Water Management in Transboundary Rivers

Political boundaries are drawn without any consideration to river basin boundaries.  There are 263 rivers crossing international boundaries, but only 143 of them have developed any mechanism for co-operative water management, while 158 lack any such water management framework.  These international water courses account for almost 60% of global run-off and affect roughly 40% of the world population.  Disparities between riparian countries in economic development, institutional capacity, infrastructure and political orientation often give rise to multilateral or bilateral disputes.  But what could really trigger social and economic instability in these international watersheds include factors like climate change, deteriorating ecosystems, demand for non-fossil fuel energy, continued population growth and aging infrastructure.  Co-operation on shared water resources is critical, special in water scarce countries,  where upstream and downstream impacts of consumption and pollution are highly magnified.  Managing the interdependence of transboundary waters is one of the greatest human development challenges of the international community.

Traditional approaches to Transboundary Water Management:

The river basin has a singular importance as unit of analysis in relation to water because the river basin as a territorial unit enables us to understand the complexity it composes, being part of and embedded in a larger socio-ecological system.  Since the basin involves the water cycle, land use as well as a variety of relationships and interactions within  different levels from regional to national to municipal, which in turn involves different geographical scales of analysis, an integrative approach becomes imperative.  An integrated approach demands the establishment of appropriate legal instruments, institutions and management tools at the river-basin, sub-basin and regional levels.

.Traditional  approaches to governance of international water resources are largely geared towards meeting national demands of water and emphasize the state as the appropriate geographical scale of analysis.  These traditional approaches also rely on the certainty that historical data covering water supply, demand values, and ecosystem health can be used to predict the future.   In addition they protect sovereignty through clear-cut rules for dividing water resources rather than flexibility to adapt to change and to  foster resilience of the system.   Managers of transboundary river systems are facing increasing challenges related to conflicting national interests, power disparities between riparian countries, differences in national institutional capacities, limited information and data exchange, besides lack of sufficient basin-scale knowledge and institutional capacity for decision-making.   Characterised by state-centric  top-down management aimed at maximisation of yield, with heavy reliance on scientific and technological expertise while  by-passing community or indigenous knowledge, the traditional approaches are poorly suited to face conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability related to climate change. However there is an increasing  emphasis on collaborative management  of socio-ecological systems like river basins which aims at building their resilience in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Resilience and Sustainability:

Like other forms of common pool resources, transboundary rivers are complex dynamic socio-ecological systems,  the governance of which requires the recognition of links and complex feed-backs between the social and ecological components of the system, as against traditional natural resource management approach which involves a one-way management by the social system for services from the ecological system in return.  Resilience theory is one such theory which provides a framework for understanding the coupled complexity within a socio-ecological system, which helps to develop governance systems aimed at enhancing its resilience and thus  its sustainability.    When applied to ecological systems without a human component, resilience theory focuses on the capacity of the system to return to its prior level of self-organisation following a disturbance and the degree to which that capacity is influenced by changes. When applied to social systems, resilience is the ability of human communities to withstand and recover from stresses.  By viewing governance in a way that recognizes the coupled complexity, rather than as a feature independent of the ecological system it manages, resilience can be enhanced both from the natural adaptive capabilities of the ecological system,  as well as the ability of the social system to respond to ecological problems by seeking to restore the ecosystem.  Resilience theory thus focuses on the broader social context within which the ecosystem functions, and provides an umbrella theory for integration of concepts of natural resource management with ecological response to achieve sustainability.  Traditional natural resource management approach, on the other hand, focuses on the optimization of yield or efficiency through tight control of the system at the cost of its resilience or inbuilt self-organising capability to deliver the full range of services.  A system thus compromised on its resilience is vulnerable to be shifted to a threshold into a new regime of function and structure that may fail to provide the full range of ecological services.

Adaptive Management and Polycentric Governance :  An Imperative Need

In Resilience theory, the concept of adaptive management has been used to describe a process of learning through the monitoring of ecosystem response to a particular action followed by incremental change in the action based on what is learnt.  The concept includes the process of feedback to a managing agency from the monitoring of the response of the ecosystems.  Adaptive governance has emerged at the intersection of common pool resources and resilience of complex socio-ecological systems.  Adaptive governance moves from a focus on efficiency and lack of overlap among jurisdictional authorities to a focus on diversity, redundancy and multiple levels of management that includes a role for local knowledge and local action.  Adaptive governance is polycentric governance with many centres of decision-making, formally independent of each other, but very closely co-ordinated.  The diversity and overlap among several jurisdictions with authority to mange the same ecological resource inherent in adaptive governance  is preferable to the hierarchical management with  clear cut divisions of authority  of the traditional management modes.   Polycentric governance views local capacity building for purposes of self governance as key to effective governance, and therefore.seeks to grant a larger voice and decision making power to local institutions or actors, while retaining a network of state and federal institutions,  without surrendering total control to local authorities.  The redundancy of management actually enhances the resilience of the system.  Polycentric regimes with multiple centres of authority but one main centre of horizontal and vertical co-ordination are more likely to adopt sound good governance practices like stakeholder participation, transparent water allocation, equitable water management practices and climate-friendly policies.

International Law for Transboundary River Governance:

International law has primarily been concerned with the development and optimal use of international watercourses, and it is only recently that the ecological services provided by water and the resulting importance of protecting water quality have become concerns of international watercourses law.  Further hydrological relations between surface water in rivers and lakes and ground water have become better understood leading to calls to international law to extend to connected ground water systems  as well.

A rich body of customary law has been developed in response to conflicts over use of shared watercourses.  These include the 1957 Lac Lanoux Arbitration between Spain and France in  which the tribunal upheld the general obligations of upstream users to notify downstream users and to take their interest into account through good faith negotiations.  Similarly in the 1997 case between Hungary and Slovakia concerning the Gabcikovo Nagynoros Dam, the International Court of Justice reiterated the principle of ‘community of interest’ which provides for equality of all riparian states in the use of the whole course of a shared river, and excludes any preferential privilege of any one riparian state.  The principle requires that state boundaries should be ignored and a basin should be regarded and managed as an integrated unit.  The court decision also added concern over the environment as an important dimension of international law emphasizing that environmental protection and vigilance is required on account of the often irreversible character of damage to the environment.  These principles of customary law have now been expressed in the United Nations Framework Convention on the Law of Non-Navigable Uses of International Watercourses of 1997, and the International Law Commission Draft Articles on the law of Transboundary Acquifiers.

The International Watercourses Framework Convention establishes a number of key principles to which all watercourses states in their agreements governing shared watercourses should adhere to and adapt to suit their unique needs.  The first principle is that watercourse states shall utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner.  Secondly watercourse states are obliged to take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse states, and where harm has nevertheless taken place to ‘take all appropriate measures to eliminate or mitigate such harm, and where appropriate to discuss the question of compensation’.  Third it mandates all riparian states to co-operate on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain optimal utilisation and adequate protection of an international watercourse.  The Convention sees co-operation as critical to the implementation of the conflicting principles of equitable utilisation and prevention of significant harm, to be achieved by establishing joint mechanisms for attaining optimal utilisation and adequate protection of the international watercourse.  Fourthly watercourse states are required to regularly exchange information on the condition of the watercourse.  And fifthly the Convention mandates a watercourse state seeking to implement planned measures which are  likely to have significant adverse impact upon other watercourse states to provide the latter with timely notification. The Convention also requires all watercourses states to individually and jointly protect and preserve the ecosystems of international watercourses.

However it must be noted that political and financial constraints have made it difficult for many countries of the world to adopt the International Waters Convention, 1997.  More than 17 years  after its adoption by the vast majority of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Convention has obtained only 36 ratifications which has however  enabled it to enter into force  on 17th August, 2014. .  However a whole lot of key countries remain outside its scope.


Global climate change will pose a wide range of difficulties to water courses, altering water quality, water quantity, systems operations and imposing new governance complications.  For countries whose water-sheds and river-basins are within their national boundaries, adaptive water management will be a difficult enough task.  But for countries with transboundary watercourses implicating  a multiplicity of political entities and actors, water management will be very difficult requiring the engagement and co-ordination of all actors across the basin.  Besides most transboundary river agreements are based on the assumption that supply and quality of water will not change much or will change marginally, and do not include adequate mechanisms for coping with social, economic or climatic conditions.  There is therefore the need to improve the flexibility of existing inter-basin agreements.  This will need efforts for creating flexible water allocation strategies and water quality criteria, agreements on response strategies for extreme weather events like floods and droughts, development of clear amendment and review procedures to allow for changes in hydrological or climatic conditions, and establishment of joint management institutions to facilitate  climate vulnerability assessments.  With water no more remaining a local or national or even a regional issue, there is need for global water management to take over.

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