Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Hydropolitical Vulnerability and Environmental Security

Via Aquadoc, news that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is publishing a series on the hydropolitical vulnerability and resilence of international water resources on all the inhabited continents.  As the article notes:

“… a nation is hydropolitically vulnerable if there is the potential for conflict to arise with another nation(s) over a particular international water body. A nation is hydropolitical resilient if it adapts without conflict to hydrological change within a particular shared basin (surface water or groundwater).

…In general, concepts of “resilience” and “vulnerability” as related to water resources are often assessed within the framework of “sustainability,” and relate to the ability of biophysical systems to adapt to change. As the sustainability discourse has broadened to include human systems in recent years, so too has work been increasingly geared towards identifying indicators of resilience and vulnerability within this broader context. In parallel, dialogue on “security” has migrated from traditional issues of war and peace toward also beginning to incorporate the human-environment relationship in the relatively new field of “environmental security”.

The term “hydropolitics” came about as the potential for conflict and violence to erupt over international waters began to receive substantial new attention. Hydropolitics relates to the ability of geopolitical institutions to manage shared water resources in a politically sustainable manner, i.e., without tensions or conflict between political entities. “Hydropolitical resilience,” then, is defined as the complex human-environmental system’s ability to adapt to permutations and change within these systems; “hydropolitical vulnerability” is defined by the risk of political dispute over shared water systems. Aaron Wolf and his colleagues suggested the following relationship between change, institutions, and hydropolitical vulnerability: “The likelihood of conflict rises as the rate of change within the basin exceeds the institutional capacity to absorb that change.”

This suggests that there are two sides to the dispute setting: the rate of change in the system and the institutional capacity. In general, most of the parameters regularly identified as indicators of water conflict are actually only weakly linked to dispute. Institutional capacity within a basin, however, whether defined as water management bodies or treaties, or generally positive international relations, is as important, if not more so, than the physical aspects of a system. It turns out, then, that very rapid changes, either on the institutional side or in the physical system, that outpace the institutional capacity to absorb those changes, are at the root of most water conflict. For example, the rapid institutional change in “internationalized” basins, i.e., basins that include the management structures of newly independent States, has resulted in disputes in areas formerly under British administration (e.g., the Nile, Jordan, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Ganges-Brahmaputra), as well as in the former Soviet Union (e.g., the Aral tributaries and the Kura-Araks). On the physical side, rapid change most outpaces institutional capacity in basins that include unilateral development projects and the absence of cooperative regimes, such as treaties, river basin organizations (RBOs), or technical working groups, or when relations are especially tenuous over other issues.

…Here is what we concluded about North America’s hydropolitical vulnerability and resiliency:

The examples of conflict, cooperation, and a combination of the two that fall along the U.S.-Canada border suggest that the two countries are abiding by the agreements in place and are using the resources available to them to solve disputes or disagreements that arise.  They are also collaborating to manage transboundary water resources at the watershed level, which can be seen in the creation of the International Watersheds Initiative.  Although not discussed in detail in this report, much of the cooperation of the two countries is centered on the Great Lakes, which can be seen by the numerous agreements in place and the role of the IJC in managing those resources.

In contrast, examples of conflict and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico show that despite having the IBWC as an intergovernmental body designated by treaty to deal with water issues, conflicts still arise.  While some of these conflicts are easy to solve, such as those dealing with surface water quality, others are not as easy and deal with the eventual necessity of apportioning transboundary groundwaters.  In many of these cases, the arid climate, growing population, and recent prolonged drought has made water appear even scarcer.

North America’s vulnerability and resilience in the face of transboundary water conflicts is guided by the institutions that have been created to assist with water resources issues along both major borders of this continent.  Each institution has specific functions due to geography and climate – the lack of or abundance of water dictates how the treaties were written and their flexibility in light of the fact that the borders themselves cross many climatic and geographic zones.  The political boundaries divide many transboundary waterways and subterranean water resources.

Groundwater has been dealt with on a more local level or basin by basin through binational agreements and has been party to cooperative efforts to delineate the physical and chemical properties, as well as understand human impacts to the resource.  The nature of groundwater is such that human impacts have recently been the focus of attention; the problems that have surfaced do not have a quick fix.  Their solutions therefore have been undertaken through local initiatives, which have led to task forces and international exchanges of data to prevent future crises associated with the quantity and quality of the resource.

The vulnerability and resilience of these institutions in their ability to resolve bilateral disputes and promote cooperation between the countries is demonstrated in the examples of conflict and cooperation.  Overall, these examples suggest that conflict is not typically associated with violence but rather by actions that are perceived as threats to another country’s water resources.  Cooperation is demonstrated by the voluntary use of the institutional entities available to each country.  There are current disputes that display properties of both conflict and cooperation and can lean towards one end of the spectrum; however, in terms of the vulnerability of the institutional framework by which transboundary water issues are resolved, there is great resilience in the institutions that have already survived for over a century.  There are no signs of long-term vulnerability of the institutions; therefore, there is no vulnerability of the transboundary basins in North America over a long period of time.  The institutions are still being used to resolve other disputes such as in the Missouri-Mississippi River Basin and the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin.  The resilience of these institutions in North America will be tested by the prolonged presence of drought that increases water scarcity that will require flexibility to maintain resilience.”



This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 at 3:41 pm and is filed under Canada, Mexico, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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