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Middle East: Water Dispute, Part 4: Solving Disputes Harder As Water Gets Scarcer

  • Charles Recknagel



Turkey, Iraq and Syria are locked in a water-sharing dispute caused by Ankara's ambitious plans to develop its impoverished southeast. In this last of a four-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel takes a broader look at the international principles employed for solving water conflicts.

Prague, 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As populations grow in the Middle East, water is becoming an ever scarcer and more valuable resource.

So much so, that some analysts believe that water -- rather than land or oil -- could become the main reasons for conflicts in the region during this century.

But despite the dangers of water disputes, international laws for solving them do not yet exist. And most parties to conflicts -- such as that between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq over the Tigris and Euphrates -- must find their own ways out of their quarrels.

Phillipe Sands is an expert in water issues and international law at London University. RFE/RL asked him what international guidelines now exist to help states peacefully share rivers.

Sands says that the international legal community has largely agreed that two principles should govern the ways states share the rivers which cross their boundaries. Both principles seek to assure that what one country does with its water does not cause harm to either its downstream or upstream neighbors. Phillipe Sands says:

"There are two governing principles. The first is the principle to use water equitably and reasonably, taking into account the interests of your neighbors. The second is not to cause significant harm to other states from your own utilization. Those are the governing principles in relation to international water course law."

Those principles were most recently expressed in the UN-sponsored 1997 Convention on the Law for Non-navigational Uses of International Water Courses. But the convention has yet to become an international treaty because, so far, few countries have ratified it. Several upriver countries, like Turkey, have even refused the preliminary step of endorsing the convention, saying it overly represents the interest of downriver countries, such as Syria and Iraq.

Sands says this means there is little likelihood the convention will become a treaty anytime in the near future. But even so, he calls the convention valuable for outlining a step-by-step process of how disputants can go about solving their water disputes -- based on the cases of several countries which have succeeded recently.

The first step in the process is for the countries to agree to establish a joint fact-finding commission to establish what are their equitable and reasonable water needs. Often this leads them to a second step of seeking an outside party which can then mediate a resolution. Some outside parties which have successfully mediated in disputes are the UN, the European Commission, and the International Court of Justice.

But analysts say this process works best between states which already have good relations. When there is an absence of good will, the negotiations can break down at any stage. Sands says: "Of course, each stage requires all the relevant countries to agree to each stage. So if one country declines to participate in consultations or declines to supply information or declines to mediate or to go to a tribunal, then there is very little the other state can do."

Such breakdowns are particularly likely when participants see a rival state's control of their water supplies as a weapon endangering their security. In many of the most intractable conflicts, the struggle for regional power and water become intertwined. And the question of who controls whose water becomes a question of who controls the regions economy and politics.

Analysts say that because water is such a highly emotional issue, it can prove too contentious for two states, much less three, to solve voluntarily. And in those cases, disputes may remain unresolved until economic pressures make the cost of not finding a solution too high to ignore.

One of the strongest such pressures today is the growing interdependence of the world's economy. Sands says that as countries seek international investments to help them fund agricultural and other development projects, they often find investors are loath to place their money into the middle of unresolved water conflicts. They then must either forego their development plans or solve their water disputes.

At the moment, the record for solving water disputes around the world is mixed. Tensions over a number of conflicts have successfully been eased in recent years while awaiting final resolutions. One example is the dispute over the Danube between Hungary and Slovakia, which was mediated by the International Court of Justice. Other examples are accords between India with Bangladesh and Nepal over the Ganges River; and between Israel and Jordan over the Jordan River.

But Sands says that as water continues to grow scarcer in many regions the number of new conflicts keeps growing. And he says that the ever increasing value assigned to water only makes the cases harder to solve. Some of those unresolved problems include friction between Central Asian states over the Syr Darya and Amu Darya; and between East and North African states over the Nile.

(This concludes the four-part series on the water dispute over the Tigris and Euphrates)
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