19 Nov 2012: Analysis

A Global Treaty on Rivers:
Key to True Water Security

No broad-based international agreement on sharing rivers currently exists, even though much of the world depends on water from rivers that flow through more than one nation. But that may be about to change, as two separate global river treaties are close to being approved.

by fred pearce

Is peace about to break out on the world’s rivers?

It is amazing that until now there has been no global agreement on sharing international rivers. From the Mekong to the Jordan and the Niger to the Euphrates, there has been nothing to stop upstream countries from building giant dams that cut off all flows downstream. Yet in the coming weeks we could have two such treaties.

First, the continuing bad news: Belligerent countries are still exerting their hydrological muscle. Just this month, Laos began construction of the first dam on the main stem of the lower Mekong River in Southeast Asia. It hopes that the Xayaburi dam will help it become the region’s hydroelectric powerhouse.

On the upper Mekong, China has already built four giant dams, including one taller than the Eiffel Tower. These dams are all being constructed without the approval of downstream neighbors, including the 60 million people in Cambodia and Vietnam who fear the barriers will block fish migration and deprive them of fertile silt for their rice fields.

Meanwhile in Africa, Ethiopia last year began work on the Renaissance Dam on the Nile, which will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa. Again, downstream nations Egypt and Sudan had no say. And in the Middle East, fears grow that Turkey could use its control of the Euphrates
Water is the most important global resource that does not have any international agreement.
as a weapon in any future border conflict with war-torn Syria, a downstream nation that is heavily dependent on the river.

More than 40 percent of the world’s people live in 263 river basins that straddle international borders. The Danube, Rhine, Congo, Nile, Niger, and Zambezi rivers all pass through nine or more countries. Transboundary rivers contain 60 percent of the world’s river flows — for two-thirds of them, there are no agreements on water sharing.

This is dangerous. Guinea threatens to barricade the River Niger, which could dry out the inner Niger delta, a wetland jewel on the edge of the Sahara in neighboring Mali. In September, Vladimir Putin visited the mountain states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, where he announced financial backing for more dams on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to generate hydropower in those countries. But he ignored opposition from downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan who fear the dams will deprive them of summer flows to irrigate their cotton crops.

Water is today the most important global resource that does not have any international agreement, says World Bank lawyer Salman M.A. Salman. Abstractions of water from rivers have tripled in the past 50 years, mostly for irrigation. The entire flows of some rivers are now being taken for human use. And the natural flows of many others are disrupted by hydroelectric dams that only allow water to pass when the dam owners want electricity.

What treaties there are, often date back to colonial times. In international law, the Nile is governed by deals drawn up by the British in 1929 and 1959, which give all the water to downstream Egypt and Sudan and none to the eight upstream nations. Those laws are discredited, and in 2010, six upstream nations led by Ethiopia reached their own accord — a treaty that Egypt and Sudan have not joined.

Back in 1997, the UN adopted the Convention on the Non-Navigable Uses of International Watercourses. It did not lay down hard and fast rules for sharing waters, but it was a statement of principle that nations should
In refusing to sign a UN treaty, China asserted its sovereignty over waterways flowing through its territory.
ensure the “sustainable and equitable use of shared rivers.”

Only three countries voted against: China, Turkey and Burundi — all of them upstream countries on major rivers. China is the water tower of Asia. Its Tibetan plateau is the source of the Indus, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong rivers. But in refusing to sign the treaty, China asserted that it had “indisputable territorial sovereignty over those parts of international watercourses that flow through its territory.”

To come into force, the treaty required 35 nations to ratify it in their legislatures. To date only 28 countries have done so. Other refuseniks include the U.S. and Britain, an original sponsor of the treaty. But the momentum for ratification is picking up. Eight of the 28 ratifiers did so in the last three years. France has become a cheerleader for the convention. Jean-Pierre Thebault, France’s environment ambassador, told a meeting I attended in Helsinki in September that he hoped enough nations would join for it to come into force in time for the UN’s International Year of Water Cooperation in 2013.

Meanwhile the treaty has a counterpart: the Helsinki convention. This began as a 1992 deal on river cooperation between European nations under the UN Economic Commission for Europe. But at a meeting in Rome set for Nov. 28-30, its members are likely to vote to allow any nation to join. Early potential signatories include Iraq and Tunisia.

France’s Thebault says the two treaties could complement each other. For while the 1992 treaty is a statement of principle about water sharing, the Helsinki convention is “bolder,” with formal arrangements for drawing up deals.

The Rome meeting of the Helsinki convention is also likely to extend its purview to drawing up rules for sharing underground water reserves. It could, for instance, help save the ancient water beneath Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which the two countries are currently racing to pump out before the other does. Likewise, it could manage the Nubian aquifer beneath Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Chad, which is currently being tapped by Libya;
Hopes are high that greater sharing of the world’s rivers could be imminent.
and the Guarani aquifer that straddles the borders between Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.

Whether global governance of water can help the aquatic environment is another matter. WWF, which has lobbied for countries to ratify the UN treaty, wants future river deals to keep some water as “environmental flows” to maintain freshwater fisheries and wetlands. But the danger is that the opposite could happen. If downstream nations are more confident of how much water will reach them, they may build more dams to capture it.

This has happened on the Indus River, where a 1960 treaty brokered by the World Bank shared out the river and its tributaries between upstream India and downstream Pakistan. The result has been more dams and an ecological disaster downstream. The Indus dries up for months at a time, the coastline is retreating, its giant delta is peppered with dead mangroves, and salty seawater has invaded farms.

But hopes are nonetheless high that greater sharing of the world’s rivers could be imminent. David Grey, a water policy expert formerly with the World Bank and now at Oxford University, says there is growing recognition of the need for global oversight of the world’s water. He says it could, at the least, end the habitual hydrological secrecy of many upstream nations, who treat river flow data as state secrets.

Speaking in Vienna last month, Grey pointed out that India rarely tells Bangladesh what flows are coming down the Ganges. The result is
Authorities in the U.S. and Mexico have carved out a new agreement on sharing the Colorado River.
disruption to farming and unnecessary damage and deaths from flooding. Likewise, he believes better sharing of Nile flow could assuage Egyptian fears about the capacity of upstream dams on the Nile to cut off its vital supplies. But in reality, Grey said, there is so much water in the Nile that “you could take as much water out of the river in east Africa as you want, and Egypt would never notice the difference.”

Water peacemakers argue that sharing water isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. Both sides can gain. In recent weeks, authorities in the U.S. and Mexico have carved out a new agreement on sharing the Colorado River, which irrigates much of the arid Southwest before passing over the border into Mexico and delivering a tiny saline trickle through its desiccated delta into the Gulf of California.


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An existing treaty, signed in 1944, is very one-sided, giving Mexico the right to only a tiny amount of the flow, which Mexico finds it difficult to use because it has few storage structures and because many irrigation canals were damaged in an earthquake. Under the new deal — which has been approved by U.S. regional authorities and awaits federal sign-off — Mexico would be able to store some of its water allocation in Lake Mead, the huge U.S. storage reservoir on the river in Nevada and Arizona. Meanwhile, U.S. water authorities will be allowed to invest in lining irrigation canals across the border in Mexico to save water. Those authorities will then be entitled to keep back the equivalent amount of water on the American side of the border and use it for their own purposes.

With this arrangement, everybody gets more water. There might even, U.S. regulators hint, be more left for the Colorado’s dried-out delta. It is an optimistic sign of how water peace could take hold — and one worth clinging to, amid the wreckage of the current hydrological anarchy on the world’s rivers.

POSTED ON 19 Nov 2012 IN Climate Oceans Sustainability Urbanization Water North America 


Excellent article.
In India there has been a gigantic Project conceived GANGA KAVERI Link. The Indian Rivers Inter-link is a large-scale civil engineering project that aims to join the majority of India's rivers by canals and so reduce persistent water shortages in parts of India.

In 1972 the then Minister for Irrigation K. L. Rao proposed a 2640 kilometer long link between the Ganges and Kaveri rivers. In 1974 plans were proposed for the Garland canal. In 1982 the National Water Development Agency was set up to carry out surveys of the links and prepare feasibility studies. The Garland Canal was proposed by Dinshaw J. Dastur, a consultant engineer.

The Project
The Inter-link would consist of two parts, a northern Himalayan River Development component and a southern Peninsular River Development component.

Himalayan development
The northern component would consist of a series of dams built along the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers in India, Nepa land Bhutan for the purposes of storage. Canals would be built to transfer surplus water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the west. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries would be linked with the Ganga and the Ganga with the Mahanadi river. This part of the project would provide additional irrigation for about 220,000 square kilometres and generate about 30 gigawatts of electricity. In theory it would provide extra flood control in the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins. It could also provide excess water for the controversial Farakka Barrage which could be used to flush out the silt at the port of Kolkata.

Peninsular development
The main part of the project would send water from the eastern part of India to the south and west. The southern development project would consist of four main parts. First, the Mahanadi, Godavari. Krishna and Kaveri rivers would all be linked by canals. Extra water storage dams would be built along the course of these rivers. The purpose of this would be to transfer surplus water from the Mahanadi and Godavari rivers to the south of India. Second, those rivers that flow west to the north of Mumbai and the south of Tapi would be linked. Due to the irregular fluctuations in water levels in the region, as much storage capacity would be built as possible.

The water would be used by the urban areas of Bombay and also to provide irrigation in the coastal areas of Maharashtra. Third the Ken and Chambal rivers would be linked in order to provide better water facilities for Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Finally a number of west-flowing rivers along theWestern Ghats simply discharge into the Arabian Sea. As many of these as possible would be diverted for irrigation purposes. The Peninsular part of the project would provide additional irrigation to 130,000 square kilometres and generation an additional 4 gigawatts of power. Critics also point to the enormous costs conservatively estimated at some $115bn USD which India can ill afford.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 22 Nov 2012

Another helpful and provocative offering from Fred Pearce. My modest role in the topic began as a UNEP consultant to assist three of the 8 Zambezi River Basin countries to prepare for and sign on to the International Agreement on the Action Plan for Environmentally Sound Management of the Zambezi River (ZACPLAN) in 1987-88. Nineteen project activities were committed to in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. These included a compilation of past and current development projects, national and international laws of the basin countries relevant to the Plan, response capabilities on environmental problems, capacity building to enable research training policies and priorities, a basin-wide unified monitoring system on water quality and quantity, an integrated water management for the Zambezii Basin on sub-basin plans, and other relevant subjects.

Comparisons with the Mackenzie River Basin in northern Canada were instructive. Same basin size, same flow, same number of jurisdictions, 10 percent evaporation from the Mackenzie Basin, 90 percent from the Zambezi. This led to Environment Canada providing the complete documentation on the Mackenzie River Basin Project over to UNEP for use in the implementation of the ZACPLAN by the South African Development Community office.

The International Institute for Applied systems Analysis at Laxenburg, Austria suggested a comparison project between the Danube River and the Zambezi for research purposes, because of common features. See also "Politics behind Zambezi Action Plan" by M. Nakayama in Water Policy on the ZACPLAN website.

Posted by Patrick Duffy on 26 Nov 2012

The facts about India-Bangladesh related to Ganga , attributed to Mr Grey's speech at Vienna are incorrect. India and Bagladesh have a treaty on Ganga about not only "telling the flows to down stream" but in fact, joint observation by two countries and an elaborate water sharing mechanism. The treaty and mechanisms, some of which date even decades before treaty, work in excellent environment of mutual co-operations. It is not unusual to have some apprehensions in the minds of downstream riparian states but the mechanisms and environment of co-operation take care of it.

PS : The views expressed here are of the author and does not reflect in any way the views of organisation/ government in which author has worked/ is working.

Posted by N K Mathur on 26 Nov 2012

When the canal is lined on the American side of Mexico, thousands of farmers will face the loss of their businesses since that seep through is what furnishes the groundwater on the Mexican side. It seems pretty strange to me that Fred doesn't know this, or isn't acknowledging it. Everybody will not get more water. The small Mexican farmer will lose out, just as they are going to lose out from the arrangements in the TPP. This is just another way to pick winners and losers.

Posted by Christine Anderson on 19 Dec 2012

Further, the quote from David Grey re taking as much water out of the Nile in East Africa and Egypt would never know the difference is beyond strange.

The waters of the Nile are so heavily used by Egypt that only 10 percent of the Nile flow reaches the Mediterranean now. This is one of many reasons why the Mediterranean is a dying sea, the clean water replenishment from the Nile is almost defunct. Likewise, the Delta farmers certainly suffer from this low water situation: there isn't enough water to flush out the soil there are effects on the water tables near the Nile that aren't being replenished, causing an influx of saline water from the Mediterranean that is damaging the coastal aquifers. I could go on, there are a legion of other issues re the Nile. And the Egyptians have just announced a program to try to make themselves self-sufficient agriculturally. This will certainly tax water availability in the south. Of course you can't take as much water out from East Africa and not have it impact the Egyptians. This nonsense.

The real issue is whether the lesser evaporation of the high Ethiopian dam reservoirs will leave the amounts of water to go to Egypt mainly intact over the higher evaporation levels in the lower Lake Nasser.

Posted by Christine Anderson on 19 Dec 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including the newly released The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about how a Libya water plan threatens Africa’s Niger Delta and explored the question of whether environmentalists increasingly are taking anti-science positions.



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