Nov 2012: Analysis
A Global Treaty on Rivers:
Key to True Water Security
No broad-based international agreement on sharing rivers currently
exists, even though much of the world depends on water from rivers
that flow through more than one nation. But that may be about to
change, as two separate global river treaties are close to being
by Fred Pearce
Is peace about to break out on the worldï¿½s rivers?
It is amazing that until now there has been no global agreement on
sharing international rivers. From the Mekong to the Jordan and the
Niger to the Euphrates, there has been nothing to stop upstream
countries from building giant dams that cut off all flows downstream.
Yet in the coming weeks we could have two such treaties.
First, the continuing bad news: Belligerent countries are still
exerting their hydrological muscle. Just this month, Laos began
construction of the first dam on the main stem of the lower Mekong
River in Southeast Asia. It hopes that the Xayaburi dam will help it
become the regionï¿½s hydroelectric powerhouse.
On the upper Mekong, China has already built four giant dams,
including one taller than the Eiffel Tower. These dams are all being
constructed without the approval of downstream neighbors, including
the 60 million people in Cambodia and Vietnam who fear the barriers
will block fish migration and deprive them of fertile silt for their
Meanwhile in Africa, Ethiopia last year began work on the Renaissance
Dam on the Nile, which will be the largest hydroelectric dam in
Africa. Again, downstream nations Egypt and Sudan had no say. And in
the Middle East, fears grow that Turkey could use its control of the
Water is the most important global resource that does not have
any international agreement.
as a weapon in any future border conflict with war-torn Syria, a
downstream nation that is heavily dependent on the river.
More than 40 percent of the worldï¿½s people live in 263 river basins
that straddle international borders. The Danube, Rhine, Congo, Nile,
Niger, and Zambezi rivers all pass through nine or more countries.
Transboundary rivers contain 60 percent of the worldï¿½s river flows ï¿½
for two-thirds of them, there are no agreements on water sharing.
This is dangerous. Guinea threatens to barricade the River Niger,
which could dry out the inner Niger delta, a wetland jewel on the edge
of the Sahara in neighboring Mali. In September, Vladimir Putin
visited the mountain states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central
Asia, where he announced financial backing for more dams on the Amu
Darya and Syr Darya rivers to generate hydropower in those countries.
But he ignored opposition from downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
who fear the dams will deprive them of summer flows to irrigate their
Water is today the most important global resource that does not have
any international agreement, says World Bank lawyer Salman M.A.
Salman. Abstractions of water from rivers have tripled in the past 50
years, mostly for irrigation. The entire flows of some rivers are now
being taken for human use. And the natural flows of many others are
disrupted by hydroelectric dams that only allow water to pass when the
dam owners want electricity.
What treaties there are, often date back to colonial times. In
international law, the Nile is governed by deals drawn up by the
British in 1929 and 1959, which give all the water to downstream Egypt
and Sudan and none to the eight upstream nations. Those laws are
discredited, and in 2010, six upstream nations led by Ethiopia reached
their own accord ï¿½ a treaty that Egypt and Sudan have not joined.
Back in 1997, the UN agreed to a ï¿½convention on the non-navigable uses
of international watercourses.ï¿½ It did not lay down hard and fast
rules for sharing waters, but it was a statement of principle that
nations should ensure the ï¿½sustainable and equitable use of shared
Only three countries voted against: China, Turkey and Burundi ï¿½ all of
them upstream countries on major rivers. China is the water tower of
Asia. Its Tibetan plateau is the source of the Indus, Brahmaputra,
Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong rivers. But in refusing to sign the
treaty, China asserted that it had ï¿½indisputable territorial
sovereignty over those parts of international watercourses that flow
through its territory.ï¿½
To come into force, the treaty required 35 nations to ratify it in
their legislatures. To date only 28 countries have done so. Other
refuseniks include the U.S. and Britain, an original sponsor of the
treaty. But the momentum for ratification is picking up. Eight of the
28 ratifiers did so in the last three years. France has become a
cheerleader for the convention. Jean-Pierre Thebault, Franceï¿½s
environment ambassador, told a meeting I attended in Helsinki in
September that he hoped enough nations would join for it to come into
force in time for the UNï¿½s International Year of Water Cooperation in
Meanwhile the treaty has a counterpart: the Helsinki convention. This
began as a 1992 deal on river cooperation between European nations
under the UN Economic Commission for Europe. But at a meeting in Rome
set for Nov. 28-30, its members are likely to vote to allow any nation
to join. Early potential signatories include Iraq and Tunisia.
Franceï¿½s Thebault says the two treaties could complement each other.
For while the 1992 treaty is a statement of principle about water
sharing, the Helsinki convention is ï¿½bolder,ï¿½ with formal arrangements
for drawing up deals.
The Rome meeting of the Helsinki convention is also likely to extend
its purview to drawing up rules for sharing underground water
reserves. It could, for instance, help save the ancient water beneath
Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which the two countries are currently racing
to pump out before the other does. Likewise, it could manage the
Nubian aquifer beneath Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Chad, which is
currently being tapped by Libya; and the Guarani aquifer that
straddles the borders between Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.
Whether global governance of water can help the aquatic environment is
another matter. WWF, which has lobbied for countries to ratify the UN
treaty, wants future river deals to keep some water as ï¿½environmental
flowsï¿½ to maintain freshwater fisheries and wetlands. But the danger
is that the opposite could happen. If downstream nations are more
confident of how much water will reach them, they may build more dams
to capture it.
This has happened on the Indus River, where a 1960 treaty brokered by
the World Bank shared out the river and its tributaries between
upstream India and downstream Pakistan. The result has been more dams
and an ecological disaster downstream. The Indus dries up for months
at a time, the coastline is retreating, its giant delta is peppered
with dead mangroves, and salty seawater has invaded farms.
But hopes are nonetheless high that greater sharing of the worldï¿½s
rivers could be imminent. David Grey, a water policy expert formerly
with the World Bank and now at Oxford University, says there is
growing recognition of the need for global oversight of the worldï¿½s
water. He says it could, at the least, end the habitual hydrological
secrecy of many upstream nations, who treat river flow data as state
Speaking in Vienna last month, Grey pointed out that India rarely
tells Bangladesh what flows are coming down the Ganges. The result is
disruption to farming and unnecessary damage and deaths from flooding.
Likewise, he believes better sharing of Nile flow could assuage
Egyptian fears about the capacity of upstream dams on the Nile to cut
off its vital supplies. But in reality, Grey said, there is so much
water in the Nile that ï¿½you could take as much water out of the river
in east Africa as you want, and Egypt would never notice the
Water peacemakers argue that sharing water isnï¿½t necessarily a zero-
sum game. Both sides can gain. In recent weeks, authorities in the
U.S. and Mexico have carved out a new agreement on sharing the
Colorado River, which irrigates much of the arid Southwest before
passing over the border into Mexico and delivering a tiny saline
trickle through its desiccated delta into the Gulf of California.
An existing treaty, signed in 1944, is very one-sided, giving Mexico
the right to only a tiny amount of the flow, which Mexico finds it
difficult to use because it has few storage structures and because
many irrigation canals were damaged in an earthquake. Under the new
deal ï¿½ which has been approved by U.S. regional authorities and awaits
federal sign-off ï¿½ Mexico would be able to store some of its water
allocation in Lake Mead, the huge U.S. storage reservoir on the river
in Nevada and Arizona. Meanwhile, U.S. water authorities will be
allowed to invest in lining irrigation canals across the border in
Mexico to save water. Those authorities will then be entitled to keep
back the equivalent amount of water on the American side of the border
and use it for their own purposes.
With this arrangement, everybody gets more water. There might even,
U.S. regulators hint, be more left for the Coloradoï¿½s dried-out delta.
It is an optimistic sign of how water peace could take hold ï¿½ and one
worth clinging to, amid the wreckage of the current hydrological
anarchy on the worldï¿½s rivers.
POSTED ON 19 Nov 2012
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