Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageALN #44, Fall/Winter 1998
Conflict Resolution and Transboundary Water Resources

Openness, sustainability, and public participation in transboundary river-basin institutions
Part I: The scientific-technical paradigm of river basin management

by Lenard Milich and Robert G. Varady

"The three parts of this article consider several "paradigms" (or conceptual models of what we consider to be dominant themes) pertinent to management of international river basins. Part I describes the scientific-technical paradigm, focusing in particular on the Jordan River basin as an example."

Editor's note: A different version of this article previously appeared in Environment 40(8): 10-15, 35-41. The present article focuses on river basin commissions in arid lands, while the earlier version includes analyses of such institutions in Europe, South America, and other non-arid regions. More information on Environment can be accessed at the Heldref Publications web site, by following the "Science and the Environment" link.


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Borders are often potential tinderboxes. The past 200 years, and especially the last few decades, have witnessed hundreds of border disputes caused by ethnic conflict, growing population, and an appetite for more resources.(1) This causes serious difficulties for natural resources management. Many political borders apportion natural systems to two or more nations. Consequently, different and sometimes conflicting management regimes are often imposed on natural systems that would benefit from harmonized regulation and ecosystem-based management. Further, borders often provide incentives for opportunistic exploitation of resources. As a result, many environmental problems have worsened by virtue of their internationalization.

Water is a factor in many particularly acute transboundary environmental problems. More than 300 river basins, accounting for nearly 50 percent of the earth's land surface, are shared by two or more countries.(2) Since 1814, states have negotiated approximately 300 treaties that deal with non-navigational issues of water management, flood control, hydropower projects, or allocations for consumptive or nonconsumptive uses in international basins.(3) The impetus behind these accords is, of course, avoidance of open conflict. The existence of so many compacts supports the notion that states regard water as property, and highlights state reliance on uninterrupted, relatively clean water supplies.(4)

Existing analyses of water compacts fall short by ignoring place, a vital component when considering the viability of treaties.(5) Comprehensive examinations of how international river basins are managed are also markedly lacking. The three parts of this article consider several "paradigms" (or conceptual models of what we consider to be dominant themes) pertinent to management of international river basins. Part I describes the scientific-technical paradigm, focusing in particular on the Jordan River basin as an example. Part II describes the other three paradigms that are currently in widest use, including examples of such paradigms as manifested in various current compacts. These four paradigms generally omit local needs; in some cases, they also fail to meet their explicit objectives. For a more promising model, fashioned to promote sustainable development, we then turn in Part III to the U.S.-Mexico border where, as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a new transboundary authority has emerged. An evolutionary step where sustainability issues are concerned, this innovative authority's paradigms may aid in reconstructing and reinvigorating other transboundary accords.

Four common paradigms in river basin accords

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Four paradigms have historically dominated international environmental accords:

  1. technical/scientific
  2. regulatory/standard-driven
  3. closed, and
  4. top-down.
Markedly different in theory, the four paradigms are interconnected in practice, and in the real world elements of each often merge.(6) These accords best exemplify the competing values embedded in natural-resources management -- conflict versus cooperation, openness versus secrecy, established cabals versus public values, use versus environmental protection, overallocation versus protection, and sustainability versus immediate economic returns. Further, water is usually the most critical and contested natural resource or environmental condition. Because water allocation and navigation rights are so important to economic development, accords and their overseeing organizations were historically the first institutions to address transboundary natural resources. Thus, they offer the most venerable, most elaborated, and most common examples for study. Other transnational environmental commissions, where they exist, have largely been patterned after river-basin commissions.

Throughout this article, we distinguish international from transnational river systems. International rivers form a boundary between two or more nations. Transnational rivers flow across international boundaries and create upstream/downstream riparians.

The technical/scientific paradigm

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In this model, management is mostly delegated to organizations dominated by scientists and engineers. These experts are given broad authority to prioritize issues, choose tools and targets, and determine the extent of public involvement.

This paradigm is especially attractive to negotiators of international accords. Governments are reluctant to relinquish control over border issues and especially over natural resources, which are often regarded as a national heritage. Consequently, international accords often establish special authorities to manage river basins, usually under the direction of organizations dominated by hydrologists and engineers. Overt conflict can be avoided or postponed if experts -- regardless of nationality - reach agreements based on their "scientific judgment." The weakness of this paradigm is that too much discretion over critical social/environmental policy is allocated to engineers.

thumbnail, Yuma desalting plant
Thumbnail link to Yuma Desalting Plant pictures, ~68K file

The United States and Mexico offer an example of a technical approach to solving a longstanding Mexican complaint regarding salt-laden waters crossing the boundary. Over several decades earlier this century, Mexican agriculture in the fertile Mexicali Valley was harmed by excessively-saline Colorado River water, delivered at concentrations around 1,200 parts per million (ppm). To live up to the letter of an agreement to deliver water to Mexico that is of no worse quality than water delivered to California's Imperial Valley, the United States constructed the $258 million Yuma Desalting Plant. Operations began in May 1992, reducing salt concentrations to 800 ppm - still twice the salt concentration as at the beginning of the century - and at an annual cost to the United States estimated to be $25 million. Binding stipulations such as this contrast starkly with exhortation, often the only tool available to the overseeing commission responsible for coordinating designated accord activities.(7)

The Israel-Jordan Joint Water Committee (IJJWC)

In the region of the Jordan River Basin, given present rates of population increase, within a few decades all available water will have to be dedicated to domestic use and, according to the Middle East Water Commission, unless zero population growth is attained, eventually no amount of conserved, developed, desalinized, or imported water will suffice.(8) The ongoing competition over Jordan River basin waters is complex. The Jordan River's discharge is less than two percent of that of the Nile, but it is exceptionally important to the countries involved: Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the new Palestinian entity. The Jordan River is fed by four upstream rivers: the Dan, the Hasbani, the Banias, and the Yarmouk.

Jerusalem Mosaic thumbnail
Thumbnail link to Jerusalem mosaic picture, ~35K file

The Jordan River system has been the site of more international conflict over water than any other river basin in the Middle East.(9) The Arab Headwater Diversion Project, begun in 1965, planned to divert water from the Hasbani and Banias through Syria to the Yarmouk. Israel responded with a series of aircraft and artillery attacks on the diversion project, culminating with raids into Syria in 1967 that presaged the subsequent Six Day War.(10) Some scholars believe that Israel's decision to occupy the West Bank during the 1967 Six Day War was at least in part prompted by the desire to secure water from the Jordan and the area's underlying aquifers.(11) Beset by armed Palestinian attacks from Jordan into these occupied territories, in 1970 Israel bombarded the East Ghor Canal, which conveys water from the Yarmouk southwards to the Jordan Valley, as a means of pressuring Jordan to act against the Palestinians.(12) Yet, quietly and tacitly, Israel and Jordan largely acquiesced to the apportionment and noninterference terms contained in the non-ratified 1955 Revised Unified Plan, proposed by U.S. envoy Eric Johnston for sharing the Jordan Basin's waters.(13)

As a result of capturing territory in the 1967 Six Day War, and carving out a security zone in southern Lebanon, Israel is now the de facto upstream state for most of the Jordan River Basin. This gives Israel substantial control over, and access to the major share of, the Jordan River water.(14) Jordan believed itself to be extremely vulnerable, as the majority of its water comes from the Jordan River. Recognizing the centrality of water equity, Israel and Jordan included water during negotiations leading to a bilateral peace treaty. The water dispute between the two states was resolved based on mutual recognition of "rightful allocations."

Allenby Bridge thumbnail
Thumbnail link to Allenby Bridge picture, ~24K file

On July 25, 1994, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein signed The Washington Declaration, ending the state of belligerency between the two nations. Israeli and Jordanian bilateral delegations negotiated the subsequent Treaty of Peace, signed on October 26, 1994.(15) Notably, water-related items preceded security issues, borders, and territorial matters in the agenda that led to the finalized Treaty.(16) Acknowledging that "water issues along their entire boundary must be dealt with in their totality," the treaty spells out allocations for both the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers as well as Arava groundwater, and calls for joint efforts to prevent water pollution. Article VII of Annex II to the peace treaty established the Joint Water Committee (IJJWC), comprised of three members from each country.(17) Nebulous at its inception, the Committee was to specify, with the approval of the respective governments, its work procedures, the frequency of its meetings, and the details of its scope of work. The Committee was tasked to (a) seek experts and advisors as required, and (b) form, as necessary, a number of specialized subcommittees and assign them technical tasks. Specifically agreed to were a northern subcommittee (responsible for the transnational and international 360-km Jordan river and its principal tributary, the Yarmouk, to a point a few kilometers south of the rivers' confluence) and a southern subcommittee (responsible for the arid Arava region south of the Dead Sea), both charged with the actual management of mutual water resources in these geographic areas.(18) The two countries undertook to exchange relevant data on water resources through the IJJWC, and also agreed to cooperate in developing plans for purposes of increasing water supplies and improving water use efficiency.

Annex II to the peace treaty spells out in detail the terms of agreement between the two countries with regard to water resources. Specified volumes of water are to be used, stored, and transferred by and to each country during a "summer" and a "winter" season. Because Israel is to provide only 50 million cubic meters per year of additional water to Jordan, insufficient to allow the Jordanians to cover their annual shortfall, (19) the two countries agreed to cooperate in finding sources for the supply to Jordan of an additional quantity of 50 million cubic meters/year of water of drinkable standards. To this end, the Joint Water Committee was to develop, within one year from the entry into force of the Treaty, a plan for the supply of the additional water to Jordan.

Water quality is also designed into the agreement. The two countries undertook to protect, within their own jurisdiction, the shared waters of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers, and Arava groundwater, against any pollution, contamination, or harm. To that end, each country is to jointly monitor the quality of water along their boundary, building monitoring stations to be operated under the guidance of the Joint Water Committee. (20) Israel and Jordan are each to prohibit the disposal of municipal and industrial wastewater into the Yarmouk or Jordan Rivers before treatment to standards allowing unrestricted agricultural use. Finally, the quality of water supplied from one country to the other at any given location shall be equivalent to the quality of the water used from the same location by the supplying country. The two countries are to protect the water systems used in the course of these transfers against any pollution, contamination, or harm.

Interpretation of several terms in Annex II has at times had an uneven history. On the positive side is the June 1995 completion of a pipeline making the physical connection between the Jordan River immediately south of its exit from Lake Kinneret (the storage reservoir for 20 million cubic meters of water Israel draws from the Yarmouk each winter, destined for Jordan during the summer) and the King Abdullah canal.(21) Too, the provisions of the additional 50 million cubic meters per year Israel promised Jordan went ahead on schedule. However, Article I clause 3, which calls for cooperation so that Jordan acquires 50 million cubic meters more water per year, led to a "mini crisis" between the two countries in May, 1997.(22) At the heart of the dispute was Jordan's demand for an immediate transfer of 50 million cubic meters, which was to have been obtained by the construction of two internationally financed dams in Jordan. However, neither Jordan nor Israel was successful in obtaining the necessary financing, prompting Jordan to claim that the peace treaty does not link international funding for dams to Israel's commitment to provide the water.(23) The "mini crisis," so dubbed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, was resolved by the end of May, but not without casualties within the Israeli diplomatic corps. The Israeli ambassador to Jordan resigned because he (and thereby the Foreign Ministry) had not been informed by the Prime Minister's office of a "secret" meeting that Netanyahu held with Jordan's King Hussein and Crown Prince Hassan in Aqaba to try to resolve outstanding water issues.(24) In the end, Israel agreed to supply Jordan with 25 million cubic meters of water for three years as an interim solution (25), following which some other source must be found.

The 50 million-cubic-meter allotment will most likely be supplied, eventually, by desalinated brackish water originating in Israeli fish farms of the Bet Shean valley. Israel has offered to pay one-half of the estimated $100 million price of the desalination plant. A Japanese commercial firm has been willing to invest in the other half of the plant's construction cost, and has offered to supply water to Jordan for ten years at no cost by adding the annual maintenance and operations costs to its original investment. Despite the fact that desalinating brackish water is around one-third the cost of desalinating sea water, Jordan contended that it could not afford the price, and former Minister of Water and Irrigation Hadadim rejected this plan. The desalination project is far from dead, however. The Israeli Water Commissioner (and co-chair of the IJJWC) has resurrected a near-identical infrastructural solution, one where the fish farms in the Bet Shean valley will reduce their water demand by 90 percent, which, together with sewage from the cities of Tiberias and Bet Shean treated to agricultural standards, will be sufficient to supply the quantity needed. Concomitantly, using these waters will improve water quality in the Jordan River, since one of the principal sources of pollution has been the fish-ponds' discharge; too, treating the municipal sewage will eliminate pollutant seepage into the Jordan basin. According to the Israeli co-chair of the IJJWC, the fish-farming Kibbutzim and the Jordanians have approved the technical approach of this proposed solution, and investment is being sought for two demonstration plants. According to the Jordanian co-chair, not only is there is no agreement yet on the exact solution, but Jordan's preference is to receive water directly from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).(26)

Among the other solutions floated to resolve Jordan's water needs is one that requires it to abandon plans to co-construct with Syria a dam on the Yarmouk at point 121, for which securing funding is highly improbable. Instead, Jordan could build a weir at point 121 to improve diversion into the King Abdullah Canal. Israel and Jordan agree in principle that this proposed weir will also divert 40 million cubic meters each year into temporary storage in Lake Kinneret.

According to the Israeli co-chair, both parties are doing their best to minimize any threat of a new political crisis over water, always a possibility given that Annex II "sold every cubic meter at least twice."(27) The co-chairs of the IJJWC communicate by phone at least once weekly, and both acknowledge that the relationship between them is extremely cordial. The IJJWC formally meets once or twice a month, engaging in cooperative discussions of issue resolutions rather than in negotiations.(28) Technical experts from both sides meet frequently. While formal public input to the Committee is lacking, both sides receive informal public input through their respective offices, which can be communicated to the opposite delegation if deemed appropriate and necessary.

Endnotes for Part I:

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1. In 1994 alone, there were 31 major armed conflicts around the world, all internal in origin (though some, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Bosnia-Herzegovina, had interstate implications). See SIPRI. 1995. Highlights: Armed conflicts and regional security. In Yearbook, 1995, 1. Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (back to text)

2. E. Dowdeswell, E. 1998. Where peaceful waters flow. Water International 23(1): 13-16. (back to text)

3. Hamner, J.H. and A.T. Wolf. 1998. Patterns in international water resource treaties: The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database. Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy Supplement, 157-177. Compiled major findings from a database containing 145 of these treaties are available on the Green Cross International web site: Wolf, A.T. and J.H. Hamner. Trends in transboundary water disputes and dispute resolution. Internet: (back to text)

4. Many nations are already water-scarce when considering per-capita basic needs, and the situation will only worsen as populations grow. See Falkenmark, M. 1986. Fresh water - Time for a modified approach. Ambio 15(4): 192-200; and Falkenmark, M. 1989. The massive water scarcity now threatening Africa - Why isn't it being addressed? Ambio 18(2):112-118. See also Butts, K.H. 1997. The strategic importance of water. Parameters (U.S. Army War College Quarterly) 27(1): 65-83. (back to text)

5. McCaffrey, S.C. 1993. Water, politics, and international law. In Water in crisis: A guide to the world's fresh water resources, ed. P.H. Gleick, 92-104. New York: Oxford University Press. (back to text)

6. Compliance with international accords is a significantly different issue. See Jacobson, H.K. and E.B. Weiss. 1995. Strengthening compliance with international environmental accords: Preliminary observations from a collaborative project. Global Governance 1(2): 119-148. (back to text)

7. An account of IBWC Minute 242 and the subsequent construction of the Yuma Desalting Plant can be found in Pontius, D. 1997. Colorado River basin study: Final report. Report to the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission. Springfield, VA: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Technical Information Service. Also available on the Internet (April, 1998) at See also Varady, R.G., H. Ingram, and L. Milich. 1995. The Sonoran Pimería Alta: Shared environmental problems and challenges. Journal of the Southwest 37(1): 102-122; and Fradkin, Philip L. 1996. A river no more: The Colorado River and the west (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. More information on the history and technology associated with the Yuma Desalting Plant may be found at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's website: USBR, n.d. Yuma Desalting Plant. Internet: Following high precipitation amounts in 1993, salinity in the Colorado River declined to acceptable levels, and has remained there since. The plant has therefore been idled and is in a ready-reserve status, at an annual maintenance cost of $8 million. It will be restarted once needed. If plant operations were to resume, some environmentalists fear for the health of Mexico's Cienega de Santa Clara, the largest of the remaining vestiges of wildlife habitat in the Colorado River Delta and part of the core area of the Upper Gulf of California-Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve. The cienega is currently flourishing because of the brackish drainage from Arizona's Wellton-Mohawk irrigation district. For a summary of this issue, see Water Resources Research Center, 1992. Yuma desalting plant may create new environmental woes. Arizona Water Resources 1(4): 1-3. A compilation of the various statutes, minutes, international treaties, and interstate compacts governing the Colorado River, known collectively as the "Law of the River," can be found on page 4 of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Lower Colorado Region), 1996. Description and assessment of operations, maintenance, and sensitive species of the Lower Colorado River. Final biological assessment prepared for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lower Colorado Multi-Species Conservation Program. (back to text)

8. Middle East Water Commission. Observations regarding water sharing and management: An intensive analysis of the Jordan River Basin with reference to long-distance transfers. Internet: In 1993, the Committee on International Waters of the International Water Resources Association convened a Middle East Water Forum in Cairo, resulting in the establishment of the Middle East Water Commission whose mandate was to analyze the future provision of water for the populations living in and near the basin of the Jordan River. (back to text)

9. Naff, T. and R.C. Matson. 1984. Water in the Middle East: Conflict or cooperation? Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (back to text)

10. Morris, M.E. 1997. Water and conflict in the Middle East: Threats and opportunities. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 20(1): 1-13. (back to text)

11. For example, Amery, H.A. 1997. Water security as a factor in Arab-Israeli wars and emerging peace. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 20(1): 95-104. See also Shapland (1997:17), note 13 below. (back to text)

12. Nachmani, A. 1997. Water jitters in the Middle East. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 20(1): 67-93. (back to text)

13. Shapland, G. 1997. Rivers of discord. New York: St. Martin's Press. (back to text)

14. Butts, K.H. 1997. The strategic importance of water. Parameters (U.S. Army War College Quarterly), Spring 1997: 65-83. (back to text)

15. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Israel-Jordan. Internet: (back to text)

16. Wolf, A.T. Middle East water conflicts and directions for conflict resolution. Center for Environmental Security. Internet: (back to text)

17. As of August 1998, IJJWC members come from diverse backgrounds: Israel is represented by a former Director-General of the Ministry of Agriculture, who once headed the Ministry's agricultural research division, a former Brigadier of the Israel Defense Forces, and a lawyer; Jordan is represented by the former Secretary General of the Jordan Valley Authority, the Chief Engineer of Dams and Irrigation in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, and a hydrologist. Meir Ben Meir and Duraid Mahasneh (Israeli and Jordanian co-chairs of the IJJWC), personal communication with authors, 27 August 1998. (back to text)

18. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Annex II, water related matters. Internet: See also Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Water Resources Working Group. Internet: (back to text)

19. Farinelli, X.H. Freshwater conflicts in the Jordan River Basin. Green Cross International. Internet: (back to text)

20. As of August 1998, these water-quality monitoring stations had not been built. According to Meir Ben Meir, co-chair of the Israel-Jordan Joint Water Committee, it is a question of priorities, with the first priority being the increase in Jordanian water supplies (personal communication with authors, 27 August 1998). (back to text)

21. Anonymous. 1995. Israel starts pumping Tiberias water to Jordan. Jordan Times (21 June 1995). (back to text)

22. Yudelman, M. and A. O'Sullivan. 1997. Hussein, Netanyahu downplay water crisis. The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition (7 May 1997). Internet: (back to text)

23. Rodan, S. 1997. Jordanian envoy: No water, no talks. The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition (7 May 1997). Internet: (back to text)

24. Rudge, D. 1997. Envoy to Jordan resigns after four days. The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition (14 May 1997), Internet: (back to text)

25. Harris, D. 1997. Cabinet okays Jordan water plan. The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition (25 May 1997). Internet: (back to text)

26. Meir Ben Meir and Duraid Mahasneh (Israeli and Jordanian co-chairs of the IJJWC), personal communication with authors, 27 August 1998. (back to text)

27. Meir Ben Meir, Israeli Water Commissioner, personal communication with authors, 27 August 1998. (back to text)

28. Duraid Mahasneh (Jordanian co-chair of the IJJWC), personal communication with authors, 27 August 1998. (back to text)

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Author information

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Lenard Milich is a visiting fellow at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, The University of Arizona, and an assistant research scientist at the Office of Arid Lands Studies, The University of Arizona. He is also an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle University, Prescott, Arizona. His web site can be accessed at, and he can be reached for comment by email at

Associate research professor Robert Varady is deputy director of the Udall Center. He can be reached for comment by email at, or by mail at the following address:
The Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy
The University of Arizona
803/811 E. First St.
Tucson, AZ 85719
Web site:

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