Mandatory Co-Operation: Because Water Knows No Political Boundaries, Water-Sharing Nations Must Work Together

By Pedersen, Jennifer; Fraser, Evan D. G. | Alternatives Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Mandatory Co-Operation: Because Water Knows No Political Boundaries, Water-Sharing Nations Must Work Together


Pedersen, Jennifer, Fraser, Evan D. G., Alternatives Journal


RESOURCE scarcity breeds conflict -- or so the news seems to tell us. In October 2002, Israel and Lebanon came close to exchanging gunfire over a Lebanese plan to divert water from the Wazzani River, one of the head-waters of the Jordan River and an important source of fresh water for Israel.

In 2000-2001, the United States and Mexico exchanged heated words over water in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin, which straddles Texas and Northern Mexico. The basin supports a lucrative export market in alfalfa, melons and chile peppers on the Mexican side, while providing irrigation for 40 crops, including citrus and sugar cane, on the US side of the border. The Mexicans claimed that drought had reduced aquifers to 20 percent of historic capacity while American farmers countered that Mexican mismanagement exacerbated the problem.

Tension does emerge between countries over shared watersheds, usually as a result of disagreement over who has the right to use the water in question, dam construction, failure to take responsibility for water pollution, or when there is not enough water to meet demand. But there has not been an actual war over water for at least 4500 years. Moreover, a growing body of research shows that under certain circumstances, transborder water management can become a source of co-operation between nations.

The International Joint Commission, established in 1909 to prevent water disputes between Canada and the US, is a North American example of successful international water co-operation. On the other side of the world, the Mekong River Commission works to ensure that member nations co-operate in all fields of sustainable development, including the utilization, management and conservation of water. Although the commission comprises only four of the six countries in the Mekong Basin (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam), it maintains a dialogue with Burma and China, thereby providing an important diplomatic forum in a developing region with sometimes strained relations.

Water scarcity is not necessarily a destabilizing force. But political stability does seem to be a prerequisite to transborder water co-operation. In the late 1990s, finally recovering from decades of civil war, Mozambique experienced severe flooding that was partly caused by extreme weather and partly by upstream mismanagement in neighbouring countries. Due to the war, Mozambique had been unable to enter into water management agreements with neighbouring countries -- and the impact of this isolation was devastating. According to the Red Cross, flooding killed thousands and stranded up to 100,000 people, destroyed essential infrastructure and redistributed land mines to already-cleared areas. …

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