Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 44, Fall/Winter 1998
Conflict Resolution and Transboundary Water Resources

Water as source of life, water as source of cooperation?

by Katherine Waser

As the various articles in this issue of the Arid Lands Newsletter make amply clear, managing transboundary water resources--whether surface or groundwater--is far from an easy task. Historically speaking, many rivers have formed boundaries between hostile nations. Even where relations among countries sharing water resources are amicable, differences among governments, water management regimes, and culturally determined ways of life can get in the way of equitable management of transboundary water resources. Often, each country involved has tended to initiate its own unilateral water management schemes, without regard to the needs or plans of the other countries in question.

The inherent weaknesses of such an approach are becoming ever more obvious. Increasing demands are being placed on the world's fresh water resources not only by the continuous rise in the earth's human population, but also by the rising expectations of that population as well as by rising demands of industry and agriculture. Furthermore, the importance of water availability to the preservation of biodiversity and the maintenance of healthy ecosystems is increasingly recognized.

At the same time, particularly in the arid regions of the world, the ability to find or develop new water sources is often highly problematical. Simply put, nations must find ways to cooperate over the use of their shared fresh water resources, or they will inevitably find themselves in conflict with their neighbors to one degree or another. Cooperation can come in the form of arriving at equitable means of water allocation by means of international agreements. As authors Varady and Milich point out in their three-part article, there have been many attempts to arrive at such agreements over the years, with varying degrees of success. They see the new model instituted between the U.S. and Mexico following passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as reason for optimism.

The situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not provide such straightforward grounds for optimism, yet efforts to arrive at equitable allocation schemes are underway. Charrier, Dinar and Hinicker outline several efforts being undertaken by the NGO Green Cross International in the MENA region. As Ibrahim Kaya points out in his article, even within the Euphrates-Tigris basin, where Turkey's GAP project is causing difficulties with downstream neighbors Syria and Iraq, a basic framework for working out equitable allocation is in place, if the riparians in question choose to use it.

No matter what transboundary water resource allocation regimes are developed, public education and local participation in water management are increasingly recognized as important to the success of any such regime. In her article, Elaine Hebard details a project to stimulate a binational dialogue about shared water resources, in the context of the U.S.-Mexican border. Another example of encouraging local participation is provided by David Barkin and Carlos Pialles. In a small watershed along Mexico's Pacific coast, rural inhabitants are working to reforest and increase water filtration in the upper reaches of their watershed. The project in question recognizes that these rural inhabitants are providing essential environmental services (such as water production and flood control) for the lower reaches of the watershed, and devises means to compensate them for their work. While this project does not involve transboundary water resources, its techniques could potentially be applied in such areas.

This much is clear: Everything we do as humans depends on the availability of a sufficient supply of good-quality fresh water. Water, simply put, is the source of all life. Whether it becomes a source of cooperation as well, or whether it becomes increasingly a source of conflict as we move into the 21st century, is entirely up to us.

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