least in certain areas. In this situation it is crucial that international conflicts over the use of water are managed peacefully.
How can international institutions help us do this? Today we discuss this question with Salman MA Salman, a consultant and researcher who was previously the World Bank’s advisor on water law.
ISN: You have been working on water issues for more than thirty years. Have you observed an increase in international water conflicts over that time?
Salman MA Salman: We need to start by defining the word conflict. What do we mean by conflict? Because the word conflict for some people has a higher connotation. For some it means armed conflict, for others it could just mean a difference between two states. So I think we need to agree on what we mean by conflict.
If we look at some of the treaties that deal with such issues, we find different words being used to describe situations where there are issues between states over international waters. Some of the treaties talk about “questions” between states. This is probably the lowest stage of issues between states. Then there are treaties that talk about “differences” between states over international waters. Then the word “dispute” comes in at another stage. Dispute is also used as a broader term for questions, differences and issues. And sometimes, as you have used it, the word “conflict” appears. So, if I understand your question correctly, when you refer to conflict you mean any of those issues: differences, questions, disputes. Is that correct, is that the right point to start from?
Exactly, that’s correct.
So we agree that we are using the word conflict in a wider context to refer to any issues, questions, differences, or disputes between the parties. Starting from that point, the answer to your question – of whether there is an increasing number of water conflicts – is yes. You mentioned in your introduction that there is a finite amount of water in the world. And we have a population increase in the last century. When the century started, we were at about 1.5 billion people and when the century ended it was about 6 billion people. That is a four-fold increase. That means competition over the same amount of water. In many countries, water resources are already exhausted if waters from international rivers and lakes are not taken into account, and so issues of sovereignty arise – the issues of my share, your share, how much do I need, how much do you need, etc. And so these issues arise and conflicts (in the wider sense of the word) pop up spontaneously and generate even larger issues.
And it’s not only at the international level. Within the countries themselves you usually also find conflicts, you find ‘differences,’ between the users at the lower end, whether they are upstream or downstream of a canal. You find these differences between districts in the same province. You have differences within the same country in federal states such as the US or Australia or India, where the difference between the provinces or states involved are often more significant and acute than some of the international disputes. So yes, there has been a significant increase in international water conflict in the last decade and this trend will continue.
I would like to focus on international conflicts between states rather than within states. If we take a broad definition of what a water conflict is, you said that there has been an increase. In the conflicts and disputes in which water plays a role, have the conflicts actually emerged due to water, or has water played a secondary role to ethnic, ideological or historical factors? How important is water as the trigger of these conflicts?
I think the answer is that we have instances of both situations. We have situations where water by itself is the main issue of the conflict between the states. If you look at the Nile states, you have eleven states now, you have limited amounts of water, you have other differences but the main difference is how to share the Nile water. But then you look at other parts of the world. You look at the Jordan River and you find larger political disputes between Israel and its neighbors where water becomes a complicating factor, especially with the scarcity there -- because there is already a political dispute between those states, between Israel and Jordan and Syria and the Palestinians.
The same situation exists in India and Pakistan. Water is scarce, there are problems, and the issue of water becomes more complicated because of historical factors – i.e., the situation in which India and Pakistan were born – and the religious factors. So here water becomes more of a catalyst for deepening or exacerbating the conflict. So, in short, I think we have instances of both situations – situations where water becomes an issue by itself as well situations where water is a catalyst for exacerbating existing conflicts.
That raises the question of whether we can learn lessons from the past in order to solve water conflicts in the future. Are there case studies that can provide us with a blueprint for managing future water conflicts?
From the perspective of the situations that I worked on while with the World Bank and even after leaving the World Bank in the last three years, one could see that where the political will existed there were solutions to problems. And those solutions are usually translated into inclusive agreements that include all the riparian countries and which are then translated into the establishment of a river basin management organization that includes all the states. When you have these situations, you have a lower chance of a conflict and better chances of cooperation.
If you look, for example, at the Danube River in Europe or the Amazon River in South America or the Niger River in West Africa, all the riparian countries are members of a river basin organization. More recently we have the example of the Guaraní Aquifer, a huge ground water system in South America, which is shared by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, where the countries all sat together and worked [towards an agreement]. We have the example of Lake Victoria, where Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and to a lesser extend Burundi and Rwanda all sat together.
So I think the lesson we could draw is that when countries have the political will, and when they translate that political will into inclusive agreements and inclusive river basin management organizations, then the chances of managing conflict, the chances of cooperation, the chances of sharing benefits are far higher than when you have a river that is dominated by one or two or three countries – or when you have an agreement that is not inclusive.
For an example of a situation where a river is dominated by a few countries and where the agreements are not inclusive, look at the Nile. You have an agreement between Sudan and Egypt to which the other Nile states are not parties. Or look at the Mekong River, where China and Burma are not included in the commission, and the other riparians – Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand – are included in the commission. If the agreement is not inclusive, that also does not send the right signals to the donor community that the states in the basin are willing to cooperate.
So, in short: when you have an inclusive river basin management organization, then there is a bigger chance of cooperation and a better chance of managing conflict.
Let’s talk about the role these institutions play in managing water conflicts. What have we learned about the setup of these international institutions and organizations? How should they be set up to effectively manage water conflicts?
I think the first thing is that these institutions need to be constituted as legal entities with authority, legal power, and legal personality, with the ability to contract, borrow money, accept grants, execute projects, and be more than simply a body for the exchange of ideas, because that limited authority will not be sufficient. The most effective river basin management organizations are those that have executive authority to carry out grants and programs, limited legislative authority to issue rules and regulations, and limited judicial authority to resolve conflicts. Those are the kinds of organizations that really work well. Again, I give you the examples of the Danube River, the Amazon River and the Niger River authorities. All three of these institutions have legal authority, executive power, limited legislative powers and limited judicial powers.
Now, if we predict that we will have to deal with an increasing number of water conflicts in the future, the question arises of whether these institutions are ready to deal with a much larger number of conflicts. Would you say they are ready?
As I said, it really depends on the way they are constructed and on the authority that is given to them. For example, recently some institutions were created, but they were created more as administrative agencies for exchanging views on the situation – without any authority to make decisions. And those types of institutions are not going to help. Those institutions are created without any feet to stand on. Institutions with more power and authority have a better chance to succeed. So it really depends on how much power the states are prepared to concede to those institutions.
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