Whether the inter-state and sub-national tensions over transboundary waters will lead to greater conflict or increased cooperation remains a hotly debated issue. Most work on the subject situates transboundary water conflict and transboundary water cooperation at opposing ends of a continuum. The examination of either conflict or cooperation, we argue, refutes the reality of the vast majority of contexts where cooperation and conflict actually co-exist, and perpetuates the paradigm that any conflict is ‘bad’, and that all forms of cooperation are ‘good’. The efforts of the international water academic and practitioner communities may be better served through a combined reading of conflict and cooperation as transboundary water interaction. Mirumachi’s Transboundary Waters Interaction NexuS is offered as a robust method demonstrating that simultaneous consideration of conflict and cooperation is both insightful and possible. Transboundary water interaction is shown to be an inherently political process determined by the broader political context. We examine evidence suggesting that uncritical acceptance of traditional forms of ‘cooperative’ arrangements may in fact sustain the conflict it was intended to transform. Several other less well-known faces of ‘cooperation’ are discussed in detail, with examples of narrow, token and coercive cooperation derived from inter-state relations on the Jordan, Nile and Ganges rivers. With a view to paving the way for improved transboundary water sharing and governance, subjectively negative, neutral and positive forms of interaction are defined, and linked with a first approximation of their potential driving forces.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Ki-Moon is in fact more nuanced on this subject than his predecessors (e.g. Lewis 2007). Boutros Boutros-Ghali is known for his 1991 quote ‘the next war will be fought over water, not politics’, a position he reaffirmed in 1997 (Middle East Quarterly 1997) and 2005 (Thomson 2005). For his part, Kofi Annan told the Association of American Geographers that ‘fierce competition for freshwater may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future’ (UN 2001), though he did add subtlety to the message in emphasising water for cooperation during the 2002 World Water Day.
These include (a) increasing benefits to the river (improved water quality, enhanced biodiversity); (b) increasing benefits from the river (improved management for hydropower or agricultural use); (c) reducing costs because of the river (flood/drought management, reduced international tensions); and (d) increasing benefits beyond the river (benefits deriving from integrated regional markets) (Sadoff and Grey 2002).
The concept of benefit-sharing thus offers the possibility of the resolution of water conflicts, and is currently being pursued through negotiations at the Nile Basin Initiative (Mohieldeen 2008), and in research on the Kagera, Mekong and Orange rivers (see, Phillips et al. 2006). The concept has also been proposed as a means of reaching basin-wide agreements amongst all five riparians of the Jordan River, based on the inclusion of desalinated water into the ‘pie’ (Phillips et al. 2007 a, b).
The national-level conflict has been characterised for over a decade by the Israeli state’s refusal to engage in negotiations to quantify the Palestinian water rights that it recognised in the 1995 Oslo II Agreement (Zeitoun 2008).
Messerschmid (2007), for his part, asks of the same case whether the political price the cooperation extracts is unreasonable.
In fairness, the same author had worked on precisely this issue in Feitelson and Haddad (2000).
The theory is substantially elaborated upon and refined in Mirumachi and Warner (2008).
The TWINS plot of Nepalese–Indian relations over the Ganges, for example, supports the view, and demonstrates very little movement in any direction, especially when compared to the plot of the Nile, above (see, Mirumachi 2007).
Allouche, J. (2004). Water nationalism: An explanation of the past and present conflicts in Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent? PhD Thesis, Institut universitaire de hautes études internationales, Université de Genève.
Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216–224.
Barrett, S. (1998). On the theory and diplomacy of environmental treaty-making. Environmental and Resource Economics, 11(3–4), 317–333.
Bernauer, T. (2002). Explaining success and failure in international river management. Aquatic Science, 64, 1–19.
Brochmann, M., & Gleditsch, N. P. (2006). Conflict, cooperation and good governance in international river basins. International Conference—Governance and the Global Water System: Institutions, actors, scales of water governance facing the challenges of global change. Global Water Systems Project, Bonn, Germany, 20–23 June 2006.
Brochmann, M., & Hensel, P. R. (2008). Peaceful management of international river claims. Paper Prepared for the 49th Annual Conference of the International Studies Association. San Francisco, 26–29 March 2008.
Brown, D. L., & Ashman, D. (1996). Participation, social capital, and intersectoral problem solving: African and Asian cases. World Development, 9, 1467–1479.
Bruns, B. (2003). Developing an extended ladder of participation. RCSD Conference—Politics of the Commons: Articulating Development and Strengthening Local Practices. Chiang Mai, 11–14 July 2003.
Butts, K. H. (1997). The strategic importance of water. Parameters. US Army War College Quarterly, 27 (Spring 1997), 65–83.
Cascao, A. (2003). Hydropolitics in Ethiopia. Master’s Thesis, Lisbon University.
Cascao, A. (2008). Counter-Hegemony in the Nile River Basin. Water Policy, 10(S2), 13–28.
Conca, K. (2006a). The new face of water conflict. No. 3 in the Navigating peace series. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Environmental Change and Security Programme, July 2006.
Conca, K. (2006b). The new face of water conflict, No. 3 in the Navigating peace series. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Environmental Change and Security Programme, July 2006.
Craig, J. G. (1993). The nature of co-operation. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Daoudy, M. (2004). Negotiating water in the Middle East: A new analytical framework. Paper Prepared for UNESCO/AUB Symposium on Challenges Facing Water Resources Management in Arid and Semi-Arid Regions. American University of Beirut, 7–9 October 2004.
Daoudy, M., & Kistin, E. (2008). Beyond water conflict: Evaluating the effects of international water cooperation. Paper Prepared for the 49th Annual Conference of the International Studies Association. San Francisco, 26–29 March 2008.
de Waal, A. (2007). Darfur and the failure of the responsibility to protect. International Affairs, 83(6), 1039–1054.
Delli-Priscoli, J. (1996). Conflict resolution, collaboration and management in international water resource issues. Alternative dispute resolution series, IWR Working Paper 96-ADR-WP-6. Alexandria, USA: Institute for Water Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers, May 1996.
Delli-Priscoli, J. (1998a). Public involvement; conflict management; and dispute resolution in water resources and environmental decision making. In: J. L. Creightion, C. M. Dunning, J. Delli-Priscoli, & D. B. Ayres (Eds.), Public involvement and dispute resolution: A reader on the second decade of experience at the institute for water resources. Alexandria, USA: Institute for Water Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers. IWR Report 98-R-5.
Delli-Priscoli, J. (1998b). From hot-tub to war: Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in the U.S. Corps of Engineers. In: J. L. Creightion, C. M. Dunning, J. Delli-Priscoli, & D. B. Ayres (Eds.), Public involvement and dispute resolution: A reader on the second decade of experience at the institute for water resources. Alexandria, USA: Institute for Water Resources, US Army Corps of Engineers. IWR Report 98-R-5.
Dombrowski, I. (2003). Water accords in the Middle East peace process: Moving towards cooperation? In: H. G. Brauch, P. H. Liotta, A. Marquina, P. Rogers & M. el Sayed (Eds.), Security and environment in the Mediterranean—Conceptualising security and environmental conflict. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer. Hexagon Series No. 1.
Dombrowski, I. (2005). Conflict, cooperation, and institutions in international water management. PhD Thesis, Leipzig University.
Eissa, S. (2008). International law and hydro-hegemony in the Nile Basin: A Sudanese perspective. Water Policy, 10 (Supplement 2).
el-Tom, A. O. (2007). UN Ban Ki-Moon and his drought thesis of Darfur conflict. Sudan Tribune 13 (November 2007).
Falkenmark, M., Berntell, A., Jägerskog, A., Lundqvist, J., Matz, M., & Tropp, H. (2007). On the verge of a new water scarcity: A call for good governance and human ingenuity. Brief, S. P. Stockholm, Stockholm International Water Institute.
Falkenmark, M., & Rockstom, J. (2000). Water in emergencies. War and water. Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross.
Falkner, R. (2003). Private environmental governance and international relations: Exploring the links. Global Environmental Politics, 3(2), 72–87.
Fearon, J. (1995). Rationalist explanations for war. International Organization, 49(3 Summer 1995), 379–414.
Feitelson, E. (2006). Impediments to the management of shared aquifers: A political economy perspective. Hydrogeology Journal, 14, 319–329.
Feitelson, E., & Haddad, M. (2000). Management of shared groundwater resources: The Israeli-Palestinian case with an international perspective. Ottawa, Canada: International Development Research Council and Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Fischhendler, I. (2008). Ambiguity in transboundary environmental dispute resolution: The Israel–Jordanian water agreement. Journal of Peace Research, 45(1), 91–110.
Fox, C. A., & Sneddon, C. (2007). Transboundary river basin agreements in the Mekong and Zambezi basins: Enhancing environmental security or securitizing the environment? International Environmental Agreements: Politics Law and Economics, 7, 237–261.
GCI. (2000). National sovereignty and international watercourses. Renens, Switzerland: Green Cross International.
Gerlak, A. K. (2007). Lesson learning and trans-boundary waters: A look at the global environmental facility’s international waters program. Water Policy, 9, 55–72.
Gyawali, D. (2001). Rivers, technology and society: Learning the lessons of water management in Nepal. London, UK: Zed Books.
Hartmann, E. (2002). Strategic scarcity: The origins and impact of environmental conflict ideas. PhD Thesis, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Hensel, P. R., & Brochmann, M. (2007). Armed conflict over international rivers: The onset and militarization of river claims. Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, March 2007, Chicago.
Homer-Dixon, T. (1995a). Environmental scarcity and violent conflict: The case of Gaza. Project on environment, population and security. Washington, DC, USA: American Association for the Advancement of Science and the University of Toronto, June 1995.
Homer-Dixon, T. (1995b). On the threshold—Environmental changes as causes of acute conflict. In S. M. Lynn-Jones & S. E. Miller (Eds.), Global dangers: Changing dimensions of international security. Cambridge, USA: MIT Press.
Jägerskog, A. (2003). Why states cooperate over shared water: The water negotiations in the Jordan River basin. Linköping, Sweden: Linköping University.
Kameri-Mbote, P. (2006). Water, conflict, and cooperation: Lessons from the Nile River Basin. No. 4 in the Navigating Peace series, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Environmental Change and Security Programme, January 2007.
Ki-Moon, B. (2007). What I saw in Darfur. The Washington Post 14, September 2007, A13.
Kistin, E. (2007). Transboundary cooperation in SADC: From Concept to Implementation. Paper prepared for the 8th WaterNet/WARFSA/GWP-SA Symposium. Lusaka, Zambia, 30 October–3 November 2007.
Levy, M. (2001). A Debate (comments on Levy’s Time for a Third Wave of Environment and Security Scholarship). Environmental Change and Security Program Report No.2. Homer-Dixon, T., Porter, G., & Goldstone, J. (Eds.), Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Lewis, L. (2007). Water shortages are likely to be trigger for wars, says UN chief Ban Ki Moon. Times Online. London, World News, 4 December 2007.
Lowi, M. (1993). Water and power—The politics of a scarce resource in the Jordan River Basin. Cambridge, USA: Cambridge University Press.
Mac Ginty, R., Muldoon, O. T., & Ferguson, N. (2007). No war, no peace: Northern Ireland after the agreement. Political Psychology, 28(1), 1–11.
Mehta, L. (2001). The manufacture of popular perceptions of scarcity: Dams and water-related narratives in Gujara, India. World Development, 29(12), 2025–2041.
Messerschmid, C. (2007). Hydro-hegemony in shared Israeli, Palestinian groundwater resources: What price cooperation? International Conference on Sustainable Development and Management of Water Resources in Palestine. Amman, August 2007.
Middle East Quarterly. (September 1997). Boutros Boutros-Ghali: “I Support the Algerian Government”. Middle East Quarterly.
Mirumachi, N. (2007). Fluxing relations in water history: Conceptualizing the range of relations in transboundary river basin. Pasts and Futures of Water: Proceedings from the 5th International Water History Association Conference. Tampere, Finland, 13–17 June 2006.
Mirumachi, N., & Allan, J. A. (2007). Revisiting transboundary water governance: Power, conflict cooperation and the political economy. Proceedings from CAIWA International Conference on Adaptive and Integrated Water Management: Coping with Scarcity. Basel, Switzerland, 12–15 November 2007.
Mirumachi, N., & Warner, J. (2008). Co-existing conflict and cooperation in transboundary waters. Paper prepared for the 49th annual Conference of the International Studies Association. San Francisco, 26–29 March 2008.
Moench, M., Dixit, A., Janakarajan, S., Rathore, M. S., & Mudrakartha, S. (2003). The fluid mosaic—Water governance in the context of variability, uncertainty and change. Ottawa, Canada: International Development Research Centre.
Mohieldeen, Y. (2008). Sudan’s Nile waters and the eastern Nile basin: Hydropolitics in a politicized environment. PhD Thesis, Department of Geography, School of Oriental and African Studies.
Najam, A. (2002). International environmental negotiation: A strategy for the south. In L. Susskind, W. Moomaw & K. Gallagher (Eds.), Transboundary environmental negotiation: New approaches to global cooperation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ohlsson, L., & Turton, A. (1999). The turning of a screw: Social resource scarcity as a bottle-neck in adaption to water scarcity. SOAS Water Issues Study Group, School of Oriental and African Studies/King’s College—London (Occasional Paper 19).
Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Phillips, D., Attili S., McCaffrey S., & Murray J. (2007a). The Jordan River Basin: 1. Clarification of the allocations in the Johnston plan. Water International, 31(5), 16–38.
Phillips, D., Attili S., McCaffrey S., & Murray J. (2007b) The Jordan River Basin: 2. Potential future allocations to the Co-riparians. Water International, 31(5), 39–62.
Phillips, D., Daoudy, M., Öjendal, J., Turton, A., & McCaffrey, S. (2006). Trans-boundary water cooperation as a tool for conflict prevention and broader benefit-sharing, Global Development Studies No. 4. Stockholm, Sweden: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Sadoff, C. W., & Grey, D. (2002). Beyond the river: The benefits of cooperation on international rivers. Water Policy, 4, 389–403.
Sadoff, C. W., & Grey, D. (2005). Cooperation on international rivers: A continuum for securing and sharing benefits. Water International, 30(4), 1–8.
Scheumann, W., & Alker, M. (2008). The way towards joint management of Africa’s transboundary aquifers. Groundwater and Climate in Africa, Conference organised by Ministry of Water and Environment of Uganda. University College London, and UNESCO, Kampala, June 24–28, 2008.
Selby, J. (2003). Dressing up domination as ‘co-operation’: The case of Israeli-Palestinian water relations. Review of International Studies, 29(1), 121–138.
SIWI. (2006). Full-day session on hydro-hegemony. World Water Week August 2006, Stockholm, Sweden.
Sosland, J. K. (2007). Cooperating rivals: The riparian politics of the Jordan River basin. New York, USA: State University of New York Press.
Takele, B. G. (2004). The hydropolitics of transboundary river water resources development: The case of the Blue Nile Basin in Ethiopia. Master’s Thesis, Department of Geography, King’s College London.
Thomson, M. (2005). Ex-UN chief warns of water wars. BBC News. London, UK, 2 February 2005 [on-line].
UN. (2001). Secretary-General asks United States geographers to work with him to tackle climate change problems, Environmental Degradation and Sustainable Development. UN Press Release SG/SM/7732.
UN. (2006). Water: A shared responsibility. World Water Development Report No. 2. Paris, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, World Water Assessment Programme, UN Water.
UNDP. (2006). Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis. Human Development Report 2006. New York, USA: Author.
UNESCO. (2004). From potential conflict to co-operation potential: Promoting water as a catalyst for peace through capacity building, research and technical assistance. Paris, France, A contribution of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme to the World Water Assessment Programme—2nd Phase.
USACE. (1996). Conflict resolution, collaboration and management in international water resource issues. Alternative Dispute Resolution Series, Working Paper #6. Alexandria, USA: Author.
Vasquez, J. A., Johnson, J. T., Jaffe, S., & Stamato, L. (1995). Learning conflict resolution in the Post-Cold War Era. Michigan, USA: University of Michigan Press.
Warner, J. (2004). Water, wine, vinegar and blood. On politics, participation, violence and conflict over the hydrosocial contract. Proceedings from Water and Politics Conference (26–27 February 2004, Chap. 3). Marseilles, France, 15 March 2004.
Waterbury, J. (2002). The Nile: National determinants of collective action. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: Yale University Press.
Wolf, A. (2008). Healing the enlightenment rift: Rationality, spirituality, and shared waters. International Affairs, 61(2).
Wolf, A. T. (2004). Freshwater transboundary dispute database. Corvallis, OR, USA: Oregon State University.
Wolf, A. T. (2007). Shared waters: Conflict and cooperation. Annual Review of Environmental Resources, 32, 241–269.
Wolf, A. T., Kramer, A., Carius, A., & Dabelko, G. D. (2005). Managing water conflict and cooperation. State of the World 2005: Redefining Global Security, Worldwatch Institute.
Wolf, A. T., Yoffe, S., & Giordano, M. (2003). International waters: Identifying basins at risk. Water Policy, 5(1), 29–60.
Young, O. (2003). Environmental governance: The role of institutions in causing and confronting environmental problems. International Environmental Agreements: Politics Law and Economics, 3(4), 377–393.
Zawahri, N. (2008). Capturing the nature of cooperation, unstable cooperation, and conflict over international rivers: The story of the Indus, Yarmouk, Euphrates, and Tigris rivers. International Journal of Global Environmental Issues, 8(3), 286–310.
Zeitoun, M. (2007). The conflict vs. cooperation paradox: Fighting over or sharing of Palestinian-Israeli groundwater? Water International, 32(1), 105–120.
Zeitoun, M. (2008). Power and water: The hidden politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. London: I. B. Tauris.
Zeitoun, M., & Warner, J. (2006). Hydro-hegemony: A framework for analysis of transboundary water conflicts. Water policy, 8, 435–460.
This paper derives from the participants and ideas of the Third International Workshop on Hydro-Hegemony: Power, Conflict and Cooperation, held at the London School of Economics and Political Science, May 2007. Special thanks are due to Tony Allan, Ana Cascao, Marwa Daoudy, and Jeroen Warner. Further thanks to Ana Cascao for her assistance in plotting the TWINS matrix, and to three anonymous reviewers.
About this article
Cite this article
Zeitoun, M., Mirumachi, N. Transboundary water interaction I: reconsidering conflict and cooperation. Int Environ Agreements 8, 297 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-008-9083-5
- Water conflict
- Water cooperation
- Jordan River
- Ganges River
- Nile River