As Karin Bencala and Geoff Dabelko point out in the current issue of Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs
, transboundary rivers and aquifers all over the world can, and do, provide opportunities to bring riparian parties together
. We can identify a degree of cooperation in the management of most of the transboundary water resources in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. But now is the time to stop the pendulum from swinging too far towards mistaken notions of “water peace.” Tensions linger on the Tigris and simmer on the Jordan. The Nile is allocated in a remarkably inequitable and unsustainable manner, as are many of the rivers falling in all directions off the Tibetan plateau
. We must continue to question regimes that preserve inequity, treaties that are ineffective “paper tigers
” (Bernauer 2003, p. 547), and organisations designed chiefly as sinks for lending and donor agencies. We will be doing the world no great service if our gaze shifts to under-qualified examples of cooperation and away from the root causes of water conflict.
We should be wary of applying the “cooperation” label to transboundary interactions where asymmetric cooperation merely poisons relations and prolongs unfair arrangements. Cooperation has many faces, and not all of them are pretty. The 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty is regularly cited as a model of cooperation, for example, yet as Itay Fischhendler (2008) (subscription required) has shown, the ambiguity built into the agreement favours the more powerful (Israeli) side. In private conversations, Jordanian officials concede frustration that the agreement they signed fell far short of guaranteeing Jordan an equitable share of the waters. Last month, the Economist highlighted several other cases of such asymmetric water cooperation.
Recent efforts by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) demonstrate cooperation of a completely different nature. FOEME’s Good Water Neighbors project brings together mayors from Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli towns on the Jordan River in an effort to improve its quality. The project, like the organisation itself, represents all sides in equal measure. This equitable cooperation should be the standard analysts and policymakers shoot for.
We must be careful not to divorce small-scale cooperation from the broader water conflict within which it takes place, however. At the state level, the distribution of transboundary freshwater between Israel and the Palestinian territories remains an inequitable 90-10 split. The Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC) established following the 1995 Oslo II interim agreement gives the Israeli side an effective veto over even basic rainwater catchment projects (for instance, in the southern West Bank). Multiple USAID, European, and UN development projects remain stalled because they have not cleared the JWC’s triple hurdle requiring that all water-related projects obtain Israeli technical (fine), political (?) and military (!) approval. Jan Selby (2003) (subscription required) insists this is not cooperation, but “domination dressed up as cooperation.”
While asymmetric, dominative, strategic, self-interested, and token cooperation all fall short of violent conflict, we should bear in mind that the tensions relating to the uglier faces of cooperation do not disappear with time. At the very least, treaties must be structured more equitably, in accordance with the basic water-sharing principles of international water law. They should also include re-visiting clauses, to modify the agreement when changes in politics or climate present the people dependent on the waters with a different set of circumstances. The ongoing water negotiations between Israel and Palestine and the imminent negotiations between Israel and Syria make understanding water cooperation much more than an academic indulgence. We must all push where we can to get it right.
Mark Zeitoun is a fellow at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Environmental Policy and Governance and heads the London School of Economics/King’s College London London Water Research Group.