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A significant field of diplomacy: Trans-boundary water politics

September 7, 2023 at 4:45 pm

An aerial view shows the Hadarat bridge across the Euphrates river that is witnessing a sharp decrease in water levels, in Nassiriya on February 26, 2023. [ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images]

One of the most pressing issues of the 21st century is the management and allocation of the limited freshwater resources in the world. Since an important number of those water resources are trans-boundary, crossing the political boundaries of more than one nation, the complexity of the problem has increased over the years. In dealing with trans-boundary water disputes, riparian states such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan mostly prefer water diplomacy mechanisms that involve the processes and institutions through which the national interests and identities of sovereign states are represented to one another.

States’ claim of sovereignty

On the one hand, states have been the main actors in shaping trans-boundary water policies and conducting water diplomacy throughout the last few decades of water disputes. On the other hand, international organisations, international non-governmental organisations and science-policy initiatives joined the water diplomacy processes as new actors, with the coming of issues of scarcity, pollution and the sharing of water resources in order to take the attention of the international community. With the participation of these actors in water diplomacy, new approaches related to the management of trans-boundary water resources, for example, the sharing of benefits such as energy, food and services to be obtained from water resources instead of sharing water resources per se, have been developed.

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With the increase in the use of trans-boundary rivers for consumption purposes, such as the expansion of irrigation since the last quarter of the 19th century, many states have claimed mutual sovereignty and rights of use over trans-boundary water resources. As a result of these discourses and actions, a series of international customary law principles have been adopted. The riparian states of trans-boundary waters have signed numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements, protocols and memoranda of understanding on the use, management and sharing of these resources. In other words, treaty (written) and customary (unwritten) international water principles of law, as well as traditional diplomatic methods, have been developed by the states as the main tools for resolving disputes regarding trans-boundary waters.

Trans-boundary water disputes in Middle East

The Middle East is regarded as one of the most challenged regions in terms of trans-boundary surface and groundwater resources management and allocation between two or more countries. In addition to the constraints of natural water resources, the region suffers from an abundance of issues that compound water security, including a rapidly growing and displaced population, uneven economic development, limited amount of water supply that is irregularly distributed, the negative impacts of climate change and variability and poor water management and allocation practices both within and between states. Some 60 per cent of the water in the region flows across international borders, complicating resource management. The geopolitical importance of the region and the conflicts that arise have consequently resulted in aggravating the usual problems of using water in a variety of settings in the Nile or Euphrates-Tigris river basins.

Nile River dispute

The Nile basin is considered one of the world’s hydro-political hotspots, and much has been debated in academic and policy circles about the likelihood of interstate conflict between the Nile countries. In the late 1920s, colonial water-sharing agreements were concluded in the Nile basin under the full control of Great Britain. Following the wave of independence in Africa in the 1950s, all upstream riparians declared void those agreements, including the most important one, namely the 1929 Nile Water Agreement, which was later replaced by the still legally binding 1959 Agreement for the Full Utilisation of the Nile Waters, under which the two riparians agreed to share the waters in proportions of 75 per cent and 25 per cent for Egypt and 25 per cent for Sudan, respectively. The 1959 agreement has never been accepted by any of the upstream riparians, causing recurring tensions and disputes over water. Moreover, tensions in the Nile basin waters were often raised by political rhetoric, particularly between the Egyptian and Ethiopian leadership. Egypt, so heavily dependent on the Nile waters, has used its military might and hegemonic status to warn the upper riparians, primarily Ethiopia, not to undertake any projects that would risk Egypt’s share of the Nile.

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Challenging this historical status quo, in March 2011, the Ethiopian government announced plans to construct a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, namely the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is planned to generate 6,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, becoming Africa’s largest power plant. Concerns have been raised over the dam’s impact on Egypt. Tensions over the dam increased in May 2011, when Ethiopia temporarily diverted the flow of the Blue Nile as part of the construction process.

After exchanges of harsh rhetoric between the heads of state, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Ethiopia met and agreed to hold further talks on the construction of the dam. Hence, the water dispute in the Nile basin was intimately related to unfair clauses in the historical bilateral sharing agreements. Additionally, the increasing ability and desire of the upstream states, namely Ethiopia, to challenge Egypt’s status as a hydro-hegemon and the overall status quo constitute contemporary reasons for tensions over water. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established in 1999 to find sustainable technical, institutional, legal and political solutions to the hydro-political challenges centred on a river embedded in regional geopolitical complexity.

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Euphrates-Tigris basin

Trans-boundary water issues started to be a part of regional politics when the three major riparian states, namely Turkiye, Syria and Iraq, introduced major water and land resource development projects in the Euphrates-Tigris (ET) basin. In this context, large-scale dams and irrigation systems were initiated in the early 1960s. Owing to the competitive nature of these uncoordinated national water development projects, disagreements over trans-boundary water uses surfaced, and the riparian states opted for diplomatic negotiations to deal with their disagreements. As the national water development projects progressed, incompatibilities between water supply and demand occurred throughout the river basin. Even though no hot conflict was reported among the riparian states concerning water sharing, the sporadic technical negotiations could not prepare the ground for a comprehensive treaty on equitable and effective trans-boundary water management in the basin.

In the ET basin, the riparian states preferred water diplomacy mechanisms, namely diplomatic negotiations, to resolve the crises. Most of the crises were related to Iraq’s concerns regarding the impact of the construction and filling of the dams in Turkiye and Syria. Thus, diplomats and technocrats from the 3 countries met several times, although on an irregular basis, to exchange information concerning the technical details of the construction and the filling of the dams. In the period between the 1960s and the 1990s, the riparian states were too rigid in their position, emphasizing their absolute water rights over the rivers. With the emergence of a conducive overall political environment in the early 2000s, state representatives adopted a more needs-based approach by concluding a series of memoranda of understanding on the protection of the environment, water quality management, water efficiency, drought management and flood protection, with a view to addressing the adverse effects of climate change.

On the other hand, in the early 1980s, the riparian states in the ET basin managed to establish the institutional framework of the Joint Technical Committee (JTC), whose members included participants from all three riparian states. However, the riparian states did not agree to give the JTC clear and commonly agreed-upon functions. On the contrary, the states continued unilateral and uncoordinated water and land development projects, and the JTC meetings did not make an effective contribution to the settlement of the trans-boundary water dispute. It also did not provide a platform for delineating the priorities and needs of the co-riparians as a basis for addressing regional water problems.

Water diplomacy mechanisms, particularly at the trans-boundary level, have been introduced in the ET basin with the aim of reaching agreeable solutions between parties that have diverging interests as well as competing water development schemes. With the help of formal institutions like the JTC, high-level water diplomacy frameworks, water-sharing protocols and memoranda of understanding, the national interests and identities of sovereign states are represented to one another. Although these institutions may not have been effective most of the time in terms of the protection and efficient use and management of water and other related resources, they served to place trans-boundary water issues within a legitimate and peaceful realm, rather than mixing them with potentially conflict-laden issues, such as border security and territorial disputes, which might otherwise escalate into hot confrontations. However, there still does not exist a multilateral treaty regime involving all of the stakeholders concerned, including civil society organisations and private companies in energy, agriculture and the environment, as well as relevant development-related sectors, for the effective and equitable use and management of trans-boundary waters in the basin.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.