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.