Trans-Boundary Agreements

Water is an internationally shared resource that is vital for economic growth, food production, and human survival, and as such the water security crisis cannot be solved by technical solutions only. Water crosses national borders in the form of rivers, lakes, and groundwater, and conflict often results when countries try to allocate water. Approximately 260 rivers flow from one country to another and more than forty percent of the world’s population is dependent upon the fresh water from these international rivers, two-thirds of which live in developing countries [6]. A study done by Aaron Wolf and colleagues in 2003 analyzed 1,800 water interactions (consisting of both conflicts and cooperations) that occurred between 1948 and 1999 [1]. They found that three-quarters of water interactions were cooperative and only one fourth involved aggression or conflict. During this same time period, thirty-seven severe disputes involving violence occurred over water [1]. This study demonstrates that water can either be a source of bitter conflict, or it can be an issue that allows countries to work together and promotes peace by the creation of a water allocation treaty that benefits both countries. Because water is a common resource, the dilemma of the tragedy of the commons is pertinent. Countries are motivated to use as much water as possible as quickly as possible to prevent rival states from gaining access and using the water [1]. It’s simple competition. There is risk associated with sharing water and making treaties, because if one country cooperates and the other does not, the cooperating country loses. However, if both countries cooperate, significant losses are avoided for both countries. Mission 2017’s goal is to promote cooperative international agreements concerning transboundary bodies of water using international law and an advisory board affiliated with the UN.

Historical Use of Water as a Means of Control

Water is used as a weapon by countries attempting to coerce other countries into complying with their demands. Water becomes a political issue, and grudges between countries due to ethnic differences or political tension impedes equitable water sharing agreements between countries. Water must be separated from political issues and the use of water as a manipulative tool must be discouraged.

The use of water as a weapon increases regional instability, deepens political divides, and provokes violence [1]. For example, in 1987 Turkey threatened to block water from the Tigris-Euphrates River to Syria because Syria supported the Kurdistan Worker’s Party [1]. Syria agreed to cooperate with Turkey on the issue of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party in return for a maintained flow of 500 cubic meters per second in the Tigris-Euphrates River [4]. This use of water as a leverage tool is dangerous: the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds could become international if Turkey manipulates Syria or Iraq into dealing with the Kurdish populations inside their borders [4].

One problem with water allocation between countries is that more powerful countries have little motivation to stop using water as a means of control and share water equitably with their neighbors, while less powerful countries have little choice but to negotiate. A country with an upstream position on a river maintains a hydrographically powerful position because that country can build dams and divert water before it reaches the downstream countries. Furthermore, countries with greater military clout often take more than their share of water. India has both a stronger central government than Pakistan and a hydrographically superior position on the Indus River, and this was a disincentive for India to reallocate the Indus with Pakistan [5]. Both powerful and weak states distort water resource data to suit their own purposes, which impedes equitable agreements [1]. For example, South Africa underestimated water availability data to reduce the amount it would have to pay to Lesotho for Lesotho’s water, while Lesotho over-exaggerated the data so that it would get more royalties [1]. This type of fact skewing can be resolved by the use of Joint Fact Finding (JFF) teams, which will be discussed later.

Principles of International Law

Currently, water allocation is usually based on history and/or hydrography – the country’s position on the river [1]. Water allocation is based on historical grounds when countries claim that they have a right to water based on the fact that they had access to water in the past. The conflict over the Nile between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan is an example of water allocation based on history. Egypt claims that because it has historically had access to the Nile and exploited it for its own benefit, Ethiopia and Sudan cannot build huge hydropower dams and divert water from the Nile [1]. Egypt threatened Ethiopia with violence when Ethiopia began planning the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam – thus stressing the political situation in this already unstable region. One of the statements made by President Morsi at the Popular Conference on Egypt’s Rights to Nile Water on June 10, 2013 was: “If our share of Nile water decreases, our blood will be the alternative” [10]. Ethiopia is frustrated by Egypt’s argumentative and uncooperative stance [10].The opposite of the historical rights argument is the “doctrine of absolute sovereignty”, in which countries claim that if a river passes through their land they can exploit it with no regard to how it will affect other riparian countries. Using this philosophy an upstream country can divert as much water as it wants, leaving the downstream countries in a state of water scarcity. Water negotiations based on historical rights or hydrographical rights do not promote peace between riparian states because they ignore the water needs of the respective countries.

The principles of current international law regarding water use are more moderate than principles based on history or hydrography. Over all, international law advocates a shift from rights-based negotiation to needs-based negotiation [1]. Rights in this case refer to the sense of entitlement that countries feel towards the water, whether due to hydrographical or historical reasons. Needs-based allocation means that water should be shared based on who actually needs the water. It is more useful to talk about needs than about rights because needs are more readily quantifiable. Because water is considered a human right, a country’s most basic water need should be defined by the amount of water needed to provide for people’s domestic use. The UN standard is between 50 and 100 liters per person per day [8]. Beyond that, “need” is a very debatable word and each country must define and rate their needs according to their priorities. Different countries may rate their needs differently: table 1 shows examples of countries prioritizing needs in different situations. It makes most sense to use an economic analysis when determining secondary needs.

USA/Mexico Boundary Waters (1906, 1944)

USA/Canada Boundary Waters (1910)

Indus Waters Treaty (1960)

Mekong Agreement (1975)

Order of priorities: 1) domestic 1) domestic and sanitary 1) domestic 1) domestic and urban uses
2) agriculture 2) navigation 2) non-consumptive 2) other criteria from Helsinki Rules w/out priority
3) electric power 3) power and irrigation 3) agriculture
4) other industry 4) hydro-power
5) navigation
6) fishing
7) other beneficial uses

Table 1: Prioritizing uses [11]

The Current State of International Law

The basis of modern international water law was formed by the Helsinki Rules of 1966, which were created by the International Law Association (ILA) [1]. The International Law Association is an organization devoted to the study, clarification, and development of international law [5]. The Helsinki rules were further developed in the 1997 UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of Watercourses (UN 97) [1]. The ILA revised its water laws in 2004 at the Berlin Conference. Current international water laws consist of statements advocating public participation, environmental sustainability, equitable and reasonable water utilization, and causing no significant harm. Unfortunately the UN 97 has not yet been completely accepted by the global community. There are currently 35 states that have signed or ratified the treaty (see figure 1). Turkey and China are notable countries that have not signed the convention, and in fact opposed the treaty when it was created in 1997. Also, the U.S. has not signed the treaty, although it was a sponsor of the treaty in 1997, indicating that the U.S. intended to sign the treaty [4]. In addition to the UN 97, there is a convention called the UNECE (United Nations Economic Convention for Europe), a subsection of which is a Water Convention. The Water Convention requires parties to reduce transboundary impact, use transboundary waters in a reasonable and equitable way, and manage them sustainably [2]. In February 2003 the UNECE Water Convention was amended to allow countries outside Europe to join: now it is a global legal framework for transboundary water cooperation [2]. The UN 97 Convention and the UNECE convention are very similar – but the UNECE Convention is focused more on water quality issues, while the UN 97 Convention is concerned with water allocation. The UNECE has more stringent policies than the UN 97 Convention.

Participant Signature Ratification, Acceptance(A), Accession(a), Approval(AA)
Benin  5 Jul 2012 a
Burkina Faso 22 Mar 2011 a
Chad 26 Sep 2012 a
Côte d’Ivoire 25 Sep 1998 
Denmark 30 Apr 2012 a
Finland 31 Oct 1997  23 Jan 1998 A
France 24 Feb 2011 a
Germany 13 Aug 1998  15 Jan 2007 
Greece  2 Dec 2010 a
Guinea-Bissau 19 May 2010 a
Hungary 20 Jul 1999  26 Jan 2000 AA
Iraq  9 Jul 2001 a
Italy 30 Nov 2012 a
Jordan 17 Apr 1998  22 Jun 1999 
Lebanon 25 May 1999 a
Libya 14 Jun 2005 a
Luxembourg 14 Oct 1997   8 Jun 2012 
Montenegro 24 Sep 2013 a
Morocco 13 Apr 2011 a
Namibia 19 May 2000  29 Aug 2001 
Netherlands  9 Mar 2000   9 Jan 2001 A
Niger 20 Feb 2013 a
Nigeria 27 Sep 2010 
Norway 30 Sep 1998  30 Sep 1998 
Paraguay 25 Aug 1998 
Portugal 11 Nov 1997  22 Jun 2005 
Qatar 28 Feb 2002 a
South Africa 13 Aug 1997  26 Oct 1998 
Spain 24 Sep 2009 a
Sweden 15 Jun 2000 a
Syrian Arab Republic 11 Aug 1997   2 Apr 1998 
Tunisia 19 May 2000  22 Apr 2009 
Uzbekistan  4 Sep 2007 a
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 22 Sep 1997 
Yemen 17 May 2000 

Figure 1: Countries that have signed the 1997 UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of Water [12]

Mission 2017’s Recommendations for International Politics

In order to ensure that everybody has access to freshwater and that countries do not use water as a coercive tool, all countries must sign an international convention with clear rules and regulations with respect to key points about water and the transboundary management of water. The UN 97 and UNECE Conventions already contain the major strategies for transboundary negotiations. However, these treaties are not widely accepted. The push for the implementation of these treaties could come from the less powerful countries that are currently being exploited by the more powerful countries that have less incentive to share equitably. These less powerful countries could form blocs in the UN. Additionally, the UN should offer monetary incentives for countries to sign the conventions. The UN could do this by partnering with the World Bank and other international development banks and offering assistance for developing water infrastructure in compliant countries. The UN should put pressure on the World Bank, IMF, and other international development banks to avoid funding water infrastructure projects that are inequitable by the standards of these treaties. The only addition that needs to be made to international law is a clear definition of water as a human right. The UN passed Resolution 64/292, which recognizes the human right to water and sanitation [8]. However, the right to water is not part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the general assembly vote, 122 countries voted in favor of the resolution but 41 abstained, signifying that the concept of water as a universal right is not fully accepted [9]. Once it is written into this declaration that water is a fundamental human right, countries that use water as a power tool will be viewed in a negative light and their international standing will suffer.

The two main problems with international law are that it is vague and there is no effective mechanism for its enforcement. Its vagueness results in conflict because countries argue over the ambiguous meaning of the laws [1]. The problem of vagueness could be resolved by compiling an extensive document of water conflict negotiations in which these principles are applied – basically compiling precedents to provide a standard on which to base future decisions. Even though international law is not enforced, most countries comply with it. They comply because international law creates a process for making treaties and makes countries internationally respectable. Aaron Wolf, a major water scholar, conducted a study that concluded that water-related events are shifting towards more cooperative trends rather than violence because conflict is economically inefficient, strategically unsound, and environmentally damaging [1]. Despite its issues, reliance on international law is a crucial element in achieving equitable outcomes [1].

Methods of Allocation

Water can be allocated in several different ways that fall along the spectrum from “sharing” to “dividing” water. Dividing water is allocating water based on volumetric quantities, while sharing water is more flexible. Volumetric allocation is the best strategy to meet the immediately pressing domestic water needs of people. The domestic water needs of people cannot be compromised, because water is a human right. Therefore, volumetric allocation makes sense because it is a no-compromise strategy – the water must be delivered at any cost. However, the volumetric strategy can fall short because it assumes normal water supply conditions will hold from year to year and disregards natural fluctuation in river flow as well as the unpredictable effects of climate change. In the case of droughts, a country that has agreed to deliver a volumetric amount to another country could be unable to do so [1], which could lead to political tension and the breakdown of the treaty. This is what happened in the case of the Israel-Jordan 1994 Treaty, which was based off volumetric allocation. In this treaty Israel was responsible for supplying Jordan with 50 million cubic meters of water per year. There was a drought in 1999, which resulted in Israel being unable to uphold its end of the bargain and deliver this amount of water to Jordan. Time-based water allocation is water allocation that changes based on climatic conditions, specifically with seasonal changes [1]. Time-based water allocation distributes the risk of drought among states equally. Water can also be allocated based on percentages of total flow, which would account for droughts and the fluctuations in river flow over time. In addition, a combination of time-based allocation and volumetric-based allocation or a combination of time-based allocation and percentages of total flow could be used. Treaties should be re-evaluated yearly and adjusted to fit the current conditions. Other factors that should be considered are the population and economic growth rates of the country. The treaty will not be relevant for long if the country’s annual water budget is exploding along with its population.

Public participation

Public participation is essential for equitable water allocations at all levels: international, national, and local. In both Integrated Watershed Resource Management philosophy and in the International Law Association’s Berlin Rules the participation in affected people in the decision-making process is emphasized. It makes sense that those who are going to be affected by the decision should have a say in the decision – otherwise there may be widespread resentment towards the government or even protests. Local people have an intimate knowledge of the land and society in which they live, and often have insight and knowledge that experts do not have access to. People do not have to be “educated” to participate in discussions about water allocation. Local knowledge is too often ignored by the experts and politicians making the water allocation decisions who may be out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Transboundary water negotiations should involve all stakeholders. Stakeholders are all individuals and groups who are going to be affected by water allocations [1]. Each group should be invited to send a representative to the discussion table. Representing a full range of stakeholder interests increases the credibility of a water diplomacy effort: if groups are excluded they may claim that results of effort are illegitimate because they were not included and may try to block the implementation of the decision. Stakeholder assessments are a way to engage stakeholders in the negotiation process. Stakeholder assessments are conducted by a neutral professional who conducts interviews engaging stakeholders and summarizes findings in a document. The assessor suggests an agenda, a timetable, ground rules, and a budget for the project based on interviews [3]. An alternative or a supplement to a stakeholder assessment is an informal problem-solving forum. A problem-solving forum could have a town council structure. A problem-solving forum consisting of stakeholders does not substitute for the formal decision-making done by government officials, but rather supplements it [3]. For example, in July 1999 in Zimbabwe, stakeholder participation was accomplished through the Pungwe Sub-Catchment Council, which consisted of water users in the area. These users included commercial farmers, communal farmers, and local authorities. This Sub-Catchment council was able to come up with unified plans that could then be suggested to the higher government structure. The articles on local context and community involvement and education provide more detail on this issue.

Case Study: A Successful water allocation

Water has the potential to bring countries together and strengthen political bonds, as can be seen in the case of the LHWP treaty between Lesotho and South Africa [1]. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project Treaty (LHWP) of 1986 effectively reduced political tensions between Lesotho and South Africa. There were political tensions because Lesotho is a small country completed surrounded by a more powerful country, South Africa, and also because Lesotho opposed South Africa’s apartheid system. The two countries made an agreement to allocate the Orange River, which originates in Lesotho and flows westward across South Africa. South Africa is much more developed than Lesotho and needed water to fuel its agricultural and industrial development. Lesotho, on the other hand, wanted to start developing and needed economic aid and electrical power but did not have sufficient infrastructure to develop its water resources [1]. However, Lesotho receives higher amounts of precipitation than South Africa and has abundant water – its surface water is estimated at 4.73 km3 per year which greatly exceeds water demand. Yet less than two percent of Lesotho’s estimated renewable water resources are extracted on a yearly basis [1]. In 1978, a team of experts, including government officials and consultants, from both countries collaborated to conduct feasibility and cost analysis studies. Finally, in 1986, an agreement was reached between Lesotho and South Africa and led to the creation of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. According to this treaty, Lesotho would supply water each year to South Africa according to volumes determined by a mutual agreement between each country. The treaty was mediated by the World Bank. By the end of the project in 2020, the flow of water from Lesotho to South Africa will be 70 cubic meter per second for an estimated amount of 2.207 billion cubic meter of water per year. The redirected water coming from Lesotho is used to generate electricity (72 MW) [5] prior to reaching South Africa.

The LHWP treaty was able to satisfy both Lesotho and South Africa and provide an equitable allocation based on the needs of the two countries. The LHWP treaty outlines a plan for the construction of a system of five dams and 200 km of tunnels to transfer water from the Orange River in Lesotho to the Vaal River, and bring water to South Africa’s heavily industrialized and economically important Gauteng area [1]. In return Lesotho receives hydroelectric power it sorely needs and economic assistance in terms of yearly fees of $46 million paid by South Africa. This treaty was successful in increasing the stability of the region, stimulating the economy, and creating social benefit through the implementation of the world’s largest water transfer project [1].



Figure 2: A map showing Lesotho and its boundary with south Africa. The water is taken from redirected from the Orange River to South Africa [13]

There are several lessons that can be learned from the success of the LHWP treaty. First, the World Bank was used as mutually agreed upon third party to mediate the negotiations. A neutral third party is essential to creating a mutually equitable agreement. If the third party has political ties or sympathies with one country over the other, the equitability of the agreement is called into question and the other country may withdraw from negotiations. Because the World Bank sponsored the project, it had a financial stake in making sure the treaty was successful. The World Bank also conducted the technical, financial, and environmental studies necessary for the creation of the treaty. The involvement of the World Bank helped reduce the prejudices of foreign investors because many foreign countries were originally reluctant to deal with apartheid South Africa [1]. Another important fact to note is that all impacted and interested stakeholders were involved in making the treaty. Lack of involvement of shareholders negatively impacts the outcome of treaties [1]. An incremental approach to problem solving also proved to be effective in negotiating the LHWP treaty. An incremental approach means to tackle the problem bit by bit with negotiation spread over years rather than all at once. For example, after the original 1986 LHWP Treaty was signed, six expanding protocols were added to address new changes. Eventually the LHWP led to a more comprehensive agreement involving all stakeholders within the Orange River basin [1]. Step-by-step problem solving makes project implementation more likely to occur because it is easier to tackle complex problems and decreases the likelihood countries will come to an impasse. Additionally, going in steps and solving parts of the problem or bits of the problem creates trust and goodwill that can help when negotiations go into more controversial topics [1]. In addition to a neutral third party mediator, joint fact-finding (JFF) teams composed of members from both countries are important parts of the negotiation team. JFF teams are joint fact finding teams, which collect and evaluate hydrologic data about water resources. Teams should have members from both countries, so that both countries can be in agreement about the data [1]. Creating a team with members from both countries also promotes friendly relationships between countries. The last point that should be taken from this case study is the continuous evolution of the treaty. Each year the treaty is re-evaluated and readjusted – this is essential for maintaining a relevant agreement.


The use of water should be based on the principle that water is a human right. The UN 97 Convention and the UNECE Convention embody effective and important water negotiation principles, but the conventions need to be signed by as many countries as possible, as soon as possible. The UN 97 Convention has been around for sixteen years and only 35 countries have signed or ratified it. Less powerful countries should band together to push for a more widespread acceptance of these treaties. Additionally, the UN should partner with the World Bank and other international banks to offer financial assistance to build water infrastructure for compliant countries. The amendment that water is a human right needs to be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. International law advocates good practices such as a shift from rights-based to needs-based water allocation and a focus on avoiding harm, but it is vague. International law should be refined by compiling a database of water conflict negotiations so that there are precedents, which gives a basis for how the laws should be interpreted. A non-profit organization must be created to advise countries on transboundary agreement strategies. These strategies include water allocation methods: specifically using volumetric water allocation for dividing water for domestic needs and use time-based water allocation and percentage of total flow allocation for other situations. A country’s first priority water need is an adequate supply of clean, safe water for domestic use. After that the countries must prioritize their needs and the treaty should aim to satisfy their most important needs first. The country’s future growth should also be considered. Treaties must be updated each year—modulated and tweaked to fit the changing situation and create a robust treaty. Transboundary agreements should be moderated by neutral third parties and the public should be involved in decision-making.



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