Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Water, Climate Change, and International Security

The Pacific Institute recently released an interesting report entitled: Understanding and Reducing the Risks of Climate Change for Transboundary Waters.  As with all Institute documents, this is well researched and thoughtfully presented.  It focuses on a number of specific case studies including those listed below and is well worth digging into:

As Peter Gleick notes in his own blog:

“…climate change, shared international water resources, and security and conflict — are coming together in ways that raise serious concerns. Climate changes will inevitably affect water resources around the world, altering water availability, quality, and the management of infrastructure. Indeed, they already are…  We conclude that climate change will almost certainly increase the risks of conflicts over shared water resources, not lessen them.”

And, as the report itself notes, there is a growing severity and intensity of local and sub-national conflicts and the relative de-emphasis of conflicts at the international level:

“… freshwater resources are unevenly and irregularly distributed, with some regions of the world extremely short of water. Political borders and boundaries rarely coincide with borders of watersheds, ensuring that politics inevitably intrude on water policy. Indeed, more than 260 river basins are shared by two or more nations. Just as oil creates disputes between states, water also plays a role in international conflicts. Inequities in the distribution, use and consequences of water management and use have been a source of tension and dispute. In addition, water resources have been used to achieve military and political goals, including the use of water systems and infrastructure, such as dams and supply canals, as military targets.

This chronology suggests that one of the most important changes in the nature of conflicts over the past several decades has been the growing severity and intensity of local and sub-national conflicts and the relative de-emphasis of conflicts at the international level. A growing number of disputes over allocations of water across local borders, ethnic boundaries, or between economic groups have also led to conflict.

The good news is that water disputes are generally resolved diplomatically, and shared water resources are often a source of cooperation and negotiation. An estimated 300 agreements have been developed between riparian States – those States that border a shared river. But the long history of violence associated with transboundary water resources highlights the challenges associated with managing shared water resources.

Future pressures, such as population and economic growth and climate change, could increase tensions, even in areas that in the past have been characterized by cooperation. Global climate change will pose a wide series of challenges for freshwater management as a result of changes in water quantity, quality, water-system operations, and more. For countries whose watersheds and river basins lie wholly within their own political boundaries, adapting to increasingly severe climate changes will be difficult enough.

…A question thus arises: To what degree can existing transboundary agreements or international principles for sharing water handle the strain of future pressures, particularly climate change? Climate changes will inevitably alter the form, intensity, and timing of water demand, precipitation, and runoff, meaning past climate conditions are no longer an adequate predictor of the future. At the same time, new disputes are arising in transboundary watersheds and are likely to become more common with increasing pressures.

Thus, transboundary agreements are needed now more than ever, but new forms or arrangements for such agreements may be necessary and old agreements may need to be renegotiated in the context of a changing climate. As Goldenman noted in 1990:

“One of the major challenges ahead for the international community will be to develop the principles, procedures, and institutions for managing and protecting shared resources, such as watercourse systems, at the same time that the Earth adapts to climate change.”

Little progress has been made in this area in the subsequent two decades….”



This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 at 4:42 pm and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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