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Transboundary water interaction I: reconsidering conflict and cooperation

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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.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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).

  4. 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).

  5. Messerschmid (2007), for his part, asks of the same case whether the political price the cooperation extracts is unreasonable.

  6. In fairness, the same author had worked on precisely this issue in Feitelson and Haddad (2000).

  7. The theory is substantially elaborated upon and refined in Mirumachi and Warner (2008).

  8. 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).


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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.

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Zeitoun, M., Mirumachi, N. Transboundary water interaction I: reconsidering conflict and cooperation. Int Environ Agreements 8, 297–316 (2008).

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