ECC Platform Library


Lessons From International Water Sharing Agreements for Dealing With Climate Change

21 June, 2017
Shlomi Dinar

Scientists agree that many countries in tropical, subtropical, and arid regions should expect changes to water availability and supply from climate change. The U.S. intelligence community has likewise warned of water-driven challenges not only for countries directly affected by water changes, but indirectly to various U.S. national security interests. Perhaps not surprisingly then, the popular literature has been quite clear about prophesizing wars over water.

The academic literature, however, has been more cautious. Political disputes over water are certainly not uncommon and much of the literature has attempted to explain how such conflicts have transpired, but the prospect of all-out war over water dates back to only one incident 4,500 years ago.

In fact, another set of literature has focused on the links between water and cooperation. The central argument is that since water is necessary for survival, it elicits negotiation when parties need to work together to share or develop and manage transboundary freshwater resources.

The theory developed in our new book, International Water Scarcity and Variability: Managing Resource Use Across Political Boundaries, departs from the argument that a simple relationship exists between water scarcity and cooperation, suggesting instead that there is non-linear relationship, or hill-shaped curve, where low scarcity and low variability on one end and high scarcity and high variability on the other both produce little cooperation, while the middle zone tends to produce more. We also note that the particulars of water sharing and governance policies matter a great deal.

Acknowledging that various security concerns do arise from environmental change and increasing water scarcity and variability – though nearly always short of war – the book focuses on the cooperation-inducing characteristics of international freshwater resources, the treaties that countries have negotiated to resolve their disputes, and the mechanisms codified in treaties that make agreements more or less effective.

Treaty Mechanisms and Cooperation

There have been calls for more transboundary water treaties to help deal with climate change and water scarcity, and the academic literature demonstrates that there is indeed a positive relationship between the presence of a treaty and subsequent cooperation in a given basin. Yet beyond the mere presence of a treaty or treaties, what else is it about an international agreement that motivates cooperation?

Building on the extant literature and analyzing a large number of treaties as well as water events and other political data, the book demonstrates the importance of institutional mechanisms. River basins governed by agreements that include a combination of institutional mechanisms (such as enforcement, monitoring, conflict resolution, side-payment/issue-linkage, adaptability, and a joint basin commission) tend to exhibit more cooperation than river basins governed by agreements that don’t embody this combination of mechanisms. River basins governed by agreements that include an enforcement and adaptability mechanism as well as a side-payment or issue linkage features – something that constitutes a financial incentive or combines discussions about water with other aspects of bilateral or multilateral relations – are particularly prone to increased cooperation.

Even under “ideal” conditions, almost every region of the world faces serious water scarcity that is increasing with time

The type of water allocation mechanisms codified in an agreement also matters for treaty effectiveness under conditions of water scarcity and variability. In regions already governed by a water treaty, climate change and subsequent water variability could affect the ability of basin states to meet their water agreement commitments and effectively manage transboundary waters, especially if agreements are not designed to deal with environmental change and similar forms of uncertainty (as is the case for many).

Certain allocation mechanisms are more effective in dealing with climate change and subsequent water variability. In particular, basins governed by agreements that include an allocation mechanism that evinces both flexibility and specificity lead to more cooperation among the basin riparians than agreements that are either too rigid in determining the allocation or too vague.

A good example of a flexible yet specific allocation mechanism is one that divides available water by percentages as opposed to absolute values. The latter allocation mechanism certainly prescribes a specific type of allocation, but could create conflict if the total amount of water available each year changes, which under conditions of climate change is of high likelihood.

The same can be said about allocation mechanisms that are flexible yet too open-ended. Vague allocation mechanisms sometimes include general principles such as as “consultations between the parties” and “prioritization of uses” as well as “equitable utilization” and “needs-based” approaches. These principles are imprecise and subject to negotiation.

The book features two chapters that apply the theoretical arguments and results from the large, cross-national data analyses to case studies around the world; among them, are the Nile and Jordan Basins.

The Blue Nile

The Blue Nile Basin is an interesting case because Addis Ababa has already moved forward on building the large and disputed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. With the construction of this mega project, which will store 79 billion cubic meters of water and produce 6,450 megawatts of hydroelectricity, Ethiopia is challenging the prevailing hydro-political regime that has, for decades, benefitted downstream Egypt and to some degree Sudan.

But the Grand Renaissance Dam could provide benefits to Egypt and Sudan. In addition to the large amounts of hydropower that could be sold to downstream states, better water storage facilities could reduce evaporation rates and thus make more water available to all three riparians. Furthermore, regulation of the river in Ethiopia could effectively eliminate the annual Nile flood, making the flow of water reaching Sudan and Egypt seasonably stable and providing Sudan with perennial storage capacity. These benefits in turn could be compensated through side-payments or other forms of issue-linkage negotiated through diplomacy.

It is perhaps little surprise that the construction of the dam prompted a 2015 re-negotiation of some issues among Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. While the agreement deals with general principles of cooperation and trust building, as opposed to basin-wide distribution of the Nile’s waters, it represents a major shift in Egypt’s overall approach to the river and may perhaps usher in a basin-wide agreement that can benefit all riparians.

The Jordan

In the Jordan River Basin, the relationship between Israel and Jordan dominates the hydro-regime. The 1994 peace agreement between the two introduced provisions for the alleviation of water shortages. While the agreement allocates fixed volumes of water, as opposed to a more flexible strategy, it does include other alternative and innovative ways of sharing resources. These include clauses indicating strategic cooperation over desalination and wastewater reclamation; exchange of diversions to Jordan from Lake Kineret in the north of Israel for the same amount of groundwater pumped by Israel in the Arava Valley; joint projects to find new water sources during drought years; and permanent supplies to meet the needs of both sides during dry periods.

The future of the Dead Sea has become a much more prominent concern

While very comprehensive, the treaty at the time of its negotiation did include several ambiguities that, by some accounts, have become “destructive” to its performance. There were open questions as to who pays for water conveyance, the location of storage, and the source of an additional 50 million cubic meters per year to be discharged to Jordan. In addition, over time Israel has not always been able to honor its water discharge commitments during dry spells, in part because the amount to be transferred is fixed. A deficit in delivery during the 1998-2000 drought, for example, was solved by a summit of the heads of state, who agreed to divide the burden. Israel would deliver to Jordan only 25 million cubic meters per year until a desalinization plant was operational so as to provide the full quota. Today, according to Itay Fischhendler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, largely to help Jordan deal with the influx of refugees from Syria, Israel delivers to Jordan the entire 50 million cubic meters.

In recent years, the future of the Dead Sea has become more prominent in the relationship between Jordan and Israel. Intense and prolonged droughts; increases in population in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority; and more water diversion upstream, including to storage in Syria, have all contributed to catastrophic environmental damage in the lower Jordan Basin. The Dead Sea has lost one third of its surface area and is expected to dry up if this trend continues.

In response, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, with World Bank support, have been investigating the so-called “Red-Dead Project,” which calls for massive investments in desalinization of Red Sea water to be conveyed north to urban centers in all three territories. Israel would release more water from its Lake Kineret in exchange for the desalinated water, and the brine produced during the desalination process would be pumped into the Dead Sea in an attempt to sustain it.

In March 2015, Israel and Jordan signed an agreement for a scaled-back project, a $900 million desalination plant to be built in Jordan to supply water to southern Jordan and sell to Israel. In return, Israel will sell more water to Jordan from the Sea of Galilee. The brine byproduct, estimated at 1,200 million cubic meters per year from desalination, will be mixed with seawater and conveyed 180 kilometers from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Less Than Ideal

A close reading of allocation mechanisms and posturing in the Nile and Jordan River Basins is vital for analysts seeking to prepare for a climate changed future. Because of increasing population and consumption, even under “ideal” conditions of water resource management – with no external factors such as climate change – almost every region of the world faces serious water scarcity that is increasing with time.


There are several metrics for water scarcity. We use the total renewable available water resources per capita as a measure for scarcity, which is based on the fact that the amount of water in circulation is more or less fixed and the world population increases over time. These two facts are by themselves sufficient to describe the global dynamics of water scarcity. As seen in Figure 1, over the last century, some countries have lost 50-75 percent of their renewable water per capita.

What’s more, we found that water availability is reciprocally correlated with variability – countries with higher level of scarcity also face higher levels of variability. A more variable water supply poses difficulties in planning, storing, and using water, all of which make water effectively scarcer. Additional losses due to mismanagement, externality impacts (e.g., pollution), and climate change could lead to catastrophes.

Understanding when cooperation is more or less likely to transpire based on levels of water scarcity and variability provides policymakers with important context for negotiation. In addition, learning what has worked and what has not in international water agreements and the correct balance between flexibility and specificity is key to preventing poor outcomes, whether violent or not. Policymakers should look to include a combination of enforcement, monitoring, conflict resolution, adaptability, and other institutional mechanisms to craft the most effective treaties. The full toolbox of water diplomacy is clearly needed for the challenge ahead.

BlogA New Climate for Peace
New Security Beat

Tags adaptation Africa climate change conflict cooperation Egypt environment environmental health environmental peacemaking environmental security


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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