Changing Climate, Changing Borders

A recent article in New Scientist reported on how climate change could effect changes in political geography. The article – “Climate changes Europe’s Borders – and the world’s” – related how “Italy and Switzerland are planning to redraw their shared alpine border, as global warming is melting the glaciers that originally guided the line.”


While the article focused on borders in glaciated regions, it got me thinking about other ways in which climate change could impact international boundaries. The most obvious may be through the expected impacts on various transboundary rivers and lakes that form such boundaries. Flooding, for example, could have considerable impacts on the natural flow routes of rivers, sometime in sudden avulsive alterations, but often in gradual accretive changes.


While the international law applicable to changes by avulsion and accretion may be fairly settled (namely, that abrupt changes due to storms and other natural phenomena do not move the boundary, which remains in the old channel; while gradual and natural changes can legally increase or decrease a state’s territory notwithstanding sovereignty), it may be an entirely different matter where the changes are induced by climate change. If climate change is indeed a product of human action, there may be grounds to question whether climate change-induced changes to rivers routes constitute accretion. On the one hand, the changes may be described as gradual and natural; on the other, they have an unnatural, albeit indirect, source. Similarly, abrupt climate-induced changes may not constitute avulsion where they too have a human origin.


In a similar vein, droughts also could impact international boundaries where they deplete waters in a transboundary river or lake. The case of Lake Chad is illustrative. Between human withdrawals and climate change, the lake has been drastically reduced in size and volume.  Moreover, it continues to fluctuate with changing seasons. Because the boundary here is demarcated in relation to the tripoint in Lake Chad where the frontiers of Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria meet, any change to its geographical size, can change its tripoint location. This lack of a definitive and stationary border has witnessed citizens from neighboring countries cross the border, often inadvertently, to fish and forage for resources, which in turn, has resulted in a number of disputes.


At the January 2008 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautioned that water scarcity could spell increased conflicts in the future, and added that “[p]opulation growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst.  Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.” I can’t help but think that some of those conflicts may include border disputes.

2 Responses to “Changing Climate, Changing Borders”

  1. Interesting posting. To take the topic an additional step however, what about climate change’s anticipated effects on ocean levels. We normally consider rising ocean levels in a vertical context, but as oceans levels rise they will also cause a horizontal shift in coastlines. While the change may be negligable in many parts of the world, in others it could result in significant impact to the reach of a nation’s territorial waters.

  2. Gabriel Eckstein (IWLP blogger) says:

    Thanks for your comment Alex. Sea level rise certainly could affect international borders. And that, in turn, could result in political stress as nations compete over the geographic demarcation of off-shore natural resources. The same could occur for shifting rivers and lakes where borders are tied to the location of those surface waters. Are we, as an international community, beyond fighting over transboundary water resources? Aaron Wolf and others certainly think so. Their studies indicate, generally, that water tends to be more of a cooperative rather than a divisive force. Yet, statistical research and historical analysis do not always provide adequate predictors of human nature. Conventional wisdom suggest that all peoples and nations have a tipping point, and that faced with significant water depletion and scarcity, people and nations may, nonetheless, resort to conflict. I can only hope that Wolf, et al., are correct.