International Waters: Indicators for Identifying Basins at Risk


Despite the growing literature on water and conflict in international river basins, little empirical work has been done to bolster common conclusions that are so widely reported. In order to address this gap, we set out to assess all reported events of either conflict or cooperation between nations over water resources over the last fifty years and to use these events to inform the identification of basins at greatest risk of dispute in the near future (five to ten years). The study is divided into two components:

  • Compilation and assessment of relevant biophysical, socioeconomic, and geopolitical data in a global Geographic Information System (GIS), and use of these factors to determine history-based indicators for future tensions along international waterways.
  • Using these indicators, identification of basins at risk for the coming decade.

In general, we find that most of the parameters regularly identified as indicators of water conflict are actually only weakly linked to dispute, but that institutional capacity within a basin, whether defined as water management bodies or treaties, or generally positive international relations, is as important, if not more so, than the physical aspects of a system. It turns out, then, that very rapid changes, either on the institutional side or in the physical system, are at the root of most water conflict, as reflected in two sets of indicators:
1. "Internationalized" basins, that is, basins which include the management structures of newly independent states.
2. Basins that include unilateral development projects and the absence of cooperative regimes.

By taking our parameters of rapid change as indicators – internationalized basins and major planned projects in hostile and/or institution-less basins – we are able to identify the basins with settings which suggest the potential for dispute in the coming five to ten years. These basins include the Ganges-Brahmaputra, Han, Incomati, Kunene, Kura-Araks, Lake Chad, La Plata, Lempa, Limpopo, Mekong, Ob (Ertis), Okavango, Orange, Salween, Senegal, Tumen, and Zambezi.

We then identify "red flags", or markers related to these indicators, which might be monitored in the future.

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