January 21, 2010

Read This Now: "Understanding and Reducing the Risks of Climate Change for Transboundary Waters"

Peter Gleick and associates at the Pacific Institute released a report last week, Understanding and Reducing the Risks of Climate Change for Transboundary Waters, that explores how climate change could impact shared water resources and what the implications could mean for governance structures – principally existing peace agreements over shared water resources. (Peter Gleick is one of the foremost experts on conflicts over water resources, and, in fact, spoke on the Natural Security panel last June at our annual conference.)

According to the report:

A growing number of disputes over allocations of water across local borders, ethnic boundaries, or between economic groups have also led to conflict. The good news is that water disputes are generally resolved diplomatically, and shared water resources are often a source of cooperation and negotiation. An estimated 300 agreements have been developed between riparian States – those States that border a shared river. But the long history of violence associated with transboundary water resources highlights the challenges associated with managing shared water resources. 

As the authors note, future trends – ranging from population growth to economic growth to climate change – could place significant strain on these water resources and the existing institutional bodies and shared agreements that govern them. Understanding these potential risks, the authors ask a very important question: "To what degree can existing transboundary agreements or international principles for sharing water handle the strain of future pressures, particularly climate change?" (emphasis mine)

This issue is in many ways related to a question that I have been asking as of late. In a July 2009 Reading Old Magazines post I was left wondering, “as climate change multiplies the severity of environmental issues, [could] environmental stresses become so severe that they will serve as breaking points for even the strongest government institutions?” It’s a question I don’t have an answer to, but this new report gets at the very fabric of the issue.

The report is particularly strengthened by its four case studies that “highlight the diversity of principles, policies, and institutions that guide the management of transboundary waters,” and the different ways in which climate change could potentially impact these institutions and agreements. The case studies include: the Nile River Basin; the Mekong River Basin; the Colorado River Basin; and the Guarani Aquifer. 

While the authors are very careful not to suggest that climate change will lead to conflicts over water, they do suggest that, with climate change, the future could look very different from that past with cooperation over shared water resources. What that actually means is anyone’s guess. But Gleick and associates, while offering very robust recommendations on how to adapt these institutions and agreements to hedge against climatic impacts, are somewhat sanguine about the future, offering that “shared challenges may also be a platform for developing new institutional arrangements to plan for the future.”

The bottom line: read this report now!