Desk study: Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of International Freshwater Resources: A Global Review


This report contains the results of a desk study on conflict and cooperation in international freshwater management. The study was conducted as part of the UNESCO PCCP project. The PCCP project, which stands for "From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential", examines and fosters the potential for international water resources to become a catalyst for regional peace and development through dialogue, cooperation, and participative management of the resource. It tries to find an answer to why with some international freshwater resources conflicts develop, and with others there is cooperation.

The aim of the desk study was threefold:

  • to complement the in-depth case studies prepared in the PCCP project by a more in-breadth coverage of international freshwater management
  • to show the wide variety of issues, contexts, and solutions chosen
  • to identify general "lessons" on conflict prevention/resolution and cooperation.

First, in order to obtain an overview of the solutions chosen, nineteen institutions for managing international freshwaters were described. The individual descriptions were made by the FAO and are reported in a separate report by Melvin Spreij, titled Institutions for International Freshwater Management. Section 4 of this report contains an overview. The overview shows that most institutions studied have a broad scope in terms of water uses covered. Many also have a broad geographical scope and cover complete basins. The organizations set up range from extremely simple to very elaborate. They usually have no broad ranging decision-making powers and decision making in the organizations is usually by unanimity; countries apparently want to keep control. In many cases conflict resolution procedures have been established, but there is not much evidence that they are actually used; often they do not have to be used because cooperation is good. Public participation is with a few significant exceptions still very limited.

Second, a literature study was made of the question of how institutions for international freshwater management actually develop and how effective these institutions are. Some twenty-three freshwater resources or groups of resources were covered. In these cases it usually took ten years or more to develop effective institutions. The main obstacles were conflicting interests, bad international relations and lack of trust, and sometimes controversies over the facts. Several strategies were used to overcome these differences, such as issue linkage. The most common and most effective strategy was to develop and maintain good relations and to compromise on the basis of reciprocity on points that were important for the other countries. In the long run such a strategy benefits all parties concerned (see Section 3).

Relatively little information could be found on the effectiveness of the institutions. Nonetheless, the picture is relatively positive. Some international agreements are not complied with and others are simply not implemented, but many are implemented correctly. In a few cases serious negative side effects occurred because the interests and knowledge of the local population had been ignored when developing the institution concerned. In other cases significant improvements in the basin took place, and the institutions are at least partly responsible for this. It has proved possible to resolve many contentious issues in the framework of international commissions that have been set up, which - if not actually improving international relations - at least prevented deterioration (see Section 5).

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