Global River Flows Decline

April 23rd, 2009

The Christian Science Monitor Discoveries Blog has an interesting article on the global decline of river flows.  Too many ’straws’ sucking water out of the Colorado River” describes how by 2050, the Colorado River be unable to live up to its current allocation scheme 60-90 percent of the time; even absent climatic changes, scheduled deliveries would be unmet 40 percent of the time.  This news is based on a recent study by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and published in the April 20 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to a forthcoming study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the College of William and Mary, the Colorado is not alone in suffering such shortfalls.  The study reveals that over the past 60 years, some 300 of the world’s largest rivers have experienced significant changes in flow rates.  While some rivers have gained volume, the rivers with reduced flow rates outnumbered the ones with higher flow rates by 2.5 to 1.  As for the culprit, the study suggests that large dams and diversion projects have certainly caused their share of water problems. However, they place greater burden on global climate change, which is altering precipitation patterns and increasing the rate of evaporation.

This study, which represents the most comprehensive data base yet assembled to track river flows (assessing the flows of 925 of the planet’s largest rivers), is scheduled for publication in the May 15 issue of the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.  You can download the research paper here, or view a simplified description of the study’s findings here.

US Politicians Introduce Water for the World Act

April 23rd, 2009


Yesterday, 22 April 2009, Members of the US House of Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) introduced the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, the successor to the 2005 Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act. A bill is intended to commit the US government to provide 100,000,000 people around the world with first-time access to safe drinking water and sanitation on a sustainable basis by 2015.


The legislation had previously been introduced to the US Senate on 17 March 2009 by Senators Dick Durbin, Patty Murray and Bob Corker.


You can find the statements of Representatives Blumenaur and Senator Durbin on their legislation.

RFE/RL: Battle Lines Drawn In Central Asian Water Dispute

April 23rd, 2009

“Do countries have the right to use water flowing through their territory as they wish? Or do they have an obligation to consider the needs of neighbors living further downstream?”  This is the opening line of a recent story by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  In those two simple questions, the author has boiled down an ages-old international dispute – the classic upstream-downstream controversy – to its fundamental core.  In traditional contexts, it is a contest of absolute territorial and sovereign rights – the right of both the upstream and downstream countries to use natural resources found inside their respective territories without interference or diminution by other nations.  In a more modern framework, the issues are described in terms of equity and a fundamental obligation not to use one’s territory in a way that would significantly harm another nation.



In this particular story, the battle is over the waters of the Syr-Darya and Amuy-Darya, Central Asia’s two great rivers.  And the battle lines have been drawn between the upstream states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who are pursing large hydropower stations in (Kambarata in Kyrgyzstan) and (Rogun in Tajikistan), and the downstream states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan who are concerned about the impact that the hydro-projects will have on water supplies reaching them.  The water dispute is further complicated by the continued desiccation of the Aral Sea, the terminus of the two rivers, which has been ongoing for decades following Soviet era diversions of the rivers for agricultural purposes.



The parties will face each other at the upcoming meeting of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea on April 28 in Almaty.

Water marketing vs. human rights

April 18th, 2009

Two recent articles in The Economist – Water: Sin aqua non and Water rights: Awash in waste – suggest that the solution to world’s water problem is to improve efficiency. The articles explain, rightly, that “there is, globally, no shortage of water” and point at wasteful practices, especially in the agricultural sector, as a chief culprit in global problems related to water scarcity.  The authors, however, tread on sacred grounds by pooh-poohing the treatment of water as a basic human right (“Treating it as a right makes the scarcity worse”) and argue for a system of tradable water-usage rights. “Any economist knows what to do: price water to reflect its value.”


While the ideal of pricing water resources at their true value may have a ring of sanity in the abstract, in reality it threatens a fundamental human notion that water is so elemental to life that it deserves a unique status in our societal system. Many of the world’s religions, for example, regard water as a gift from God that cannot be bought or sold lest the gift be dishonored.  Moreover, by taking a purely economic approach to a component of life relegates life itself to the market.


Yet, there may be a viable middle ground, one that strikes a balance between the absolute needs of individual people for survival and growth, and those of society to ensure efficiency and, hence, the overall and long-term supply of fresh water resources.  While actual uses vary around the world, agriculture accounts for 70-80% of global water withdrawals, while industry takes less than a fifth.  That leaves less than 10% as the amount actually used for domestic purposes and sanitation by a population pushing seven billion.  What would happen if people were afforded a human right to access some minimal amount of water and then subject amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market?


According to the World Health Organization, the average person requires 20 L per day for basic subsistence and up to 70 L per day for maintaining a minimum quality of life.  Obviously, such minimum will vary depending on the climate of the individual’s environment.  Yet, on a global scale, this would be a proverbial drop in the buckets of global water withdrawals and consumption.  Certainly, some nations may have difficulty meeting even this minimal guarantee due to local scarcity of fresh water resources. And in such cases, the global community should step forward and help their fellow human beings.  Yet, the vast majority of countries should have little difficulty in providing and assuring access to such quantities.


As for the amounts used by agriculture and industry, water could be managed using market mechanisms that allow it to be traded as either a commodity or in the context of tradable usage rights.  As The Economist notes, “Water is rarely priced in ways that reflect supply and demand … Because most water use is not measured, let alone priced, trade rarely reflects water scarcities.”  The result is a highly inefficient system that justly could be accused of waste.  Again, The Economist: “Because water is usually free, thirsty crops like alfalfa are grown in arid California. Wheat in India and Brazil uses twice as much water as wheat in America and China. Dry countries like Pakistan export textiles though a 1kg bolt of cloth requires 11,000 litres of water.”


Even amounts used by people beyond a guaranteed allotment could be subject to pricing mechanisms and regulated market forces.  A tiered pricing system, for example, would allow for personal use beyond a minimum lifestyle (e.g., swimming pool) to those who can afford it while maintaining a minimum standard for all people.  It could also be used to subsidize the minimum guarantee for the rest of the population, at least for those who cannot afford even the basic cost.


Of course, the natural environment has yet to be addressed in this system.  And clearly, water for ecosystems, habitats, and species must be ensured through regulations that protect minimum instream flows, aquifer integrity, water quality, and other aspects of the environment.  Nonetheless, while we certainly have much more to do to on this front, ensuring water for the environment should not have to conflict with either recognizing access to water as a basic human right, or subjecting amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market.  Currently, when we total the percentages of water used by people, agriculture, and industry as 100%, we are simply identifying the amount withdrawn and used for human endeavor.  It in no way reflects the quantities of water left in rivers and aquifers, whether intentionally or not.  Certainly, in many parts of the world, that amount is inadequate for the needs of the environment, but that is, in part, a product of our current inefficiencies.  Yet, it is also a function of our priorities.  By enhancing efficiency and at the same time securing minimal guarantees for people everywhere, the reduced water stress would likely allow the raising of environmental priorities.


Jordan protests Syrian water sharing ‘violations’

April 15th, 2009

According to The Jordan Times and other sources, Jordan is accusing Syria of violating a water-sharing agreement over the Yarmouk river by cultivating summer crops on the banks of the River.


According to the article “Under agreements signed between the two countries, Syria’s share of water from the Wihdeh Dam, which is built on the Yarmouk River, is six million cubic metres (mcm) for agricultural purposes, provided that the dam reaches its full capacity of 110mcm.


But for the first time since its construction two years ago, the dam currently holds only 18mcm, and thus Syria’s share declines to 1mcm. The neighbouring country, however, is pumping more than its allocated share to water crops planted all the way from downstream of Wihdeh Dam to Al Raqqad Valley located on the banks of the Yarmouk River.”


Jordan contends that “The river’s flow dropped from 1,200 litres per second last year to 900 litres per second currently, which is blamed on the cultivation of crops on the river’s banks.”


You can find the following two treaties between Jordan and Syria related to the Yarmouk River on the IWLP website:

  • Agreement Between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordanian and the Syrian Republic for the Utilization of the Waters of the Yarmuk River. Signed in Amman, 3 September 1987
  • Agreement Between the Republic of Syria and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Concerning the Utilization of the Yarmouk Waters. Signed at Damascus, 4 June 1953; in force 8 July 1953
  • Changing Climate, Changing Borders

    April 15th, 2009

    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.

    Managing the IWLP Blog

    April 14th, 2009

    There is always a learning curve when starting on a new project, and certainly when using new technology (new, at least, for this user). But, with a little patience …


    I have activated the comment feature of the blog (located below each posting), which will allow all visitors to post comments to any of the postings. For now, I will moderate/review the comments prior to posting them to ensure that we minimze spam.  Also, I have added an RSS feature (the link is at the right side of each blog page) that will allow you to receive a continuous feed from the blog as new posts are added.


    I hope to add additional features to make the blog more readable and reader-friendly as I learn this new communication system. Thank you for bearing with me.


    And as always, I look forward to your comments, ideas, submissions, and participation.

    UPI – “Water crisis rocks LA, Mexico City; who’s next?”

    April 13th, 2009

    UPI recently reported that major cities around the world, including Mexico City and Los Angeles, are suffering from severe water crises. Nothing new here. What caught my attention is the one-liner: “Almost no one in the United States — or anywhere else in the industrialized world — takes the crisis seriously or realizes how directly it threatens them.” The article also notes that while Mexico City is about to embark on a 36-hour water cutoff, in Los Angeles, the City Council unanimously turned back a rationing plan Wednesday that had been put together by the city’s Department of Water and Power.

    Why is that so? Why is the industrialized world so immune to the growing water problems developing both around the world and in our own communities? Has civilization and progress blinded us to the droughts and floods that have plagued the US, Australia, Europe, and other industrialized regions in recent years? Or, are we quick to dismiss such problems because the consequences were felt by only a minority of a minority? Are we such a reactive (as opposed to proactive) species that the degree of suffering has to overwhelm us before we are ready to take action?

    As the UPI article warns in its closing paragraph: “The water shortages now hitting Los Angeles and Mexico City now “only” threaten around 40 million people. If the U.S. and Mexican governments don’t get their acts together, the problem will only get far worse.”

    U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Act

    April 13th, 2009

    As many of you know, the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in December 2006. It was designed to address the lack of consensus between the two nations on the source and availability of future water supplies along the border specifically focusing on transboundary aquifers. The Act mandates the creation of a scientific program to comprehensively assess the region’s transboundary aquifers, especially those deemed “priority” transboundary aquifers.


    While the Act is expected to generate important data and information for a region critically dependent on its ground water, it will likely produce charts and maps of the kind some of us may recall from elementary school – with colorful contours and geologic characteristics that stop at the border. Although useful for American school children (and even that is debatable), they may be worthless for more serious purposes. Despite its title, the Act is a one-sided effort. Although it directs the US Department of the Interior “to develop partnerships with, and receive input from, relevant organizations in Mexico to carry out the program,” according to Economic & Political News on Mexico (Vol. 19, No. 34, 9/10/08 – contact me if you want a copy), the Mexicans may have been caught off guard by passage of this unilateral effort. For example, last April (04/28/08), the Mexico City daily newspaper Milenio Diario asserted that “The US is betting on the underground water supplies along the border with our country, which is one of the regions in the US with the highest population growth … The growing scarcity of water in this region has on more than one occasion created tensions between the two governments.”


    Certainly, the Act was adopted under the oversight of a prior administration. But that doesn’t excuse the great need for cooperation between the two nations. For example, while we may know that aquifers underlay the border region, its seems we still are unsure of how many such treasures may be found there. While Stephen Mumme identified eighteen in his work, others suggest as few as eight (e.g., see UNESO/OAS ISARM Report of 2005) and as many as twenty (see EPA’s 2005 Good Neighbor Environmental Board report to the President). IGRAC’s recently released Transboundary Aquifers of the World Map identifies ten.


    Of course, this all may be subject to geologic interpretation, but the fact that it hasn’t been fully interpreted (or, at least, comprehensively collected) indicates a lackluster interest by the two governments.


    Additionally, overexploitation has become a serious concern in the border area as populations on both sides pump water with little regard for the transboundary impacts or sustainability. Moreover, as communities continue to grow, increasing pollution from untreated sewage, agricultural and industrial byproducts, and other sources threaten the aquifers’ water quality. Now, climate change threatens to exacerbate the droughts that have plagued the region in recent decades and further diminish border-area water resources. Despite it all, a dearth of research and funding has left little known about the full extent and consequences of the exploitation and pollution of the region’s aquifers.


    What is truly needed is a comprehensive and cooperative assessment of ground water resources on both sides of the border. To achieve this objective, both nations must become more engaged in the region’s transboundary aquifers. They must cooperate on and coordinate their research efforts, harmonize methodologies, continuously exchange data and study results, and, ultimately, develop a management scheme that takes into account the needs of both nations, the needs of the environment, and the extent of the fresh water resources available. And, in light of climatic variability, they must monitor all of the variables and periodically review and adapt their efforts so as to ensure that the limited water resources are used wisely and efficiently.


    With the population along the border expected to balloon to as much as 23 million by 2030, the availability of fresh water in the region must be made a priority. Might the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act serve as a first step in this direction? Certainly a possibility. A second step, though, has yet to appear on the horizon. By itself, the Act is designed to provide only a one-sided glimpse of the needed information, and thus, may be an exercise in futility. Moreover, the fact that the Act is set to expire in 2016, has only received $500,000 of the $50 million authorized, and the current state of the U.S. economy all proffer even less hope that it will produce meaningful information.

    Welcome to the IWLP Blog

    April 12th, 2009

    Next to air, water is the most precious of resources known to life. Without it, we could not exist; nature would not exist. Water, truly, is life. And yet, in the aftermath of this most recent World Water Forum, I wonder what we’ve really learned about this most precious of resources.

    In parts of Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, communities survive – albeit barely – on quantities that should place our global morals and ethics into question. On the Nile, the Mountain Aquifer, the Brahmaputra, the Guarani and others, we all-too-often engage in political (and occasionally armed) scuffles over rights, sovereignty, and “water security,” while ignoring our responsibilities to people and the environment. The result: some 1.2 billion people today are without adequate water to drink, and 2.6 billion without enough for proper sanitation and hygiene. And now climatic changes threaten to worsen our global water challenges and make life even more arduous for the lot of us.

    Yet, our water-based and dependent futures are not all gloom and doom. There are numerous success and achievements that deserve recognition. Among them are the Draft Articles on Transboundary Aquifers recently composed by the UNILC and commended to UN Member States by the UNGA. While certainly not perfect, they serve as a foundation on which to build new cooperative mechanisms in a world that has too few agreements over transboundary fresh water resources. Another is the Great Lakes—St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, which looks to be an interesting model for the collection and sharing of technical data among the sister states and provinces, as well as for transboundary public participation mechanisms implemented to monitor activities on the shared waters.

    These are interesting times we live in. And contrary to the intention behind that Chinese curse, I tend to like interesting times. So many fascinating water issues; so little time to consider them all.

    This blog, though, is my effort to do just that – to consider and comment on what I think are the most interesting and significant international water issues and developments of our times. While there certainly are others that offer commentary on global water issues (WaterWired is one of my favorite), given my interests in international and transboundary water law and policy, I hope to keep my posts to this narrow portion of the universe.

    Of course, this blog is intended as a conversation, a dialogue among any and all of us who are inclined toward equity, ethics, and sanity in our water laws and policies globally. Accordingly, I hope to provoke discussion in this realm and very much welcome constructive opinions, ideas, and information.

    Thanks for visiting, and I hope you will return frequently.