AJIL Unbound Symposium on Interstate Disputes Over Water Rights

This essay is written by Gabriel Eckstein, Professor of Law at Texas A&M University, director of the TAMU Law Program in Energy, Environmental, and Natural Resources Systems, and director of the International Water Law Project. He can be reached at gabrieleckstein [at] law.tamu.edu.

Disagreements over the management and allocation of transboundary freshwater resources have become increasingly prominent in international relations. Serious diplomatic tensions surround management of the Jordan, Mekong, Nile, Rio Grande, Silala, Syr Darya and Amu Darya, and Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to name just the most prominent examples among the world’s more than 300 shared watercourses. Nor is there any reason to think tensions will subside in the future.

In many parts of the world, demand for freshwater already exceeds accessible supplies (here). Water use globally has more than tripled since the 1950s, growing at more than double the rate of population growth over the same time period (here). Over the next thirty years, global demand is expected to increase by another 20 to 30 percent (here). These basic realities heighten the potential for disagreements and conflicts between riparian states.

Such disputes can escalate into larger regional conflicts. In the Aral Sea Basin, the discord between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the Rogun Dam has raised concerns over broader regional destabilization and even inter-state violence. Disagreement over the Xayaburi Hydropower Project (XHP) on the Mekong River, albeit contested with less rhetoric than the Rogun confrontation, has made many observers fear for the stability and the economic development of mainland Southeast Asia. And recent confrontations between Afghanistan and Iran have led to the outbreak of local violence and occasionally strained relations between the two states in an already fragile region. 

Despite mounting tensions among states, armed conflicts over transboundary freshwater have remained relatively limited to date. Yet growing water needs and dwindling supplies, climate change, shifting developmental and environmental priorities, and other concerns are straining cross-border hydro relations. Whether disagreements over shared freshwater resources will continue to be resolved peacefully will depend, in part, on the viability, durability, and flexibility of international law to prevent and resolve such disputes.

AJIL Unbound by Symposium, a publication of the American Society for International Law, recently commissioned a series of articles on Interstate Disputes Over Water Rights. The articles examine the role and relevance of international water law (IWL) for peacefully resolving disputes over transboundary freshwater resources. Taken together, the series provides an impressive breadth of approaches, from close examination of contemporary disputes over transboundary freshwater resources to the interpretation and application of specific IWL norms and principles. The series also features the perspectives of scholars from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America.

The compilation, which is entirely open access, includes:

The diverse articles in this Symposium illustrate that the international law applicable to transboundary freshwater resources is at once expansive and focused.  While covering a broad array of topics and scenarios, from negotiation and data sharing to norm creation and litigation, it is also quite narrowly tailored to address the singular resource of freshwater in specific settings.  As developed as the regime may be, the essays make clear that it must continue to evolve and react to changing circumstances, such as climatic variability, growing demand, and increased knowledge about freshwater resources.

Water is one of the few true essential requirements for life. Thus, it is no surprise that disagreements among nations over this precious resource will continue and likely grow in the coming years.  Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that water management has more often been a source of cooperation than of conflict (here).  And while conflicts have certainly occurred, the vast majority of disputes have been resolved peaceably and in accordance with international law treaties and norms. Despite many challenges, international water law remains a vital and often effective guide for nations as they seek to resolve difficult and important water allocation disputes.

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