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Cross-border water resources sharing: Conflict or cooperation?

Cross-border water resources sharing: Conflict or cooperation?

Water scarcity in Thailand

Moscow announced early in Russia’s invasion that it had destroyed a dam at the North Crimean Canal. The dam was built by Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It blocked vital water supplies to the occupied territory, resulting in severe water shortages. 

The war in Ukraine does not concern the water supply to Crimea. But the Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology details examples of wateras a weapon, casuality or trigger of conflict going back millennia. Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict at Uppsala University in Sweden and former UNESCO chair for international water cooperation, says Crimea’s water supply is another example of this. 

However, shared water resources can also provide an opportunity for cooperation. Ashok states that even in Crimea, if the international community had engaged Russia and Ukraine to resolve the humanitarian issue of water, it might have given them “a possibility or forum to negotiate, and to discuss how to deal with this issue and other issues.” 

Water tension 

Around 40% of the world’s population lives along rivers that cross international borders. The climate crisis has made it more difficult to share these vital resources fairly.

In February, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam finally turned on, despite continued objections from Egypt, Sudan, and others who have long feared the dam would have an impact on their farmlands further below the Nile. 

Dams built along the Mekong River, China, have been blamed, in part, for the drought in Thailand, and Cambodia. Tensions between India, Pakistan and China have been increasing over their shared Indus River Basin waters. 

The online tool Water Peace and SecurityThe World Resources Institute and others created this map to show a planet that is rife with tensions over water. Scott Moore, author “Subnational Hydropolitics” (Conflict, Cooperation and Institution-Building In Shared River Basins), says that such unrest is more common within countries than between them. 

Moore states that international tensions about water rarely escalate to full-blown conflict. When disputes do flare up, Moore says water is often used as a proxy for other issues. 

Moore states that while the intuition is that water causes tension and conflict, Moore believes it’s usually the reverse. Moore says that geopolitical tensions or economic disputes translate into water.

In the case of dams going up on the Mekong, for example, complex factors resulting in low waters levels in downstream countries can be downplayed in the face of China’s massive campaign on dam-building upstream. Moore said that there is increased anxiety among neighbouring countries about the potential consequences of China’s growing power. 

Water scarcity in Thailand

Thailand’s communities are now struggling to find water due to Chinese dams

Politics and droughts in the Middle East

Water shortages in Iran have fueled protests , dubbed the “Uprising of the Thirsty”, since last summer. Meanwhile, tensions flare in long-standing disputes between Afghanistan and Iran over the Kamal Khan Dam that is located upstream of the Helmand River. 

Susanne Schmeier, associate professor of water diplomacy and law at IHE Delft in The Netherlands, believes that blaming neighbouring countries for hoarding can be a convenient diversion to domestic issues about water pricing or inefficient water infrastructure.

Schmeier explains that Iran faces a strong domestic water crisis, which could include protests by farmers and conflicts between urban residents and farmers. “You also see strong statements from Iranian policymakers towards Afghanistan, saying, We want our fair share of this river.”

Iran Krise l Proteste gegen Wasserknappheit in Isfahan

Iranians protest water scarcity

Iran accuses its upstream neighbour of hoarding, but it is also building dams along the Helmand, other rivers, and a tributary from the Tigris that flows onto Iraq, which faces water scarcity problems. 

Drought-stricken Iraq blames Turkey and Iran for its water woes. Turkey has dams on the Euphrates and the Tigris, and both Syria and Iraq claim that these dams are causing them to dry up.  

Tensions are being exacerbated by climate change 

Turkey had to release 500 cubic meters of Euphrates water per second to neighboring Syria when it was constructed in the 1980s. Turkey blames climate change as the reason for the flow that is now well below its original goal. However, Syrian Kurds living across the border believe that Turkey is punishing them for being political rivals. 

Swain states that tensions over Ethiopia’s GERD Hydropower are also rooted within a tangle geopolitical as well as climatic factors. The dam could be mutually beneficial in theory: Sudan and Egypt could benefit from its cheap electricity. The dam could also be used as a control point for the flow of the Nile, to prevent flooding that has decimated parts of Sudan in recent times. 

The question is, however, what might happen if Ethiopia holds back water for a few more dry years to ensure its reservoir is sufficient. Swain states that climate change is the reason for this fear. 

Water as a depoliticized’ topic

International cooperation regarding the Nile waters would be easier if upstream as well as downstream countries didn’t fall on opposite sides. Swain stated that the world is divided into two camps: China and Russia are supporting Ethiopia, while Egypt and Sudan are closer to the West.

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Yet Mehmet Altingoz, who researches transboundary management at the US University of Delaware believes focusing on the humanitarian issue of Crimea’s water supply could have helped diffuse tensions along precisely this global divide. 

“NATO, the West and Crimea missed an opportunity to reduce tensions in the region” He argues in an article he co-authored. 

He said to DW, “It’s simpler to cooperate over environmental assets.” His research has focused on Turkey and Armenia, two countries that do not have diplomatic relations but share ownership over a dam from the Soviet era that is located at their dividing border. 

Altingoz explains that every month, a technical committee made up of members from rival nations meets to decide how water should be allocated. “There is extensive cooperation over the water body, and it is improving relations locally.”

Water for cooperation, not conflict

The UN estimates that close to 300 international water treaties were signed since 1948. However, the majority of these treaties are rarely mentioned in the media. 

“There are far more instances and examples and cases of cooperation over water especially if we define that in terms of international agreements dealing with the management of shared water resources than there are instances or cases or examples of conflict,” Moore said. 

Though water tensions have regularly flared between India and Pakistan, the rival nations have worked together through the Indus Water Treaty, dating back to the 1960s, even as greater tensions ignited, Schmeier says: “India and Pakistan, even when they were at the brink of nuclear war, kept meeting under the treaty.” 

The Danube Bend

The Danube is a source of tension and cooperation for 19 countries that share its basin.

She also mentions the stability pact, which worked to establish peace in the Balkans after war in the 1990s. It took the shared waters of Danube as a starting place for cooperation.  

Schmeier stated that the countries reached an agreement and set up a river basin organisation. This brought them together. Then, trade and cleanup of war remnants and other things were possible.

Edited and written by Jennifer Collins.

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