Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

The Kishenganga Awards and their Contributions to International Water Law

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

The following post is by Dr. Mara Tignino, Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of the Platform for International Water Law, Faculty of Law, University of Geneva. She can be reached at Mara.Tignino [at]


In May 2010, Pakistan initiated an arbitration proceeding against India concerning the construction of a hydroelectric infrastructure project (“KHEP”) undertaken by India on the Kishenganga River—part of the Indus River basin. The KHEP is situated in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir in north-west India, about 12 kilometres upstream of the Line of Control with Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and is aimed at producing hydropower via a diversion of the River’s flow. Once completed, the diverted waters would flow through a tunnel around 23.5 kilometres long toward a power facility situated 666 meters below the Kishenganga dam. The water will then be redirected into Wular Lake and the River Jhelum, which flows into the territory of Pakistan. The falling water would drive turbines producing about 330 megawatts of electricity. According to Pakistan, the KHEP will have an impact on water flow downstream in Pakistan and affect its own production of hydropower.

Kishenganga Hydroelectric Project (Source: Partial Award, p.51)

Kishenganga Hydroelectric Project (Source: Partial Award, p.51)

The uses of the Indus River and its tributaries are regulated by the Indus Waters Treaty, adopted by India, Pakistan and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) in 1960. Article IX of the treaty provides for the establishment of mechanisms for the settlement of differences and disputes between the two States. As a result of Pakistan’s request, an arbitral tribunal composed of seven arbiters was established under article IX, which subsequently issued four decisions: an Order on Interim Measures in September 2011, based on an application made by Pakistan in June 2011, a Partial Award in February 2013, a Decision on India’s Request for Clarification or Interpretation in May 2013, and a Final Award, issued in December 2013. All four decisions were adopted unanimously.

Signed after ten years of negotiations, the Indus Waters Treaty represented an ambitious landmark in the development of international water law. The treaty is emblematic of the potential for international law to facilitate cooperation in the governance of international watercourses. As emphasized by the tribunal itself, the treaty has been continuously applied for over 50 years, despite recurring hostilities in the Kashmir region, including three episodes of direct armed conflict between India and Pakistan. In fact, while Pakistan had made use of the dispute settlement procedures of the treaty once before—in 2006, it requested the intervention of a Neutral Expert under article IX in the case of the Baglihar hydropower project—this was the first time that an arbitral tribunal had been established to settle a dispute concerning the application and the interpretation of the treaty.

Much as the treaty itself contributed to the development of substantive law on international watercourses, both the process and outcome of the arbitration offered noteworthy innovations in the settlement of disputes on transboundary water resources:

  1. In procedural terms, the inclusion of an engineer among the members of the tribunal offered an interesting approach to balancing the needs for various forms of expertise in the determination of the issues (the Neutral Expert charged with resolution of the 2007 Baglihar dispute was also an engineer). The presence of technical experts as equal participants in dispute settlement mechanisms facilitates the understanding of complex factual issues related to the construction and exploitation of hydropower infrastructures.
  2. From the perspective of substantial international environmental law, the recognition in the award of an obligation to ensure a minimum environmental flow in an international watercourse offers a possible indicator of future developments. The tribunal held that India could divert waters from the Kishenganga River, but that it had to ensure a continuing minimum flow rate of 9 cubic meters of water per second in the River itself (Final Award, p.326). Parties must provide the Permanent Indus Commission with daily data on River flows and the information on the inputs and withdrawals of water from the reservoir. According to the arbiters, the Commission is the most appropriate mechanism to ensure the exchange of data and monitoring of the uses of the tributaries of the Indus River (Final Award, par.121).
  3. Strikingly, the judges rejected the application of the precautionary principle to the case. Pakistan had argued that the flows of the Indus tributaries at the Line of Control are difficult to measure, and the Parties gave different estimations of future minimum flow levels. The tribunal recognized future flows levels would be uncertain, depending both on future uses and on factors outside the control of either India or Pakistan, such as climate change (Final Award, par.117). Rather than basing their judgment on the precautionary principle, they chose to account for this uncertainty by requiring India to finalise the KHEP in a manner that would allow for responsiveness to future variations in flow levels.
  4. Finally, the tribunal offered a lynchpin for the sustainability of this approach by creating a window for reconsideration: if, within seven years after the diversion of the Kishenganga River is finalized, one of the Parties considers it necessary to review the quantity of the minimum environmental flow as decided by the arbitral tribunal, the flow will be submitted to the Permanent Indus Commission or other mechanisms established by the Treaty (Final Award, par.119).
Members of the Court of Arbitration, 20 August 2012 Standing : H.E. Judge Peter Tomka, Judge Bruno Simma, Professor Lucius Caflisch, Professor Jan Paulsson. Seated : Sir Franklin Berman KCMG QC, Judge Stephen M. Schwebel (Chairman), Professor Howard S. Wheater FREng

Members of the Court of Arbitration, 20 August 2012
Standing: H.E. Judge Peter Tomka, Judge Bruno Simma, Professor Lucius Caflisch, Professor Jan Paulsson. Seated: Sir Franklin Berman KCMG QC, Judge Stephen M. Schwebel (Chairman), Professor Howard S. Wheater FREng

The decisions of the arbitral tribunal specify the general obligations related to the construction of hydroelectric projects upstream and downstream of an international watercourse. Thus, the Tribunal affirms that “There is no doubt that States are required under contemporary customary law to take environmental protection into consideration when planning and developing projects that may cause injury to a bordering State” (Partial Award, par.449), and takes note of the principle of sustainable development, the obligation to carry out a transboundary environmental impact assessment and the broader duty to avoid transboundary harm (Partial Award, pars. 448-451). In considering these obligations both in terms of conventional law, according to the Indus Waters Treaty, and in terms of customary law, the arbiters have contributed to the development and clarification of general principles of international water law relating to the environmental protection of transboundary water resources.

The Helmand River and the Afghan-Iranian Treaty of 1973

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

The following post is by Dr. Glen Hearns, principle with Eco-Logical Resolutions, a consultancy based in Vancouver, Canada, specializing in resource management and decision making, facilitation, conflict resolution and strategic planning. Between 2012-2014, Dr. Hearns served as transboundary water advisor to the government of Afghanistan. He can be reached at ghearns [at]


The Helmand River and its major tributary, the Arghandab, drain 43% of Afghanistan including most of the southern part of the country. It has an average discharge of approximately 140m3/s, but is highly variable both annually and seasonally as the waters are primarily snow melt from the ridge of mountains running through the center of the country.  These include the Sia Koh Mountains and the Parwan Mountains northwest of Kabul.

The Helmand River flows some 1150 km before reaching the Sistan wetlands, a series of shallow marsh lakes (Hamuns) in southwest Afghanistan and eastern Iran (Figure 1). During high flows they form a series of interconnected lakes that flow in an anti-clockwise manner from Afghanistan to Iran. The wetlands are fed predominantly by Afghan rivers, the largest of which is the Helmand, and form a particularly diverse ecosystem important for migratory birds. Just prior to reaching the border, the Helmand River bifurcates at a point known as Helmand Fork. The Shele Charak River (called the Common Parian in Iran) flows northward, forming the border between Iran and Afghanistan and subsequently branches out to form the Hamun-e-Puzak. The other part of the fork flows westward into Iran, forming the Sistan River and eventually draining into the marshy lake, Hamun-e-Helmand (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Sistan Wetlands and Helmand Basin (Source: Wikipedia Maps)

Figure 1. Sistan Wetlands and Helmand Basin (Source: Wikipedia Maps)

The 1973 Helmand River Treaty is the only agreement that Afghanistan has that specifically addresses water allocations. The Helmand River and Sistan area have been the source of contention since the late 1800s. Various attempts to resolve the disputes were undertaken, including with U.S. assistance to form a fact-finding Helmand River Delta Commission, which developed recommendation in 1951.  The 1973 agreement follows those recommendations to supply Iran with an average 22 m3/s, and includes an additional 4 m3/s for “goodwill and brotherly relations”. The Treaty also establishes a new Helmand Commission to administer the provisions of the agreement (Art. VIII).  Monthly flow deliveries are specified in Article II of the treaty for “normal water years”, which is defined in Article 1(c) as a year with total flows upstream of Kajaki Dam at Dehrawud that are at least 5661 mcm between 1 October and the following 30 September. The Helmand Treaty is flexible in that in low flow years, provisions are made to reduce the flow allocated to Iran in proportion to their measured deviation from a normal year for any given month or months (Art. IV).

The Treaty specifies where Afghanistan is to deliver water flows to Iran: i) the boundary line at the Sistan River, and ii) between markers 51 and 52 on the Helmand River (Art. III(a)).  In addition to the quantities specified, Afghanistan must supply water of a quality that can be treated, if necessary, for use in irrigation and domestic use (Art. VI). This requirement effectively places the burden on Iran to treat the water for its purposes.

Of importance is that Afghanistan retains all the rights to the balance of the water and may “make such use or disposition of the water as it chooses” (Art. V). This privilege, however, must be balanced with Article XI, which acknowledges the importance of continued flow to the Helmand Delta, and admonishes that if flow is stopped, the Commissioners must develop plans to minimize the problem.

What is very clear is that Iran can make “no claim to the water of the Helmand River in excess of the amounts specified in this Treaty, even if additional amounts of water may be available in the Helmand Lower Delta and may be put to a beneficial use” (Art. 5). Consequently, if it is shown that Iran is taking more than 811 mcm/yr (per Article 3), it would be in clear breach of the Treaty.

Both Iran and Afghanistan have the ability to monitor each other to ensure that they remain in compliance with the Treaty. The Treaty specifies that during low flow years, the Iranian Commissioner has access to flow measurements at Dehrawud, and is even allowed to observe the flow and take his own measurements (Protocol 1, Art. 5). Additionally, both the Afghan and Iranian Commissioners are to jointly measure the delivery of water to Iran (Protocol 1, Art. 6). In practice, information from Dehrawud is made available on an ongoing basis, albeit not consistently, as the Commission does not always meet every year. Also, delivery of water to Iran is not adequately monitored according to Afghan officials.

Differences between the parties must be resolved through diplomatic means, or thereafter with the good offices of a third party. Failing resolution, Protocol 2 outlines a detailed arbitration process that includes fact-finding and creation of an Arbitration Tribunal. Should the parties not agree upon a suitable Chair of the Arbitration Tribunal, the United Nations shall be requested to appoint one.

While the Iranians have suggested reviewing the Treaty, the instrument has no sunset clause and exists in perpetuity. Also, the Treaty does not cover groundwater, which is also being extracted by Iran.

Regardless of the challenges, the status of the Treaty is secure. The Helmand Commission meets, hydraulic information is exchanged (but not from Dehrawud station as it has been out of commission for many years), and in 2001 the Iranians went to the United Nations to complain that Afghanistan was not releasing water from Kajaki and were in breach of Article 5 of the Treaty. The language used in the complaint demonstrates the Iranians feel the treaty is valid and in force.

The major issue today in the Helmand Basin is Afghanistan’s pursuit of water resource development projects. It is renovating Kajaki Dam, and is constructing Kamal Khan on the Lower Helmand River. It is also considering constructing Bakshabad Dam on the Farah River. These developments are unlikely to go over well with neighbouring Iran, which may well be taking more than its “guaranteed” share of water under the Helmand Treaty.  A 2006 study conducted, in part, by Iran’s Water Research Institute of the Ministry of Energy, indicated that Iran had developed storage and irrigation infrastructure from the Helmand and Shele Charak rivers with a delivery capacity in excess of what is permitted under the Treaty. The report goes on to indicate that the 1973 Treaty has very limited value for Iran and mainly guarantees drinking water supply.

While Afghanistan badly needs development, how it will balance that objective with the needs of Iranian water users, as well as the environmental needs of the Sistan wetlands, will be a delicate act.

Professor Patricia Wouters: Considering China’s approach to the UN Watercourses Convention – Time to revisit?

Monday, July 28th, 2014

The following post by Professor Patricia Wouters is the sixth in the series of essays related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Professor Wouters directs the China International Water Law Programme at Xiamen Law School, China. She can be reached at pkwoutersxiamen [at]

One of China’s riparian neighbours, Vietnam, was the 35th country to ratify the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC), catalysing its entry into force on 17 August 2014. What does this mean for China and this region? While China voted against the UN Resolution adopting the UNWC in 1997, this does not tell the whole story. Instead, China’s transboundary water resources management must be considered within a broader context, and as part of a continuum of China’s evolving approach to international law.

Setting the context

With 5,000 years of history, China has considerable experience in water resources development. Yet, China’s diminishing quantities and qualities of freshwater pose serious challenges to the nation’s burgeoning economic growth (see here). In recent years, this has led the government to include “water” in its “Number One priority” annual policy documents, instruments that drive Chinese national policy actions. Premier Li Keqiang’s “war on pollution” has also resulted in a range of measures targeting water pollution, especially in urban areas and development hubs (see here). These domestic initiatives will have a critical impact on China’s transboundary water practice.

China's Transboundary Waters (from: Wouters & Chen, China's 'soft-path' to transboundary water cooperation examined in the light of two UN Global Water Conventions: exploring the 'Chinese way', Journal of Water Law, Vol. 22(6), pp. 229-247 (2011))

China’s Transboundary Waters (from: Wouters & Chen, China’s ‘soft-path’ to transboundary water cooperation examined in the light of two UN Global Water Conventions: exploring the ‘Chinese way’, Journal of Water Law, Vol. 22(6), pp. 229-247 (2011))

Situated as the upper riparian in some 40 major transboundary watercourses with 14 riparian nations, China has adopted an approach to transboundary water resources management consistent with its “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence”: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Each of these Principles aligns directly with core values of the UN Charter. Recently, President Xi Jinping commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Five Principles and reaffirmed China’s commitment to furthering this approach with a view to building “a new type of international relations and a better world of win-win cooperation” (see here).

China already implements this foreign policy strategy, with proactive outreach across Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, concluding an impressive array of mostly bilateral agreements. As just one example, during his Latin American visit (described as opening “a new chapter in China-Latin American win-win cooperation”), in his address (here and here) to Brazil’s National Congress, President Xi spoke of the need for “international fairness and justice”, and urged adherence to principles contained in the UN Charter. While he reiterated the integral importance of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, he added that there must be due regard for the reasonable concern of others. Referring to China as a “peace-loving nation”, President Xi asserted that China opposed all forms of hegemony, adding “China cannot develop without the world and the world cannot develop without China”.

China’s position regarding the UNWC

China’s refusal to support the UN Resolution adopting the UNWC was aligned to its approach to international law. It was in this context that the Chinese delegate explained China’s dissatisfaction with the text:

First, it failed to reflect general agreement among all countries, and a number of States had major reservations regarding its main provisions. Secondly, the text did not reflect the principle of the territorial sovereignty of a watercourse State. Such a State had indisputable sovereignty over a watercourse which flowed through its territory. There was also an imbalance between the rights and obligations of the upstream and downstream States. China could not support provisions on the mandatory settlement of disputes which went against the principles set out in the United Nations Charter. China favoured the settlement of all disputes through peaceful negotiations. Accordingly, China voted against the draft resolution to which the draft convention was attached (see UNGA Press Release GA/9248, 21 May 1997).

Notably, however, during the deliberations leading to the Convention, China expressed strong support for many of the norms eventually included in the UNWC, especially the principle of equitable and reasonable use (see here).  Moreover, a recent study examining China’s transboundary water treaty practice suggests that, in general, China’s actions respect the approach of the UNWC. The research, however, also revealed that, while China embraces the duty to cooperate (as a general guiding principle) and supports the rule of equitable and reasonable use in its water-related treaties, these norms are often expressed in broad terms. Also, the mechanisms for transboundary cooperation provided for in China’s treaties – rules of procedure, institutional mechanisms and dispute settlement – are rather imprecise and focus primarily on technical issues. In addition, while the treaty practice lacks any compulsory or third-party dispute settlement provisions, such an approach is consistent with China’s view that differences should be managed through consultation, dialogue and negotiations.

China’s transboundary water treaty practice is limited not only with respect to its normative content and operational procedures, but also with respect to its geographical reach. None of China’s southern transboundary waters are covered by treaty regimes, including the considerable resources originating in the Himalayan water towers. Most of China’s transboundary water cooperation is with its northern neighbours, especially Kazakhstan and Russia (see here).

Mekong River BasinContemporary transboundary water issues involving China – The case of the Mekong

A recent article in the Financial Times highlights China’s upstream dilemma – how can China be the “good neighbour” on the Mekong? China is only a dialogue partner under the Mekong Agreement, with observer status at Mekong River Commission (MRC) meetings. However, under an agreement with the MRC, China provides the Commission hydrological data on its portion of the river. Nevertheless, downstream riparians recently alleged that China’s dams were responsible for downstream flooding (December 2013) and scarcity (February 2014).

Without clear rules of procedure (such as those set forth under the UNWC and the Mekong Agreement), China’s duty to cooperate lacks normative traction.

China has a unique opportunity in the field of transboundary waters for consolidating its emerging role as a “good neighbour” that seeks “win-win” solutions. Improved procedural rules and dispute avoidance mechanisms, developed to meet the regional context, could facilitate improved transboundary cooperation. With its considerable technical expertise, China could devise its own “people-to-people” approach for enhanced transboundary cooperation.

China’s future approach to transboundary waters – the need for consolidation, including revisiting the UNWC as a framework instrument

Things are changing. China is now well placed to develop its approach to transboundary water cooperation in ways that match its global foreign policy strategy. The UNWC, as a multilateral framework instrument, offers a range of rules and processes that China could adapt to meet its diverse transboundary issues in ways that demonstrate China’s role as the “good neighbour”. By incorporating some of the provisions and processes included in the UNWC in its existing and future treaty and state practice, China could move forward in this field. China appears to be heading in this direction as demonstrated by its recent 2013 Declaration with Kazakhstan, which builds on past bilateral treaty practice and enlarges the Sino-Kazak joint commission’s remit to include work on water allocation.

Borrowing from the UNWC, China could also find legal approaches that contribute to its “war on pollution”, in the transboundary context, by introducing more detailed substantive and procedural rules aimed at water pollution. In this regard, China might also take inspiration from the 1992 UNECE Transboundary Rivers and Lakes Convention. China’s support for the UN (generally), coupled with its currently evolving approach to international law, provides compelling reasons for China to revisit the guidelines provided for in these two UN global water conventions.

China’s emerging role in international development can also serve to enhance its approach to transboundary water cooperation. For example, China’s new “peace-through-development” agenda with India (see here)  could help to build upon the series of recent transboundary water agreements between the two countries (see here).

China’s commitment to environmental protection (evidenced in China’s participation in a broad range of multilateral environmental agreements, such as the RAMSAR Wetlands Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, Climate Change Convention, and Convention on Desertification, also provides opportunities for consolidating its approach to transboundary water cooperation.

Realising the “Chinese dream” is an ambitious goal. The peaceful management of China’s considerable transboundary water resources, in ways that are mutually beneficial to China and its riparian neighbours, must be part of this major undertaking.


Dr. Kishor Uprety: A South Asian Perspective on the UN Watercourses Convention

Monday, July 14th, 2014

The following post, by Dr. Kishor Uprety, is the fourth in the series of essays related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Dr. Uprety is a lawyer with The World Bank. He can be reached at aastha7 [at]


In South Asia, transboundary water sharing agreements and arrangements tethering neighboring countries are subject to much criticism, as covering too much or too little. Dozens of hydro dams, whether on the Indus, the Ganges, or the Brahmaputra Basin rivers, under preparation, planned or projected, have been considered threats by most riparians, upper and lower alike. Industrial expansion, population growth, global warming, climate change, and underground water pumping exceeding natural recharge rates enhances criticisms, especially when the water flow in international rivers declines below the usual and expected limit. With regard to dams, while upstream users cite vital developmental imperatives as grounds for such construction, downstream riparians often oppose them citing their own socio-economic needs and existing uses that are dependent on existing flows. The above typical crises caused by competing interests call for fine-tuning of transboundary regimes and importing of international norms in the continent.

Map of South Asia

South Asia is a region that has had to deal with some of the most difficult disputes over transboundary rivers. Due to intra-regional power imbalances, mutual hostility, suspicion, and the absence of an endorsed universal legal regime, sharing transboundary waters and simultaneously sustaining riparian ecosystem, has become increasingly complex. Yet none of the South Asian countries has joined the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention. India and Pakistan abstained from the vote on the Convention at the UN General Assembly, while Afghanistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka were absent. Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal voted in favor of the Convention, but none has ratified or acceded to the instrument. As important, India had officially noted its objections during its adoption (see below), and as such, it is not surprising that it has not become a party.

Dissatisfaction with the Convention

The dearth of literature does not permit the formulation of a formal conclusion as to why the South Asian countries are uncomfortable with the Convention. Nevertheless, informal surveys with stakeholders suggest that it is due, essentially, to a perceived inability of the Convention to tackle all of the possible region-specific scenarios and the differing needs and demands among the countries. A number of reasons influenced by historical, political and cultural elements come into play.

First, while some countries in South Asia may seem genuinely to favor a multi-country   approach, collective multilateral attention to the problems of transboundary waters has been rare. Historically, the region has lacked a collective strategy and bilateralism remains the focus.

Indeed, water has differing impacts on regional relations. Between India and Pakistan, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, water disputes exacerbate already strained bilateral relations. For Bangladesh and Nepal, the Indian approach to water is a primary source of distrust. Conspiracy theories and blame games prevail throughout South Asia. Afghanistan blames Pakistan (and Iran) for its water problems, while Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan blame India for theirs. Within India and Pakistan, water shortages are blamed for the actions taken by upstream provinces or federal states. This blame culture reflects the absence of trust that plagues intraregional relationships, and makes multi country river-sharing arrangements particularly difficult to materialize.

Second, these countries consider the principles of water use emanating from the Convention, though intuitively appealing, as difficult to operationalize and implement in a particularly heated geopolitical environment. Also, the many principles contained in the Convention and designed to ensure cooperation in the abstract, are considered vague if not contradictory in reality.  As such, they are deemed unsuitable for resolving South Asia-specific issues where the prevailing language is centered on the idea of water as a security priority.

Indeed, there are contrasting views within the region amongst stakeholders and opinion builders. There are those who rely on a realist analysis and see water scarcity and riparian rights to water allocations as part and parcel of state security. Countries where this analysis dominates appear reluctant to engage in multilateral agreements over water because these agreements inherently require the secession of some portion of their national sovereignty. There are also those historical materialists who endorse multilateral water sharing cooperation, but who also believe that such cooperation can only be based on an “unfair” allocation of water skewed towards more developed states, bigger states, or former colonial masters. Countries where this analysis dominates remain confused as to the content as well as the methodology for negotiating agreements.

Third, the treaty-making behavior in the South Asia region is unique. Due to their prevailing mutual distrust, their inability to delink hydropower from water resources, and their reservation against generalizing policy to avoid establishing precedent, the strategic approach of most of the countries is merely to theoretically engage in water-related initiatives, but practically advance only those serving their own specific interests. An interesting twist can further be noted in the case of India, which, being in a unique geographic position – upper riparian to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and lower riparian to Nepal and China – employs a differentiated strategy and, thus, considers a uniform formula for the management of water relations to be impractical.

Individual countries in the region also have their own stance on the provisions of the Convention. For instance, Pakistan considers that “groundwater” should not be part of the definition of a “watercourse” (art. 2) because it is difficult to determine the geographic range of aquifers that are hydraulically linked to rivers, and inequitable to include aquifers that are located entirely within the territory of one country. India takes the stance that art. 3 of the Convention, which ensures nations’ right to enter into watercourse agreements, contradicts its domestic law whereby water is constitutionally a state rather than a Union matter. It also claims that the term “sustainable,” as used in articles 3 and 5 in the context of “sustainable utilization,” is not properly defined. In addition, all of the countries in the region seem to employ different interpretations of the word “significant” in the context of “no significant harm” (art. 7); some of the countries oppose the provision on equality of access to transboundary remedies (art. 32), which they interpret as presupposing regional integration; and Pakistan is displeased that the dispute settlement provision (art. 33) is not binding, while India is dissatisfied that the provision contains elements for mandatory third party procedures.

The Way Forward

Water insecurity is pervasive in the South Asia region, visible in conflicts, disputes and tensions that have erupted within and across countries. Thus, a new approach, centered on the idea of water as a common good and a human right that is universally held and acknowledged, may need furthering. The Ganges basin countries are also adopting strategies for river basin management at the sub-national level. These developments, if complemented with effective persuasion of government and non-government stakeholders, may pave the way for these countries to consider a more uniform and facilitative framework on transboundary water resource management, including the UN Watercourse Convention. Furthermore, the conclusions emanating from the 2013 Permanent Court of Arbitration Award on the Kishenganga Dispute, and the 2007 Decision of the Neutral Expert on the Baglihar Case (both in the context of the Indus River), also could influence the understanding of these countries about the value and complementarity of treaty provisions in relation to customary international law, and encourage them to revisit their long-held positions!


Sharing Central Asia’s Waters: The Case of Afghanistan

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

The following post is by Margaret J. Vick.  Ms. Vick served as the embedded advisor to the Ministry of Energy and Water, Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 2009-2010 in a program funded by USAID. She can be reached at mjvick [at]

Afghanistan has four major river basins.  All are international watercourses as that term is defined in the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses.  When looking at the waters in Afghanistan the regional history cannot be ignored and the circumstances that often provide an impetus to negotiate water-sharing agreements should be examined.

The major basins in Afghanistan are the Panj and Amu Darya, the Kabul, the Helmand, and the Hari-Rud.  The Panj, a tributary of the Amu Darya, is shared with Tajikistan and the downstream Amu Darya is shared with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  The Kabul River is tributary to the Indus River and is hydrologically shared with India and Pakistan, but because of the division of the basin by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, is not legally shared with India.  The Hari-Rud is shared with Iran and Turkmenistan, while the Helmand River is shared with Iran.  The Panj/Amu Darya, Hari-Rud, and Helmand river basins are all endorheic or terminal basins.
Of the four basins, only the Helmand River has a water sharing agreement.  The Helmand River Treaty between Afghanistan and Iran was negotiated in the early 1970’s and entered into force in 1977 (see, e.g., here).  The history of the treaty is unclear.  Little has been written about the negotiation process and some recent commentaries have questioned its entry into force (see, e.g., here).  What is known is clouded by the cold-war era in which it was negotiated. Nevertheless, the treaty is an agreement based on modern principles for benefit sharing in a region with few positive examples.

The Kabul River flows to the Indus River.  Because some of its tributaries (namely the Bara, Kunar and Swat, rivers) originate in Pakistan, the Kabul basin forms a hydrologic phenomenon in which Afghanistan and Pakistan are both upstream and downstream from each other.  Both countries need better flood control measures on the river and Afghanistan is interested in the river for domestic water supplies and power generation for its capital city, Kabul.  Talks between the two riparians over water management, however, historically have been secondary to the cross-border tensions.

The Panj River, which forms a considerable portion of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border before being joined the Vakhsh River to form the Amu Darya, is dominated by remnants of the Soviet barter system of water for oil.  The economy of the region is hampered by a lack of energy, frequent flooding, and political conflict over water.  All four of the Panj/Amu Darya basin riparians (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) could benefit from developing the basin.  Afghanistan, however, has not participated in any of the numerous agreements regarding the Aral Sea and was never part of the Soviet water regime in the region.  Because of its outsider status it may be able to play an important role in regional water sharing discussions in the future.

In fact, Afghanistan and most of its neighboring states are in need of water for domestic purposes, reliable irrigation supplies, flood control and hydropower. The circumstances seem ripe for an agreement. Nevertheless, in this region of conflict, cross-border incursions and lack of trust, circumstances and needs may not enough to reach a water-sharing agreement.  The identified requirements and the political will of the countries, to date, has not been enough.  There needs to be a foreseeable and reliable means to accomplish the sharing of water.

As a result of decades of conflict, the human capacity in Afghanistan is limited due to the millions of people killed, the millions who fled the country, and the millions more denied an education.  Those few Afghans who are available to negotiate water-sharing agreements are highly skilled and dedicated; yet, the need for their services within Afghanistan is immediate and immense.

Water sharing agreements take time and commitment.  The Afghan government must decide how to best use their limited capacity.  If they cannot have certainty as to whether agreed-upon dams, power plants and infrastructure will be built, how should they allocate and dedicate their limited resources?  The Afghan Government is faced with the dilemma of which comes first: the agreement or the commitment to build the infrastructure.  Until one or more donors step forward to fund both the process for negotiations and the infrastructure, neither may occur.  Individuals within the Afghan government have little time and few resources to engage in protracted negotiations without a promise of results on the ground.

A donor’s commitment to build watercourse infrastructure made contingent upon a water-sharing agreement has been a common impetus for agreements on international watercourses and for states within a federal system.  The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty took decades to negotiate and required continuing commitments from the World Bank to fund its implementation.  It is presently unclear whether such a commitment is available for any of the basins shared by Afghanistan and the neighboring states.

The economic viability of Afghanistan depends on protection from floods and drought, adequate domestic supply, reliable irrigation, and power.  All can be advanced through water-sharing agreements with neighboring states.  Development of the Kabul River basin is key for stability in the southeastern region as is development of the Panj basin in the north.

Notwithstanding, until an external commitment is secured for technical support and training for the process of negotiation, as well as to implement the results of negotiations, the benefits of Afghanistan’s and the region’s transboundary rivers will remain unrealized.