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Universal and regional approaches to resolving international water disputes: what lessons learned  from state practice?

This article is by Patricia Wouters

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This paper examines universal and regional approaches to resolving international disputes over shared freshwater resources, primarily through an analysis of selected case studies. It reviews the relevant multilateral and basin-wide legal regimes with a view to identifying regional trends. The exercise reveals that countries in different regions of the world have developed distinctive schemes to resolve their disputes over water. Generally, watercourse states in Africa and Europe appear to prefer to use negotiations and joint bodies as the means to settle conflicts but are willing also to accept third-party involvement, including arbitration and adjudication. On the other hand, in North America and, in particular, Asia, joint institutions and technical bodies play the most dominant role, with practically no recourse by states to compulsory third-party settlement.

8420476877c51eb63d3a.jpgA key finding that arises from this study is the identification of a newly emerging tool – the “compliance verification system” – as an important means of dispute avoidance in two regions: Europe and Southern Africa. Given the evolving roles of technical joint commissions, the non-confrontational and non-adversarial approach promoted by compliance verification – if properly developed and tested – might serve as a model that could be applied by watercourse states on a wider scale. Also worth noting is the relatively new instrument of dispute resolution – compulsory fact-finding – adopted under the United Nations 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (“UN Watercourses Convention”). 1 This mechanism is consistent with most regional models of dispute settlement and should be considered when developing a compliance verification system.

International disputes over water: how relevant is the question? Despite the fact that the only known war over water was fought some 4500 years ago, 2 disputes over international waters have been chronicled over time 3 and continue to pose potential problems in most regions around the world. 4 The most recent example is the Israeli military threat against Lebanon over the latter’s use of the Wazzani, a tributary to the Jordan River. 5 This matter remains unresolved, although numerous attempts at diplomatic intervention,including offers of assistance by the European Union and the United States, continue.

In early 2002, a new dimension was added to the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Jammu and Kashmir when India planned a hydroelectric project on one of the rivers of the Indus Basin. India’s plans for a hydroelectric project involving diversion of the Chenab River raised concerns in Pakistan, leading it to recommend that the matter be referred to the “Neutral Expert” under the Indus Waters Treaty. 7 In India, legislators in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly were also dissatisfied with the Indus Treaty and called for India to unilaterally abrogate the agreement. 8 In early October 2002, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf highlighted the importance of the Indus Water Treaty, “a framework for water sharing,” warning that “without Kashmir waters, the entire Pakistanis likely to turn into a barren desert.” However, Pakistani officials strongly deny the assertions of one commentator that “a potential crisis over water is more dangerous than the struggle over the disputed territory of Kashmir because Pakistan has stated that it would be prepared to use nuclear weapons over the issue.” 10

Pakistan has now asked the World Bank to intervene to assist the parties to find a solution on the dispute over the Baghliar Hydropower project. 11 In October 2002, Singapore and Malaysia considered taking their dispute over the Tebrau and Scudai Rivers Water Agreement and the Johor River Water Agreement before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (“PCA”) in The Hague. 12 A few months earlier, Niger and Benin agreed to go to the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) over their territorial claims involving a boundary river, 13 and Namibia and Botswana recently used the ICJ to resolve their conflict over the Kasilili/Sedudu Island on the Chobe River. 14 In Europe, the lengthy dispute over the Danube River, involving Hungary and Slovakia, 15 has yet to be finally settled, despite the 1997 ICJ decision on the matter. 16 Apart from the water disputes noted above, the three hundred major international watercourses shared by two or more states each provide opportunities for conflict. The world’s growing population and the increasing demands on the quality and quantity of freshwater place more pressure on existing systems.

According to some forecasts, the future withdrawal of the world’s water supply for domestic, industrial and other uses will increase by at least fifty percent over the next two decades, leading to a “global water crisis” caused by severe water shortage, especially in developing countries. 17 International development initiatives such as poverty eradication, 18 “water for food,” “water security19 and so forth, emphasize the growing demands on the world’s freshwater resources to meet global economic and social development needs. Recent international meetings which focused on water issues, including the 2002 UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, 20 the 2001 Bonn Conference, 21 and the Second World Water Forum at The Hague, 22 identified numerous challenges for the international community in meeting global water needs. How will watercourse states address the evidently imminent future conflicts over water?   

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Related Publications

Law and Governance of Water Resources - D. E. Fisher 
Publication Date: Feb 2010 - ISBN - 9781843392392

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Wouters, P & International Bureau of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (2003), 'Universal and regional approaches to resolving international water disputes: what lessons learned from state practice?'. in: Resolution of international water disputes: papers emanating from the Sixth PCA International Law Seminar. Kluwer Law International, pp. 111-154.

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