Cover Image
close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentWater for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"
View the documentThe work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management
View the documentStanding in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra
View the documentHydropolitics along the Danube
View the documentCity water: 21st century challenge
View the documentNew ways to govern the seas
Open this folder and view contentsRavaged seas in Central Asia
View the documentHistory's plagued seas: The Mediterranean
View the documentClimate, history and water
View the documentWater: The 21st century's oil?
View the documentA chemical eye on water
View the documentWhen oil troubles waters

Water: The 21st century's oil?

By Mikiyasu Nakayama

Heightened competition for water poses a major threat to human security the world over- it could well prove to be the major source of conflict in the 21st century, not unlike oil in our present era.

As various articles in this issue of Work in Progress make clear, water conflicts have arisen in a wide range of geopolitical conditions - from the Danube to the Caspian Sea to the teeming Ganges-Brahmaputra plain. Environmental degradation, population growth, and inequitable access all feed these discords. They pose severe strains on the mediation capabilities of the United Nations family - a group which, on the record, has not proven terribly effective to date in settling international water disputes. UN successes here, it must be acknowledged, have been limited.

As the world population continues to expand, and consumption levels spiral upwards, water problems are bound to intensify. Water could be the oil of the 21st century - a resource vital to all life, that is in increasingly scarce supply. Each year, underground aquifers are depleted further - a clear case of robbing the future to pay for the present, eating the seed corn. There is little doubt struggles over water will continue to confront the United Nations and its various responsible agencies. The challenge is to learn more about international mediation efforts -both successes and failures. This is an effort discussed by Mikiyasu Nakayama in the following article. Professor Nakayama, who is on the Faculty of Agriculture of Agriculture of Utsunomiya University in Japan, has been intimately involved in United Nations research on water resources, and has visited a number of the potential water trouble spots in the world - from the Aral Sea to Lake Chad to the Zambezi River. - Editor

More than 200 rivers flow through two or more countries. Many lake basins and groundwater aquifers spill across (or under) national boundaries. Some 60 per cent of the world's population live in the watersheds of these international freshwater systems. There is no enforceable law governing the allocation and use of these international waters. Still, this is an arena that virtually demands United Nations attention.

Providing people with adequate supplies of freshwater is becoming a major problem in many regions of the world owing to concerns like growing population, urbanization and environmental degradation. More rational use of shared resources in international freshwater systems is obviously highly desirable. However, the potential for regional tensions and conflicts over shared freshwater resources is likely to escalate substantially, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions where water is already a constraint to economic growth.

Many concerned observers have been worried about tensions and conflicts among basin countries and international freshwater systems - particularly in a region like the water-short Middle East. The former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali expressed his fear, on several occasions, that war could come to that region as a result of water disputes. In his own native Egypt, it has been axiomatic policy that it would go to war should any country attempt to disrupt the flow of the Nile.

In the early 1990s, Turkey turned down Syria's request for more water from the Euphrates - a river that watered humankind's earliest agricultural efforts. The then Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel remarked: "We do not say we should share their oil resources. They cannot say they should share our water resources"* It was not surprising, therefore, when Wally N'Dow, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements held in 1996 in Istanbul, commented: "I suspect that in the next 50 years, we will see a shift from oil to water as the cause of great conflicts between nations and peoples."

* Reported in Sandra Postel, "Dividing the Waters," Worldwatch Paper 132, September 1996.

The freshwater resources and related environments of the world are under enormous stress. The global community is badly in need of modalities to deal with international water bodies in a much better way, both in terms of water quantity and quality. Attaining such goals can be difficult in international water bodies; it requires a degree of cooperation among riparian countries, which is not usually forthcoming. As a result, many countries are unable to utilize more fully their shared water resources due to unresolved riparian conflicts.

The present work of the UNU in promoting academic debate on better ways of managing international freshwaters continues a long-term tradition of concern within the UN system over equitable distribution of waters. On a number of occasions, the world body has been asked to help mitigate water conflicts arising between countries that share river borders.

Although no enforceable law governs the allocation and use of international waters, a code of conduct and legal framework for shared watercourses has steadily been involving. The Mar del Plata Action Plan has served as a guiding policy document for two decades now; it was adopted at a UN Water Conference in that Argentine coastal city in 1977. There was also fresh focus on freshwater issues at the International Conference on Water and the Environment organized by the World Meteorological Organization in Dublin, Ireland, in 1992, and, the same year, at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro.

The United Nations has helped to create a global legislative framework on use of freshwater resources. Some three decades ago, a 1970 General Assembly resolution asked that laws applicable to non-navigable uses of international waterways be clarified. This led to the creation, by the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC), of a set of "Rules on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses." These were adopted by the General Assembly in 1997. These are intended to provide general principles that can be applied to specific river basins. The rules give clear priority to the principle of "equitable and reasonable use." The convention calls on countries that share freshwater resources to refrain from actions that might cause harm to other societies.

In the scientific arena, UNESCO's International Hydrological Decade (IHD) has helped to improve knowledge about the world's major river systems. Research accumulated since the start of UNESCO's water programmes in 1965 have helped develop more rational management schemes in many international freshwater systems. Water researchers have also been able to draw on the Global Runoff Data Center maintained by the World Meteorological Organization. The quality of freshwater systems has also been evaluated jointly by UNEP and WHO.

Despite the time and efforts of the UN system, however, international organizations have had rather limited success to date in mediating freshwater conflicts. The UN mechanisms have proved to be inadequate in dealing with the sorts of tensions that arise over water conflicts. The notion of "equitable and reasonable use," however praiseworthy, can be vague and open to widely differing interpretations.

In only a few exceptional cases, the record shows, has the international community been able in recent years to foster collaborative agreements. In Africa, for example, UNEP has been successful in formulating the Zambezi Action Plan which was adopted by the riparian countries of the Zambezi river basin in 1987. In Asia, UNDP played a mediatory role in the adoption of a new cooperation framework for the Mekong river basin. And, since 1997, the International Court of Justice has been dealing with the dispute between Hungary and Slovakia of the GabcĂ­kovo-Nagymaros Project on the Danube (see pages 8-9 for further discussion).

Past history shows equally limited United Nations accomplishments with international water conflicts, though there have been some notable accomplishments. The World Bank, for example, played a key intermediary role in resolving the 12-year dispute between India and Pakistan over the Indus River that erupted in 1947 with the partitioning of the subcontinent. The 1960 Indus Water Treaty, in which the two countries agreed to share the resources of that border river, is widely regarded as a World Bank "success story."

One might count another past success in the Mekong Committee, established in 1957 by the UN's Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East to promote economic growth of the Mekong basin countries. Though the large scale dams originally envisioned have not yet been built (due in large pan, certainly, to years of warfare in the region), the United Nations initiative there has been useful in promoting collaboration among basin countries.

It seems inevitable that more conflicts over freshwater will emerge in the future, and thus the United Nations role in this arena is bound to take on greater importance. It is highly desirable that research be continued on ways to promote more integrated management of freshwater resources. The author has been involved in several case studies that may have helped identify some prerequisites. I have examined instances where international organizations have either succeeded or failed. These have included the Aral and Caspian Seas, Lake Chad, and the Danube, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, Nile, Orange and Zambezi Rivers.

The political and geographical settings of these cases are quite diversified. But there are some common denominators present when mediation has been effective. Creating institutions and procedures that allow for joint, integrated management of water that crosses political boundaries is critical. Other important components include: willingness of the parties to cooperate; the involvement of high-level decision makers; and the assured neutrality of a third party with financial assistance capacity. Detailed analysis of the research findings are expected to be published by the UNU Press next year, in a volume tentatively titled "International Organizations in International Waters."