Too Big to Fail: transboundary water conflicts hint at favorable possible evolutions for the climate-change debates

Wednesday a good friend and I were talking and the subject turned to water…and, in particular, transboundary water disputes around the world. The background? Many rivers provide part or all of the boundaries separating neighboring countries or states. Many other watersheds span two or more countries. Here at home, think of the Colorado River, or the Mississippi River, or many more. Abroad? Think of the Nile as it snakes 4000 miles through 9 countries: Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt.

It’s easy to see how disputes arise. Who holds the rights to use these waters? And on what legal basis? These and many other questions come up, vexing even the best of neighbors. Money is at stake. Health and safety. Future prospects.

And some of these transboundary water issues arise from regions of the globe already riven by religious conflicts, poverty, ethnic and cultural differences. How about the Jordan River, which flows from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, and separates Israel from Jordan (and Syria)? Take the Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum rivers, which flow through both India and Pakistan. There are many more examples – in every region, on every continent.

You and I often hear that in the future, water resource disputes will overshadow today’s disputes and conflicts over energy resources such as oil and natural gas. The specter of these future water disputes has been raised repeatedly in popular books and articles. It’s all over the web. It’s easy to buy in to this view. [As for those disputes over energy and mineral rights, forests and fish, etc., they look serious as well. For example, just this week, Joby Warrick and Juliet Eilperin, writing in the Washington Post, have discussed how countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are stepping up their claims to undersea resources as the pack ice melts.]

As Tuesday’s blogpost discussed, it turns out that on a world with seven billion people, all sorts of small and large groups are busily working on just about every issue that might come to mind. These water issues are no exception. For example, check out the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University. Their web site describes their work more articulately than can a few words here, but the faculty, staff, and students are have their fingers on the pulse of water conflict issues worldwide. Their studies integrate the human, policy, and scientific dimensions of water management, spanning economic, legal, and cultural divides as well as state and national borders. Past and present staff are small, maybe 40 in all, but they’ve made enormous steps forward in inventorying and analyzing all the studies out there, and contributing a number of their own. One resource they’ve developed? The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database.

What are their findings? What do their data say about water disputes? The answer is a bit surprising. The problems are indeed sobering And from time to time, countries do mobilize and fight. But experts at Oregon State developing The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database find a lot of evidence for the opposite behavior. In one paper dating back to 1998, Aaron Wolf at The Program found only seven minor skirmishes, versus over 140 treaties. He gives four arguments against the prospect of future water wars:  “1)  an historic argument; 2) a strategic interests argument; 3) a shared interests argument; and 4) an institutional resiliency argument.” Space doesn’t really allow develop of his thesis here; it’s all contained in this and other papers by Wolf and colleagues anyway. Fortunately the four labels are somewhat self-explanatory. Suffice it to say, that when it comes to transboundary water, the stakes are so high, and the consequences of failure to reach agreement so grave, that countries involved will more often than not do whatever it takes to reach a peaceful accommodation.

What my friend and I found intriguing yesterday is the contrast with climate change. In the case of climate change, treaties seem to be hard to come by. Endless wrangling is the norm. Some have attributed this to the scale and complexity, and the seeming intractability, of the fossil-fuel use at the core of the problem. Scott Barrett, in his remarkable book, Environment and Statecraft: the strategy of environmental treaty-making, uses game theory to model how and why the climate change treaties developed to date have failed, while the Montreal protocol to cope with ozone depletion was so successful. You and I might note that in contrast to global change, individual water disputes involve a relatively small number of parties. And so on.

But maybe, just maybe, there’s an additional factor: maybe we squabble about climate change rather than settle because climate change impacts don’t yet seem sufficiently tangible, or unavoidable, or dire. Perhaps, just perhaps, as these climate change problems grow more evident and more intractable, nations will find it easier both internationally and domestically to agree upon and take concrete action. Maybe the challenge with climate change is that it’s not yet sufficiently problematic.

Two examples – one global, and one universal and yet quotidian – hint at the same conclusion. First, a recent global example. In the financial sector collapse of 2008, the world’s leaders discovered belatedly that many of the multi-national banks and financial firms were “too big to fail.” They had grown to be so vast that their collapse would lead to unacceptable consequences to nation states or the entire global economy. [It proved to be the global version of the quip, “if I owe you five dollars, I have a problem. But if I owe you $5 million dollars, you have a problem.”] The big central banks (The Federal Reserve Board and its counterparts abroad) scrambled and did what was necessary, in concert, until markets stabilized.

The second example? A billion or more marriages. When couples vow to stick together, “in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer,” and all the rest, when divorce is not an option, or leastways not a trivial one, spouses get remarkably good at negotiating solutions to the most complicated and difficult problems – pretty much for the same four arguments given above. They have a history of solving problems going back some ways in the past. They have common larger interests as a couple – raising the kids, retirement, etc.. They have shared interests, enjoying the kids today, travel, friends, etc. They’ve learned how to allow their relationship to bend but not to break. [An interesting coincidence? Just today, the Washington Post published a front-page report to the effect that marriages are lasting longer these days.]

So, when it comes to climate change, and especially to climate change impacts – the effects on agriculture, energy, water, public health and all the rest – perhaps there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic.

We can always hope.

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One Response to Too Big to Fail: transboundary water conflicts hint at favorable possible evolutions for the climate-change debates

  1. Pingback: Dam, dam, dam, dam… | Living on the Real World

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