Archive for the ‘Water Conflicts’ Category

State of Palestine Accedes to UN Watercourses Convention

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015
Jordan River Basin

Jordan River Basin

On 6 January 2015, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, acting in his capacity as depositary for the UN Watercourses Convention, issued a formal notice that the “State of Palestine” had acceded to the Convention and that the treaty would enter into force for the “State of Palestine” on 2 April 2015. That will make the “State of Palestine” the 36th Party to the UN Watercourses Convention. The Convention formally went into force on 17 August 2014 (see here).

The move was part of a broad Palestinian effort to join eighteen international treaties (see here and here). While Palestinian membership in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has overshadowed all of the other ratifications, the accession to the Watercourses Convention is noteworthy in a number of respects.

Of the 36 Member States, nine (including the “State of Palestine”) are from the Middle East and North Africa, indicating that a substantial percentage of the region’s nations are committed to the terms and norms of the UN Watercourses Convention. In addition, with this accession to the Convention, Israel is now the only state in the Jordan River Basin to not have joined the treaty. Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria – all riparians to the Jordan River Basin – became Parties to the Convention in 1999, 1999, and 1998, respectively (see here).

Whether this reality will have any bearing on future hydro-diplomacy or management of the Jordan River remains to be seen. At the very least, it suggests that the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors will look to the Convention to guide them on any future transboundary water-related negotiation. To some extent, this could aid them in reaching consensus among themselves, as well as forge a concerted front in their dealings with Israel. On the other hand, it may give Israel an advantage in future negotiations since they have bound themselves to work within the Convention’s framework while Israel has not.

Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Water within Sight

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

The following post is by David B. Brooks, an Associate with the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Mr. Brooks can be contacted at david.b.brooks34 [at]

Many people have said that the last thing on which Israelis and Palestinians will be able to agree is fresh water.  They are very likely wrong.  Over the past year, the two governments have been discussing a draft water agreement that was designed by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental NGO that focuses on border issues.

Failings of the Oslo Process

Since the start of the Oslo process in 1993, all attempts at the peace process have been predicated on the belief that that a peace agreement must provide a simultaneous solution to all issues (i.e., “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”). This approach has failed.

Based on the development of a draft water agreement for FoEME by two Canadians, David B. Brooks and Julie Trottier, as well as informal discussions with the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies and the Palestinian Water Authority, the best chance for reviving the floundering peace process is to start by tackling “easier” issues, particularly fresh water.

Shared Water Resources of Israel, Palestine and Jordan

Given the Palestinian need for more water, Israel’s new water supply from large-scale desalination, and a mutual need to deal with untreated sewage, bringing water from last to first in the peace process makes economic, ecological, and, most importantly, political sense. For Palestinians, it would provide fresh water in every home; for Israelis, it would remove pollutants from rivers that flow through its main cities. The goal in sight is a Final Accord on Water, not just another interim step.

Breaking Away from the Oslo Model for Water

In addition to the broad tradeoff – more water for Palestinians; better water for Israelis -– the FoEME Proposal is put forward on the basis of two political questions: First, why wait for conclusion of a final status agreement? If, instead of fixed allocations, as with the Oslo agreements, one thinks of ongoing joint management, agreement can be reached right now.  Second, why not shift from a static to a dynamic form of agreement?  The Oslo agreement is dependent on a particular set of borders; the FoEME Proposal is adaptable to any set of borders.  The Oslo-designed Joint Water Committee can only deal with what is deemed Palestinian water; the FoEME Proposal includes joint management of all shared water, which is to say any water that flows along, across, or under the border.  The Oslo approach looks at water as primarily a supply issue; the FoEME Proposal gives as much attention to reducing demand as to increasing supply.  Finally, but perhaps most important, the Oslo agreements propose fixed quantitative allocations of water to Israelis and to Palestinians; the FoEME Proposal incorporates an ongoing review process that adjusts water allocations over time, and ensures that total withdrawals stay within sustainable limits.

One cannot share water as if it were a pie.  Transboundary agreements can divide land this way, but not water.  Water may start as rainfall, but it is then typically used over and over again, sometimes by a group of Palestinian farmers cooperating in a decentralized way, sometimes by the highly centralized Israeli water network, before it finally evaporates or flows into the sea.   With each stage of use, water quality is altered, generally for the worse.  The Oslo approach treats water as if it were both immobile and constant in quality.  The FoEME Proposal recognizes that water is mobile in space and variable in quality.

The Structure of the FoEME Proposal

Cover Page - An Agreement to Share WaterThe FoEME Proposal suggests creation of two key bodies:

  • Bilateral Water Commission replaces today’s Joint Water Committee with responsibility for all shared water (non-shared water sources would remain managed nationally).  The BWC makes key decisions on rates of extraction and of delivery of shared water, and the removal and treatment of waste water.  Its decisions are based on advice from an Office of Science Advisors (OSA) made up of professional staff appointed or seconded by the two governments.  Because it is potentially so powerful, the BWC is not allowed to make decisions independently; rather, it can only accept or reject recommendations from the OSA, but not alter them.  This format avoids giving either side the ability to leverage water issues in endless horse-trading on other, wider issues.
  • Water Mediation Board comes into play whenever the BWC finds itself unable to accept a decision of the science advisors, or if a group or community opposes its decision.  The WMB would have a wide range of tools available to guide a process of seeking resolution ranging from scientific investigations to public forums.  All of these tools must be used in as transparent a way as possible, so as to give credence to its recommendations.


Both the BWC and WMB should be composed of an equal number of Israeli and Palestinian representatives plus possibly one person from outside the region. If voting is necessary, the rules are designed to prevent either side from dominating the other.  For example, if the BWC has seven members, any majority decision would have to have to have the support of least one Israeli and one Palestinian.

An Israeli-Palestinian water agreement is possible – Right now!  Though not designed for any purpose other than managing shared water, it could become the first step in creating the final status agreement that has eluded negotiators for so many years.


The full 180,000 word version of An Agreement to Share Water between Israelis and Palestinians: The FoEME Proposal (with Arabic and Hebrew translations of key chapters) by David B. Brooks and Julie Trottier is available here.  An abridged version, entitled Changing the Nature of Transboundary Water Agreements: The Israeli-Palestinian Case by Brooks, Trottier and Laura Doliner, is available here.

Water Security, National Security and Israel’s Separation Wall: The Case of Battir

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

The following post is by Elana Katz-Mink. Ms. Katz-Mink has an M.A. in Environmental Studies and Water Management from Ben Gurion University and is a J.D. candidate at American University Washington College of Law. She can be reached at ekatzmink [at]

Battir agricultural terraces. Photo courtesy of The Advocacy Project.

Only a few miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Green Line, residents of the Palestinian village of Battir practice an ancient agricultural water-use technique dating back to the Roman Period. Agricultural terraces, which were developed to take advantage of natural mountain springs, cover 2,000 hectares around the village where residents cultivate produce for their livelihoods and sustenance.

Over the centuries, the terraces have increased the land’s fertility, preserving the area’s agricultural heritage and environmental integrity (see NY Daily News article and FoEME Report). Israel is currently planning to build the separation wall on the edge of Battir, separating Palestinian farmers from their fields.  If constructed, the wall will severely imperil the hydrology and ecology of the area (see Report of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority [in Hebrew]).  This type of harm is not novel or unique.  In virtually any location around the world, the isolation and fragmentation of landscape can have deleterious effects on the diversity and abundance of flora and fauna.  It can also be disastrous for a region’s water security because a sustained, natural flora presence can help maintain both the water table balance and groundwater quality.  In addition, a wall can block the natural flow of floodwater from its usual drainage-route resulting in flooding, soil erosion, and habitat destruction.

These grave consequences are further compounded by the very real effects the wall can have on human residents of the area. For example, this past winter in the town of Qalqilya, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, floodwater mixed with sewage as a result of the separation wall and inundated people’s homes and fields (see Ma’an News Agency story).  While events like these harm Palestinian residents on their side of the wall, they have serious consequences for Israelis as well.  Incidents like Qalqilya pollute the groundwater on which both Palestinians and Israelis rely for domestic, industrial, and environmental uses (see FoEME Report: A Sleeping Time Bomb).

In 2006 in the Palestinian village of Wadi Fuqin, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) marshaled evidence showing that construction of the wall would cause hydrological and ecological destruction.  Additionally, FoEME helped to orchestrate a joint effort by Wadi Fuqin villagers and the neighboring Jewish community of Tzur Hadassah that has temporarily stopped the wall’s construction in this area (see FoEME case study and JTA story).

Battir, unlike Wadi Fuqin, does not have a clear Israeli sister-city lying across the Green Line to protest the wall’s construction on their behalf; however, Battir may have a branch of the Israeli government in its corner.  In August 2012, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority published a report condemning construction of the separation wall in Battir because of the risk it posed to the ecological and hydrological integrity of the area (see Report of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority [in Hebrew]).  In a water-starved region, such a risk may prove extremely persuasive as Israel is forced to confront how its actions could affect one of its biggest national security concerns: long-term access to and supply of fresh water.  While Israel has typically recognized its national security as equivalent to its military security, the risk the wall creates could threaten the security of the nation in terms of its fresh water supplies, resources on which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority depend.

In 2007, Battir both brought suit in the Israeli Supreme Court (ISC) and requested Israel’s Finance Ministry to consider rerouting the wall.  The Finance Ministry has not yet ruled, but construction was halted in fall 2012 by the ISC when it ordered cessation and a timely response by the Ministry to the allegations of the Battir residents.  Generally, the ISC has held that the wall is a legitimate security need for Israel, despite the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion finding the wall illegal under international law.  In a few rare instances, though, while maintaining the legitimacy of the wall, the ISC has ordered the route be changed or construction stopped and/or dismantled on grounds that the wall’s route would not fulfill its purposed security purposes (e.g., Beit Sourk, Bilin, Wadi Fuqin).  Nevertheless, these decisions are the exception, and the ISC consistently has accorded more weight to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s expressed military security concerns.

On December 13th, 2012, the ISC issued an interim decision ordering the Israeli Defense Ministry to submit plans for an alternate route for the wall in the Battir area within ninety days, necessitating consideration of the environmental impacts of the route.  The Israeli Defense Ministry has proposed a fence, rather than a stone wall, as a compromise that it says will reduce damage to the landscape.  Battir and conservation experts maintain that a fence will cause the same harm as a stone wall (see articles in Haaretz [in Hebrew] and the Environment And Climate In The Middle East blog).  The ISC has yet to issue a final decision.  While the interim decision is only a temporary win for the residents of Battir, it marks the latest case demonstrating the exception to the military security rule.  Perhaps, this decision signals a shift from the ISC’s military security rule to the consideration of water and environmental security concerns.  The final decision will be extremely significant for Battir, and potentially for the jurisprudence of national security.  Regardless of the final outcome, the interim decision mandating consideration of ecological impacts is an achievement in the continued struggle for recognition of water and environmental security as an integral part of national security.


Post Script (March 29, 2013)

Metal_FenceA metal fence was proposed as a compromise by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, but has not yet been accepted by the Battir residents, environmentalists, or the ISC.  Even if a fence were accepted it would not solve most of the ecological or hydrological issues that exist with a cement barrier. Often the structure of the fences that separate the West Bank and Israel entail much destruction in the surrounding area during the construction phase (uprooting of flora and fauna that help to clean water as it percolates to the water table).  In addition, a large ditch is usually dug on the West Bank side of the fence (the source of water flows) that would prevent water from reaching the sea.  Lastly, the road and fencing would still prevent the migration of flora and fauna in the area.

Outcome of the Nairobi Nile Council of Ministers Meeting – An Inevitable Consequence of a level-playing field?

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

The following post is by Dr. Salman M.A. Salman, an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy and former water law advisor to The World Bank. He can be reached at Salmanmasalman [at]

The Ministers of Water Resources of the Nile Basin countries (Nile Council of Ministers, or Nile COM) were supposed to hold an extra-ordinary meeting on January 27, 2012, in Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the legal and institutional ramifications of the entry into force of the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). That meeting was requested by Egypt and Sudan, following signing of the CFA by six of the upper riparians, namely Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda Tanzania and Uganda. Coincidentally, the CFA needs six ratifications to enter into force.

The Nile Basin Countries

In fact Egypt and Sudan had asked for that meeting back in July 2010, during the eighteenth annual meeting of the Nile COM in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They had wanted to reopen discussion on the CFA, but the upper riparians objected. Egypt and Sudan renewed their demand for the meeting during the nineteenth annual Nile COM meeting in Nairobi in July 2011. As a compromise, it was agreed that an extra-ordinary meeting would be held in Kigali, Rwanda, on October 27, 2011, in connection with the 3rd Nile Basin Development Forum.

About a week before the meeting was to take place, Egypt and Sudan asked for a postponement. The parties then agreed to hold the meeting in Nairobi on December 27, 2011. Yet again Egypt and Sudan asked for a postponement, to which the others reluctantly agreed. That meeting was to take place on January 27, 2012 in Nairobi.

On Thursday January 26, 2012, all of the Nile ministers of water resources arrived in Nairobi except those from Egypt and Sudan. And the two nations did not ask for another postponement. Angered and frustrated, the ministers of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, in addition to the representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo (which has not yet signed the CFA), decided to hold their own meeting, but under a different umbrella. They decided to meet as the Nile Equatorial Lakes Council of Ministers (NEL COM), one of the institutions established under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) with its head office in Kigali. Although Egypt and Sudan are also members of the NEL COM, it seems that the upper riparian ministers decided they have the authority to hold the NEL COM meeting, and not the extra-ordinary Nile COM meeting requested by Egypt and Sudan who were absent.

The second decision taken by the NEL COM was to upgrade the observer status of Ethiopia in the NEL COM to full member. No doubt, this upgrade solidified the NEL COM and strengthened it as a coalition force against the alliance established by Egypt and Sudan under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. That alliance was epitomized by the establishment of the Permanent Joint Technical Committee by the two countries under the 1959 Agreement, headquartered in Khartoum.

The NEL COM discussed and approved a series of measures regarding the NEL investment program, including the strategic plan 2012 – 2016; financing from the World Bank Cooperation for International Waters in Africa (CIWA); and the investment conference to be held with the development partners in June 2012 for hydropower and water storage facilities in the NEL countries.

NEL COM Ministers

The NEL COM then turned to the CFA and took three bold decisions which can be expected to have major ramifications on the relationship between the Nile River’s upper and lower riparians.

First, the NEL COM decided to go ahead with ratification of the CFA with the view of having it enter into force and effect, and thereafter to establish the Nile Basin Commission as prescribed in the CFA. This means that the ministers have reversed their earlier decision to delay the ratification of the CFA, in light of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011, so as to give Egypt and Sudan time to reconsider their position. The ministers also agreed that they would keep each other updated on the ratification process in their respective countries.

Second, the NEL COM instructed the Chair of the Nile COM (Ms. Charity Ngilu, Kenya Minister of Water Resources) to continue discussions with the three countries that have not signed the CFA (Egypt, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo) with the view of bringing them to ratify the Agreement; such discussions are to be concluded within sixty days.

Third, the ministers indicated their frustrations with the indecisiveness of Egypt and Sudan regarding the extraordinary meeting that the two nations requested but failed to attend, and which the ministers believed would have been an opportunity for dialogue and cooperation. The ministers instructed Mr. Stanislas Kamanzi, the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources of Rwanda and the current chair of NEL COM, to communicate these decisions to the members of the NBI (see story from The New Times here). The outcome of the meeting was included in the Nairobi Statement.

These are no doubt major decisions that will have far reaching consequences. Thus far, Sudan and Egypt have refrained from making any comments or issuing any statements. Perhaps the two lower riparian countries realize that the idea of the extra-ordinary meeting was not a good one, because the discussion would address the ramifications of the entry into force of the CFA, and not the areas of differences between the upper and lower riparians. Those differences concern the demand of Egypt and Sudan that the CFA include explicit reference to their existing uses and rights; clear provisions on prior notification; and that the CFA should be amendable either by a consensus or majority that includes both Egypt and Sudan. The upper riparians had rejected those demands. Now, they have decided to go ahead with ratification of the CFA.

It should be added that ratification of the CFA and its entry into force will create some legal problems related to the status of the NBI Secretariat after it is replaced by the Nile Basin Commission. This is because the programs, assets, and liabilities of the NBI will be inherited by a Commission that would not include Egypt and Sudan, both of whom are active members of the NBI.

The Nile Basin is clearly going through critical and uncertain times. The emergence of the upper riparians as a power to reckon with is, in my view, an inevitable consequence of a level playing field resulting from the NBI itself.

Will the Nile countries manage to resolve their differences in the next sixty days, or is the Nile heading towards more polarization and conflicts? This is what the next few weeks will tell.

You can find prior IWLP Blog posts on the CFA and NBI here, here, and here.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica Return to the ICJ for 3rd Case over the San Juan River

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

On December 22, 2011, Nicaragua instituted proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Costa Rica for “violations of Nicaraguan sovereignty and major environmental damages to its territory” (see Nicaragua’s Application and  ICJ Press Release). This is the latest dispute in a string of conflicts between the two nations that has spanned more than a century, and the third presented to the ICJ in the past few years (see prior post briefly discussing this history).

The first case heard by the ICJ—Dispute Regarding Navigational and Related Rights—instituted by Costa Rica in 2005 concerned Costa Rica’s right to freely (without obstacles or taxation) navigate the San Juan River. The Court held that, while the River is Nicaraguan territory and Nicaragua can regulate the River traffic for national security, Costa Rica has the right of navigation for the “purposes of commerce” (see pleadings and related material here). In the second ICJ dispute—Certain Activities carried out by Nicaragua in the Border Area—which was instituted in 2010 and is still pending before the ICJ, Costa Rica contested Nicaraguan military presence at Isla Calero, territory that Costa Rica claims as its own, in connection with the construction of a canal (see prior post discussing this case; see pleadings and related material here).

This latest ICJ dispute between the countries concerns a road constructed by Costa Rica parallel to the San Juan River between Los Chiles and the Delta region. According to some accounts, the road was constructed as a defensive measure against the possibility of an incursion by Nicaraguan troops (see story here). While the road runs solely on Costa Rican territory, Nicaragua contends that its construction resulted in harmful environmental effects on Nicaraguan territory—specifically silting of the San Juan River, erosion of the River banks, and harm to the surrounding ecosystem of wetlands and the Indio Maiz Biosphere Reserve.

In its complaint, Nicaragua asserts that the construction of the road, which began in July 2011, has already “resulted in dumping in the River of substantial volumes of sediments—soil, uprooted vegetation and felled trees.” It also argues that “the felling of trees and the removal of topsoil and vegetation close to the River bank facilitate erosion, and the leeching of even greater amounts of sediments into the river.” Ultimately, Nicaragua alleges that Costa Rica breached its international obligations by infringing on Nicaragua’s territorial integrity, damaging Nicaraguan territory, and violating general obligations in international law and relevant environmental conventions. In its request for relief, Nicaragua seeks restoration to the status quo ante, damages, and preparation and transmission of an appropriate transboundary environmental impact assessment (EIA).

In addressing this case, the Court is likely to refer to its 2005 decision in which it found that, while Costa Rica has rights to navigate the San Juan River, the river remains Nicaraguan territory (see 2005 decision here). Accordingly, the case could turn on whether Costa Rica’s construction of the river road caused transboundary environmental harm to Nicaragua, including the San Juan River. Based on prior decisions between the two nations, as well as international law, Costa Rica certainly is bound to respect and not harm the territory and environment of its neighbor (see e.g., 1858 Treaty on the Boundaries between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the Cleveland Award of 1888 [English and Spanish], and the five Awards of the Umpire EP Alexander of September 30, 1897, December 20, 1897, March 22, 1898, July 26, 1899, and March 10, 1900).

Establishing a legal cause of action for transboundary harm, however, is typically dependent on showing a minimum level of harm. For example, both the UN Watercourses Convention and the UN International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on Transboundary Aquifers require harm to be substantial before it can be actionable. In the context of a transboundary watercourse, the UN International Law Commission asserted that significant harm occurs where the “harm exceed[ed] the parameters of what was usual in the relationship between the States that relied on the use of the waters for their benefit.” It also suggested that significant harm means “something more than ‘measurable’, but less than ‘serious’ or ‘substantial,’” and that an adverse effect or harm that is “not negligible but which yet did not necessarily rise to the level of ‘substantial’ or ‘important’” is considered “significant” (see footnote 123 and related text in my Article discussing the significant harm threshold). Whether Costa Rica’s actions rise to the level of significant harm remains to be seen.

As to the preparation and transmission of an EIA, the need for an EIA will depend on how the Court rules on the issue of significant harm. In the Case Concerning the Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay, the ICJ recognized that the practice of environmental impact assessment “has gained so much acceptance among States that it may now be considered a requirement under general international law to undertake an environmental impact assessment where there is a risk that the proposed industrial activity may have a significant adverse impact in a transboundary context, in particular, on a shared resource” (see Parag. 204 of the decision in the case). Hence, there first must be a determination that Costa Rica’s road building had the potential to result in a significant transboundary adverse impact before it can be argued that an EIA was required. It is noteworthy that the standard for mandating an EIA is lower than for finding an actionable injury: “may have a significant adverse impact” for the former, and “significant harm” for the latter.

On January 23, 2012, the Court issued time-limits for the two nations to file the initial pleadings in the dispute: December 19, 2012, and December 19, 2013, for Nicaragua and Costa Rica, respectively (see ICJ Press Release). In the interim, a group of environmentalists have challenged the Costa Rican government’s actions before the country’s Supreme Court and are seeking to enjoin the continued construction of the road (see story here).

As is often the case, the ICJ is in a unique position to provide guidance on an important legal matter, as well as a critical “real world” dispute.

Special thanks to law student Elana Katz-Mink, at American University’s Washington College of Law, for her invaluable assistance in developing this post.

The Silala Basin: One of the Most Hydropolitically Vulnerable Basins in the World

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

A few months ago, Brendan Mulligan and I published a paper entitled “The Silala/Siloli Watershed: Dispute over the Most Vulnerable Basin in South America in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Water Resources Development. The dispute, pitting Bolivia and Chile, provides a fascinating case study involving both transboundary surface and ground water resources. Of particular interest, it also involves an artificial watercourse traversing the border that may defy application of international water law to the controversy. In 2007, UNEP named the Silala watershed the only “high risk” basin in South America and “one of the most hydropolitically vulnerable basins in the world.”

The dispute focuses on water flowing across the Bolivian-Chilean border in the Atacama Desert via a canal constructed in the early 1900s by Antofagasta & Bolivia Railway Company, a Chilean mining operation, per a concession granted by the Bolivian Prefecture of Potosí. Bolivia claims ownership over the Silala River on grounds that the river originates from springs on its side of the border and that the Silala’s waters are transported artificially to Chile; in essence, Bolivia denies the existence of a Silalar river. In 1997, the Bolivian government revoked the concession on grounds that the waters had long been used for purposes that were different than those agreed to in the original agreement. It also sought to awarded a new 40-year concession to the Bolivian firm DUCTEC SRL for $46.8 million, established a military base on the banks of the Silala River, publicly discussed a plan to bottle the river’s water and sell it with the slogan “Drink Silala water for sovereignty,” and conducted a feasibility study for a hydroelectric plant on the Silala just inside Bolivian territory (see Bloomberg article). At one point, Bolivian officials asserted that any negotiations with Chile should guarantee Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean (see Spanish-language article), a demand suggesting that the issues surrounding the Silala are not entirely water-focused.

In contrast, Chile bases its ownership claims on grounds that the Silala’s waters were never diverted from its original channel, but rather that the canal works merely augment the natural flow of the Silala River. Hence, Chile argues that the Silala is and always has been a transboundary river subject to international water law. Moreover, it contends that it need not pay for the use of the Silala and that Bolivia’s rescission of the original concession, as well as Bolivia’s awarding of the more recent DUCTEC concession, were illegal. It is noteworthy that while Chile voted in favor of the 1997 Watercourses Convention, Bolivia abstained from the vote and neither has signed or ratified it. Although the two governments have attempted to resolve the dispute, including drafting a bilateral agreement on the use of the waters of the Silala, it remains unresolved.

The applicability of international water law to the Silala scenario depends largely on whether or not the Silala River is described as a natural transboundary watercourse. A manufactured river, in the form of canals or other man-made systems, would not fall within the rubric of international water law since, by definition, such water bodies are proprietary and subject to the agreements that created them. Moreover, international water law does not apply to surface runoff flowing in a marginally defined or in undefined channel (e.g., surface runoff) regardless of whether or not the flow crosses an international boundary.

In the case of the Silala Basin, most of the spring flow is captured by artificial channels, constructed by the mining interests under its 1908 concession from the Bolivian Prefecture of Potosí and that cross into Chile via the principal canal. This would suggest that the water in the canal is subject solely to the terms of the concession agreement rather than to international water law. And when Bolivia rescinded the concession, the waters’ ownership reverted back to Bolivia.

Nevertheless, geological and topographical evidence (including onsite evaluations conducted by my co-author, Brendan Mulligan), as well as certain historical material, indicate that prior to canalization, the Silala springs flowed naturally across the Bolivian-Chilean border in approximately the same path as the principal canal. If this proves true, application of international water law is still unclear since we would have a transboundary river that was captured and canalized for private use.

Chile might argue that the concession trumps international water law since international law allows for the creation of agreements deviating from international standards so long as the deviations do not violate jus cogens (peremptory international norms). On the other hand, Bolivia may contend that the concession was a license revocable at the will of the licensor (Bolivia). If this latter analysis holds, then the rules for the basin reverted back to the default norms of international water law when the Bolivian government revoked the concession in 1997.

Still, to the extent that the flow of the pre-canalized Silala was intermittent rather than perennial, applicability of international norms also may be tenuous. The substantive rules of international water law can be understood, in part, as rules of liability. In other words, violation of the rules mandates the imposition of responsibility and recompense. Violation of the rules, however, can only occur where human actions interfere with the natural flow of the watercourse. Where a river fails to flow for natural reasons, as an intermittent stream is wont to do, no liability may be imposed. Moreover, the absence of state practice or examples in which international water law norms were applied to an intermittent stream suggests that this scenario is, at best, unresolved. Hence, to the extent that prior to canalization water in the Silala flowed across the Bolivian-Chilean border only intermittently, international water law principles may not be applicable to the present dispute.

Further complicating the scenario is the presence of an interrelated transboundary aquifer. As noted above, the Silala River is fed by springs in Bolivia. Those springs, however, emerge from the Silala Aquifer, which is believed to traverse the Bolivian-Chilean border. Unfortunately, as little as is known about the topography and geology of the Silala River Basin, even less information is available about the underlying aquifer. In addition, international law applicable to transboundary ground water resources is still in its infancy and there are only a few examples of state practice from which lessons can be drawn (see my article on Managing Buried Treasure Across Frontiers: The International Law of Transboundary Aquifers).

Whether additional facts and scientific information will be forthcoming from the parties or from independent sources is presently unclear. Moreover, even with such information, international water law, whether for transboundary surface or ground water resources, may not have a ready solution. As is often the case in disputes over shared water resources, negotiations may provide the most optimal solution for this most hydropolitically vulnerable of basins.

The Hydro-Challenges of the New State of South Sudan in the Nile Basin

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Dr. Salman M.A. Salman has just published an article in Water International on “The New State of South Sudan and the Hydro-politics of the Nile Basin” (see article). He has graciously provided the IWLP Blog with the following guest post. Dr. Salman is an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy, and can be reached at Salmanmasalman [at]

On January 9, 2011, and for the next six days, the people of South Sudan exercised their right of self determination and voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Sudan and establish their own independent state. The right of self determination was the major outcome of the negotiations process between the Sudan government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) which represent the people of South Sudan.  The official results of the referendum were announced on February 7, 2011, and the government of the Sudan formally accepted of the results of the referendum on that day. The new state of South Sudan will formally come into existence on July 9, 2011, following the end of the interim period on July 8, as the 193rd member of the global family of nations, and as the 54th African state. As a result, the Sudan will lose, among many other things, one of its main defining characteristics as the largest country in Africa.

The Southern Sudan Referendum Act that was adopted in December 2009, listed a number of issues that need to be resolved by the two parties. Among other issues, these include: nationality; currency; public service; position of joint integrated units; international agreements and treaties; debts and assets; oil fields, production and transport; oil contracts; water resources; and property. These issues are in addition to disputes on a number of border areas between Northern and Southern Sudan (which extend for more than 2.000 kilometers), as well as the Abyei dispute that was adjudicated before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), but still remains unresolved (see Dr. Salman’s article on the Abyei Territorial Dispute).

Thus, water resources are one of the more contentious area between the Sudan and the new state of South Sudan.  There are three issues involved and need resolution in this area:

  • First: reallocation between the two states of the 18.5 Billion cubic meters of water allotted to the Sudan under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Sudan and Egypt. The demands of the Sudan and South Sudan are expected to be far more than the 18.5 billion. Sudan will lose  50% of the revenues of oil of Southern Sudan that it was getting during the interim period as per the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was signed between Sudan and SPLM/A in 2005. As a result, Sudan would have to rely more heavily on irrigated agriculture to make up for the lost revenues from South Sudan oil. On the other hand, South Sudan is claiming that it has a good number of irrigation, water supply, and hydro-power projects that would need large amounts of Nile waters too. Thus, negotiations on this issue are not expected to be easy.
  • Second: The huge swamps of Southern Sudan, including the Sudd, where water losses are tremendous, are viewed by both Egypt and Sudan as a source for additional waters to the Nile. This additional water would be in the range of 20 billion cubic meters for the Nile, almost one fourth of the total amount of the Nile flow of 84 billion cubic meters measured at Aswan. The aborted experience of the Jonglei canal is a clear indication of the difficult issues surrounding the conservation of the waters of the swamps of Southern Sudan for adding more water to the Nile (see Dr. Salman’s article on Water Resources in the Sudan North-South Peace Process).  Whether South Sudan would be willing to allow construction of any such canal would depend on a host of factors including the incentives it may receive, the views and positions of the affected communities and NGOs, and the security situation in the swamps areas. The other Nile riparian countries may well have their views on the matter and may ask to be part of the process. After all, the question may be posed as to whose water is it any way?
  • Third: The new state of South Sudan is expected to have a major role to play in the current Nile dispute. The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) has been a divisive issue. Sudan and Egypt have vehemently opposed it, while the other Nile riparian states are pushing for its adoption and entry into force. Thus far six countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi), out of the Nile ten riparian countries have signed the CFA. It needs six instruments of ratification to enter into force, but thus far none of the six states has ratified the CFA. Thus, if South Sudan joins as a party to the CFA, it would provide a cushion in case one of the other six changes its mind or delays its ratification. Whether South Sudan would side with the equatorial states based on ethnicity, geography and history, or would be wooed by Sudan and Egypt to refrain from joining the CFA remains to be seen.

The centrality of water resources in the issues that must be addressed in post-conflict situations has been reconfirmed by the emergence of South Sudan as an independent nation. In this case, the issues go well beyond the Sudan and the new state of South Sudan, and extend to the other riparian states of the Nile Basin.

For additional insight into and details on this fascinating topic, you can find Dr. Salman’s Article here.

Burundi Signs New Nile River Agreement

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Timing is everything! In the wake of the turmoil in Egypt (and probably the secession of South Sudan), Burundi has taken the rather bold step of becoming the sixth signatory to the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA), a new treaty intended to realign the colonial era water rights and usage regime on the Nile River that has existed for more than a half-century (see Bloomberg Business Week report).  The significance of this step relates to Egypt’s vehement opposition to the CFA (mostly notably, Article 14), as well as the threats that the hegemon has made over the years with regard to any changes in the existing allocation framework.

Burundi’s signature brings the total number of signatories to six, which is the minimum number of States needed for the Agreement to come into force. All that is needed now is that the signatories ratify the CFA in accordance with their own domestic procedures. The other five signatories are Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which had taken a lead role in promoting the Agreement, is expected to sign soon, possibly later this year. Eritrea was not involved in the process leading to the CFA.

Once ratified, the CFA will undermine Egypt and Sudan’s long-standing claims that the Nile has already been apportioned according to a 1959 treaty in which the two nations allocated around 90% of the river’s waters to themselves. It would also contravene Egypt’s persistence that it holds a veto right over all upstream hydro projects under a 1929 agreement with Britain (the region’s former colonial overseer). See my prior postings discussing this in more detail here and here.

Taken in light of the ongoing disorder in the Middle East, Burundi’s action may be viewed in the spirit of freedom and emerging societal participation and an effort to democratize the management of the Nile River. It may also be viewed as opportunistic now that both Egypt and Sudan are in transition. Regardless, as anyone in politics will attest: timing is everything!

Costa Rica Institutes Proceedings in ICJ against Nicaragua Over Río San Juan Conflict

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

On 18 November, Costa Rica instituted proceedings in the International Court of Justice [ICJ press release] against Nicaragua alleging unlawful “incursion into, occupation of and use by Nicaragua’s Army of Costa Rican territory as well as breaches of Nicaragua’s obligations towards Costa Rica” under a number of international treaties and conventions. The complaint focuses on the incursion of Nicaragua armed forces across the Río San Juan into territory that Costa Rica claims as its own.

According to Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua is merely seeking to restore what is rightfully theirs. As reported in the Tico Times [here], Ortega stated: “In the 1600s and 1700s, the river covered an enormous amount of territory at its delta. And as the zone has dried, the river has moved and (Costa Rica) has continued to advance and take possession of terrain that doesn’t belong to it. The way things are going, if the San Juan River continues to move north and join with the Río Grande of Matagalpa (in the northern zone), that’s how far (Costa Rica) would claim its territory extended.” Ortega further asserted that “Nicaragua has the right to dredge the San Juan River to recover the flow of waters that existed in 1858, even if that affects the flow of water of other current recipients, such as the Colorado River.”The dispute, in fact, can be traced back more than 150 years to the 1858 Treaty on the Boundaries between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which delimited the border along the Río San Juan. According to the treaty, while the southern bank of the river was declared Costa Rican territory, the river itself was given to Nicaragua. Costa Rica, however, was afforded the right to use the river for commerce.

Following disagreement over the interpretation of the treaty, the two countries agreed to have U.S. President Grover Cleveland arbitrate the dispute. In 1888, President Cleveland concluded (English and Spanish) that the border at the mouth of the Río San Juan lies at Punta de Castilla. Cleveland’s determination was later delineated more precisely in 1897 in the First award under the Convention between Costa Rica and Nicaragua of 8 April 1896 for the demarcation of the boundary between the two Republics.

Despite these rulings, the two countries continued to quarrel over both the location of the border between the two nations and the rights each enjoyed with respect to the use of the Río San Juan. In 2005, the dispute again came to the fore again when Costa Rica instituted proceedings in the ICJ [here] claiming that Nicaragua had unlawfully restricted Costa Rica’s right to navigate and access the Río San Juan by requiring passengers and tourists on Costa Rican vessels sailing on the river to obtain Nicaraguan visas. The ICJ ruled [here] against Nicaragua.

That decision, however, did not prevent Nicaragua from continuing to assert its claims to the river. In recent years, Nicaragua has been dredging older channels of the Río San Juan asserting that the border should follow the river as it flowed back in 1858 when the original Treaty on the Boundaries between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was adopted. Hence, the latest dispute. Interestingly enough, Nicaragua has also been working on a canal to link the Río San Juan and a nearby lagoon, which, at least one new source [Haaretz article] suggests is part of a larger, more ambitious plan by Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua to create a “Nicaragua Canal” linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would rival the existing Panama Canal.

Notwithstanding, if Costa Rica has its way, the ICJ will focus solely on Nicaragua’s incursion, both its military and engineering activities, on Costa Rica soil. Considering President Ortega’s statements and Nicaragua’s claim to the watercourse as it flowed back in the 1850s, though, Nicaragua will likely challenge Costa Rica’s claim to sovereignty over the territory in question. That challenge will depend, in part, on the interpretation of the relevant treaties and prior determinations. However, taking President Ortega’s statements at face value, international law pertaining to migrating rivers also may be relevant.

Under international law, avulsive changes to a watercourse channel (abrupt changes due to storms and other natural phenomena) do not move a river-based boundary. The international frontier remains in the original channel, even if it no longer carries any water. In other words, countries neither gain nor lose territory when a river marking an international boundary changes its course due to avulsion. In contrast, gradual and natural changes to a watercourse’s channel, such as those produced by natural river flow and scouring, can impact a nation’s geographic range. Under international law, accretive changes can legally increase or decrease a state’s territory, notwithstanding the geographic location of an original river-based boundary. In essence, countries can gain or lose territory when the channel of a river marking an international boundary migrates due to accretion. The river channel, in its new or modified channel, remains the official boundary.

So, is Nicaragua entitled to the river as it flowed in the 1850s? Might they be legally entitled to the land they allegedly invaded? If the ICJ determines that the Río San Juan constitutes the official border, and that the main channel of the river has migrated from its 1858 location, and if the Court concludes that the river moved as a result of avulsion, then Nicaragua’s may have an argument. That, however, will not be easy to establish. Over 150 years have passed since the 1858 treaty. While Nicaragua may be able to produce maps and charts evidencing the channel’s location in the 1850s, establishing that its migration was due solely or predominantly to avulsion is another matter. Over the past decade alone, the region has suffered a number of hurricanes and earthquakes, each of which could have caused the river to move. Yet, over the past 150 years, the region has also experienced more typical climatic condition that could have caused the river channel to migrate in a more gradual fashion. If the river did in fact move from its 1850s location, the reality is that this migration was due to both accretive and avulsive phenomena. Nicaragua certainly has its work cut out. Of course, Costa Rica will have to be ready to disprove Nicaragua’s claims.

You can find additional information on this dispute, including a variety of charts and maps, as well as a discussion of the role that Google Earth has played in stoking the controversy, at Ogle Earth.

Accord or Discord on the Nile? – Part II

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Before giving my assessment of the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA), a brief caveat. As you will see from the copy I procured, the document has some formatting defects (e.g., different font sizes, a few color changes, non-consecutive numbering, variations in indentation spaces, etc.). While I (and my sources) cannot vouch that this is the final edition of the agreement that was opened for signature on 14 may 2010, it appears to be a near final version. Accordingly, you should consider my comments with a grain of salt.

Overall, the CFA appears to be in line with some of the more comprehensive transboundary waters agreements, spelling out in some detail the legal bases upon which the region’s hydro-relationship is to be forged and articulating the rights and obligations of the parties. To that extent, it is a valiant and meaningful effort at achieving a functional and worthwhile accord. Those of you who would prefer hard numbers and provisions on allocations, though, may be disappointed – the agreement is fundamentally about principles.

The most noteworthy aspect of the agreement is Part III, which creates the Nile River Basin Commission. The significance of this section is that it establishes a mechanism for facilitating cooperation and preventing disputes, one of the core objectives of the CFA. Moreover, and possibly most important, it creates space for discussing sensitive issues outside the political realm thereby minimizing the hyperbole and gridlock that often plagues international politics. And the Nile River Basin is no stranger to political hyperbole and gridlock …

Of course, the creation of a supranational institutional apparatus will not guarantee harmony on the Nile. Its success will greatly depend on whether the parties to the CFA implement the provisions for its creation and operation, as well as the degree to which they place their trust in it. Nevertheless, the design of the institution is somewhat similar to that of the Organization for the Development of the Senegal River, known by its French acronym OMVS (Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal), a rather successful transboundary water management mechanism. Indeed, if the countries of the Nile Basin actually follow the OMVS paradigm for cooperation, there could be a very bright future for the region.

Other sections of the CFA that deserve mention include Part II and III, which articulate the legal principles underpinning the agreement and the relationships of the riparians as they pertain to the management of the Nile River. While the extent to which these doctrines are defined or explained varies in the agreement, having an established core set of values and rules bolsters the likelihood of the CFA’s success.

Of the principles presented, most are well recognized under international water law, including those of cooperation, equitable and reasonable utilization, no significant harm, and exchange of data and information. The CFA, however, proffers a number of legal doctrines that are not in the mainstream. For example, while the notion of subsidiarity often appears in other contexts, it has rarely been invoked explicitly in the framework of transboundary water management and regulation. Article 3(3) briefly defines the principle as “development and protection of the Nile River Basin water resources [that] is planned and implemented at the lowest appropriate level.” Furthermore, Article 10(a) elaborates on this notion by emphasizing that State Parties to the CFA “shall … allow all those within a State who will or may be affected by the project in that State to participate in an appropriate way in the planning and implementation process.” Given the disparate geographies, climatic conditions, economics, and other factors that are found along the length of the Nile and its tributaries, this is a welcomed progressive addition that enhances participation and democratizes the management of the River.

Possibly the most interesting, and certainly the most controversial, provision of the CFA is contained in Article 14, which recognizes “the vital importance of water security” to each of the Nile’s riparians and acknowledges the achievement of such security through “the cooperation management and development of waters of the Nile River System.” Under Article 2(f), “water security” is defined as “the right of all Nile Basin States to reliable access to and use of the Nile River system for health, agriculture, livelihoods, production and environment.” As such, it implicates a legal right, held by each of the riparians, to an amount of water that is adequate to fulfill the needs of all of these sectors. Read in isolation, such a right might seem quite reasonable, possibly even noble. However, given the degree of water scarcity that is typically of the region, this ideal must recede in the face of reality. What remains is an aspirational goal that must be balanced against the availability of water in the watercourse. Certainly, Article 14(a) creates a relatively lose obligation that requires Nile Basin States “to work together to ensure that all states achieve and sustain water security.” That provisions, though, does not impose individual liability or dictate reductions of water withdrawals in relation to the achievement of this goal. That possibility was left to Article 14(b).

As might be imagined, Egypt and Sudan objected to such a mechanism. As originally drafted, Article 14(b) had Nile Basins States agreeing “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.” If implemented, this provision might have been used to find states individually responsible for its violation and, thereby, affect those states’ withdrawals. In sharp contrast, Egypt proposed (with Sudan as its lone supporter) that the Nile’s riparians be bound “not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State.” In other words, Egypt sought to modify the notion of water security in relation to states’ current uses and withdrawals, certainly in relation to its own historical claims [see my prior posting on this issue].

In a surprising move, the members of the Nile Basin Initiative – the partnership composed of the nine Nile riparians that drafted the CFA – decided to move ahead with the CFA minus Article 14(b). In its stead, they put a placeholder indicating that “the issue on the Article 14(b) be annexed and resolved by the Nile River Basin Commission within six months of its establishment.” This is rather an amazing procedure given the importance of the issue for all of the Nile’s riparians, especially for Egypt and Sudan, and because it implicates that the latter two countries would join the accord in order to revisit the dispute. If it wasn’t for the two lower riparians’ subsequent refusal to sign the agreement and their rather strong language in objecting to its implementation by the river’s upper riparians, you might think that peace had reigned over this troubled region. Still, recent reports (e.g., here and here) suggest that the two dissenters are willing to continue negotiating over the provision and the agreement in general. Hence, hope remains.

Ultimately, though, if it wasn’t for the encouragement and support (including financial) by international institutions and western nations, it is unlikely that the initiative would have progressed this far. The United States, Europe, the World Bank and other entities must become more engaged in advancing this effort. The nations of the Nile River have made considerable progress in drafting the CFA. It would be a real shame if they could not finalize the accord and realize its potential. It would be an even bigger shame if the breakdown in negotiations escalated tensions in the region.