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Transboundary water management – illustrating the complexity of climate change

Climate change leads to new challenges of international cooperation and resource management. Watch professor Ashok Swain discuss.
The climate change can, of course, too have a number of connections in the peace and conflict area. But one thing is particularly the climate change and its impact on the natural resources, particularly naturally renewable resources. Take, for example, the sharing of international rivers. If the climate change, which is more projected to bring changes or variations in the river runoffs or the flow of the river, then we will have problems, particularly on the existing agreements of all the rivers. And if the existing river agreements, although either legal agreements or the norms which has been there for ages, if that goes out, then we’ll have a conflict at hand. The other thing is the climate change projections of population migration.
If there is a large population migration that takes place, of course, population migration is itself not conflict or peace. It can be both. It can be combined, depending on how we deal with the migration. But that’s why when the large-scale population migration will take place, the peace and conflict studies we’ll have much more interest in to look at it. Finally, I think what has happened, the climate change when we bring the discussion of climate change, this has brought in the high security issues. It means we are dealing with a military security, national security issues. But these climate change issues are actually relevant for the renewable natural resources, which are needed for the people today to their survival.
Those are supposed to be the soft security issues. So I think this is what by taking the climate change issue to a high-security issue, we are creating challenges for the areas where the human security is supposed to be very important, and we need to deal with the soft security issue, we are marginalising that.
There are more than 276, at least, international rivers in the past, or international rivers in the world. They are shared by more than one country. Some of the rivers, many of the rivers, are even shared by 9 to 10 counties, like Rhine or the Danube or the Nile, you name it. There are quite a large number of international rivers. More than 40% of the world’s population is dependent on the fresh water from these international rivers, so there is a large number of people who are dependent on these rivers, which the countries don’t own themselves. Because it’s shared by other groups.
Like a country like Egypt, where 97% of water comes from outside its border; Turkmenistan, 90-80%; Netherlands, around 90% of water comes from outside. So they are dependent on other upstream countries or other basin countries on how to use the water. So there is a– it’s extremely important how they do share that water in a way that each and every one gets equitable share. And that is becoming a larger problem. Because we are getting into larger demands. Because the people’s demand is increasing. There is the pollution level increasing. So we need more water. We pollute more water. And so there a power asymmetry there. There are people who are in powerful countries.
They are getting more water, or they have been traditionally getting more water. But the power game has also changed in some countries, in some areas. So the transboundary water issues, which was a major concern in the 1990s, people started talking about water war, it didn’t really go that way. By the end of 1990, we saw major rivers signed agreements. Like we saw agreement in Mekong. We saw agreement in the Ganges. We saw agreement in Nile. We saw agreements in Zambezi. We saw also agreement in Danube. You name it. There have been major rivers which we saw the agreements coming up.
But then the we have also UN law that has been approved or a convention on the non-navigational use of international water courses, which was finally approved in 2015. And the required number of countries have given their consent. So it will be. But it’s not, of course, applicable to everyone, the people who have really accepted that. So though there is an international law that has arrived, but it is not good enough to solve the water problem or water sharing challenges all over the world, because to be honest there is no golden principle of water management. So the best thing is the golden principle of water management, and water management or transboundary water management, is not to have a golden principle.
Because every basin is different. Demands are different. And the climate change makes it much more challenging. And that’s where the question comes, whether we will be able to go through the phase which was before water war phase, then it becomes water peace phase. But the climate change makes it much more complicated.
There are several ways that climate change can bring challenges. Like as I said, there would be different precipitations. So it will change the river flow. If the river flow changes, if you look at the bilateral water sharing agreements over the transboundary rivers, they have been– that in this week of the year, how much of water country x will get, how much of water country y will get. But if the climate change changes that river flow, then we have to resign the agreement. Because we don’t get that much of a flow at that time. Or we’ll get more water, or we’ll get less water. We don’t know. That’s a kind of uncertainty which it brings in.
Then there will be probably in certain areas, we have so much of uncertainty, because we’ll have a few years of large rainfall, and then after 20 years or 30 years, then we’ll go down to less rainfall. So you have to not only sign the agreements– we cannot sign the long-term term agreement. The third thing is that there is a possibility of a lot of natural catastrophe, natural disaster. And that will bring challenges, particularly for the dams that were built in the upstream. Because take for example, there will be, due to climate change, there will be a lot of glacier lake outburst taking place.
As you know, in Nepal or in Tibet, we see a lot of glacier lake outburst taking place. Once glacier lake goes out, because of a lot of melting of the water, then it takes out a lot of dams when it goes down. It, of course, creates a lot of problems, particularly for the downstream. But it also creates a problem of a signing agreement. Because you don’t know how– how to build these dams. And most of these agreements have been signed on the basis of building more dams, increasing more water. So when you have uncertainties of building dams, then you have a problem, isn’t it?
But then another issue is that the climate change is predicted to have the sea level rise. And if the sea level rise takes place, or the way its taking place– not if– the kind of quantity, in the way it will take place. If the salt water will get into the river bed. So the areas which were getting in the fresh water in the downstream countries, they will be more saline. So that would be another challenge, how to really manage this downstream water. Because unless we supply more water from the upstream, the saline water intruding to the downstream countries. And that’s another challenge as well.
Then the last one which we see is that the climate change, because of the variation in the rainfall and variation in the flooding pattern and other things, we know the rivers keep moving. The rivers are shifting. As we know, in Asia and Africa, rivers have with the high flood, rivers are moving. But rivers also are considered in many cases as the boundary between the countries. So if the river starts moving, the boundary starts moving. And that becomes immediately a national security issue. Because the militaries– and because your border starts moving. So that’s another challenge which climate change will bring. Because the shifting of the river flow, the river bed also.
In this video, Ashok Swain, professor in peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University, discusses how climate change affects international cooperation and may lead to new types of security challenges.
According to Swain, climate change has developed from being a ‘soft’ security issue, relating to local livelihoods and access to natural resources, to a ‘hard’ security issue, which relates to natural security concerns:
What has happened with climate change is that we have made it a military level security issue. And here we are talking about how we will be able to stop large scale migration, how the military will be prepared to act in case of different types of climate change.
Swain notes that in terms of the international management of transboundary rivers, every river basin is unique:
The golden principle of water management or transboundary water management is not to have a golden principle. Every basin is different. […] [T]here are different cultural, historical, geographical and civilizational challenges that exist in the different basins.
While climate change creates new security risks and challenges – by changing the river flows, increasing the risk of natural disasters and even shifting international borders – it might also create new arenas for cooperation:
So what I’m saying is that there is a possiblity that climate change related uncertainties might break the traditional pattern of blaming each other and letting the countries work together to find new solutions. But that doesn’t mean that climate change is good.
Here you can watch extra material where Ashok Swain explains and discuss the following topics:
Read more in Climate change and transboundary rivers: testing times for hydrodiplomacy, 2016, by Ashok Swain.
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