MANY of the world’s most important rivers flow through several countries and so any intervention in their flow in one state can have a major impact upon people living hundreds or even thousands of kilometres downstream. By their very nature, dam projects can help to provide water supplies and hydroelectricity for one country to the detriment of the water requirements of other nations. Yet it would be wrong to ignore the positive impact that cooperation within a river basin can have on international relations with a region. Not only can an amicable cross-border atmosphere help to ensure that maximum use is made of a river’s resources but it can also lead to increased cooperation in the power sector and other areas.

While the impact of hydro schemes can negatively affect international relations, cross-border problems can also prevent the development of dam projects in the first place. One such example stems from a disagreement in the Himalayas between India and Nepal. Following the 1962 war between India and China, India retained control of 75km2 in Kalapani that was also claimed by Nepal. The two countries disputed the boundary in the River Sarda area, which had been delimited by the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 between the British East India Company and Nepal.

India continues to occupy the area and the ongoing dispute has held up the development of several planned hydro schemes in the vicinity. An agreement for a multi stage dam project was reached in the 1990s, but although electricity would have been supplied to both Nepal and India, the Nepalese parliament refused to ratify the deal. Bilateral talks aimed at reaching a solution were held in 2003 but a final agreement has not yet been reached.

One of the biggest current sources of dam dispute in the world is the Indo-Pakistani boundary, where the situation is exacerbated by population and industrial growth on both sides of the border. The Indian government predicts that the per capita availability of freshwater in the country will fall to 1500m3 a year by 2025, well below the UN estimate of 1700m3 a year, below which water conflict is expected to kick in. Despite the various stresses and strains that have plagued relations between the two countries since partition, the current water sharing deal is one of the best examples of enlightened cooperation.

It took over a decade from partition until 1960 for the World Bank to broker the Indus Water Treaty. The deal managed to overcome the fact that all of the main rivers in the region flow from India into Pakistan, so that India could have continued to access water resources as it saw fit. Under the treaty, India was allocated control of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej rivers, while the Chenab, Indus and Jhelum went to Pakistan. Although Indians are allowed to use water from the latter three rivers, they are not allowed to alter their flow in any way, whether through diversion or storage. The arrangement has been overseen by the Indus Water Commission for the past 45 years.

Despite several armed conflicts in the intervening period, the treaty was not threatened until fairly recently, when India revealed plans for the Baglihar dam on the River Chenab in order to provide electricity to its part of Kashmir. While Pakistan may oppose the project because of the threat to the Indus Water Treaty, the fact that the venture could help cement Indian control of the disputed territory of Kashmir merely enflames passions still further. Conflict between the two South Asian countries over the past 58 years has centred on the sovereignty of Kashmir, which is currently divided between the two and heavily militarised.

Yet again, the World Bank has stepped in to try to settle the argument. Relations between India and Pakistan have improved markedly since the new Indian government took power and progress has been made on a range of issues, including the proposed construction of a pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan to transport gas to both Indian and Pakistani power plants. Now, the World Bank has named a Swiss civil engineer and academic, Raymond Lafitte, as its mediator in the dispute. The Bank states that ‘Both India and Pakistan have found Professor Lafitte suitably qualified as a ‘neutral expert’ and insists that his decision on the project will be ‘final and binding’.

A spokesperson for the Pakistani ministry of foreign affairs commented: ‘We are confident that the issue pertaining to Baglihar will be resolved according to the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty.’ Speaking earlier in the year, Indian foreign minister Natwar Singh, was even more upbeat. He said: ‘The speed with which the two countries have gone about the talks has been extraordinary. The atmosphere between the two countries has improved.’

Even if a satisfactory resolution can be found to the Baglihar dispute, it is vital that a framework for river resource development in the entire South Asian region is agreed, given the scale of planned projects in the area. India stores a great deal of water in reservoirs in order to make the most of the July to August monsoon, when 80% of the entire region’s rain falls. However, Pakistan and Bangladesh have both blamed excessive damming in India for the extreme flooding they experienced in 2000. Moreover, as in China, the Indian government has published plans for a host of new hydro schemes that could further extend their control over the region’s water resources. In 2003, the ministry of energy unveiled project proposals that would result in 50,560MW of new generating capacity, including 25,609MW in Arunachal Pradesh.

New dams could particularly affect the flow of water to Bangladesh, which has long been concerned about the diversion of water from the Ganges at the Farrakka Barrage. Although the two countries signed a water sharing agreement in 1996, the Bangladeshi government believes that current irrigation and water supplies cannot be sustained in the long term. Nevertheless, India has agreed to maintain minimum river flows during periods of sustained drought. If the situation was to deteriorate, India holds the trump cards on two counts: it is far more politically and militarily powerful than its eastern neighbour and lies upstream from Bangladesh. However, Dhaka has sought to extract water resource concessions as part of other deals, such as the planned gas pipeline from Myanmar to India that would have to pass through Bangladesh.

The Mekong River Commission

Apart from the Indo-Pakistani boundary, the Mekong Basin is probably Asia’s most likely source of resource conflict, given that it flows through six independent countries – China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – plus Tibet. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was set up to help settle resource disputes and coordinate regional developments, but unfortunately only the countries of the lower basin, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, are currently members.

Population growth and industrialisation in the region has increased demand for water at the same time as the Chinese government is continuing to build new dams on the upper reaches of the 4400km river. Coordination of river development is vital on the Mekong because of the battle between salt and fresh water. Although the river’s flow reaches 50,000m3/sec during the rainy season, this has fallen below 2000m3/sec during recent droughts and the intrusion of salt water is increasingly affecting agricultural land on the lower reaches of the river. The MRC claims that flow rates have also been affected by the removal of river islets on the Chinese section of the river. Beijing argues that their removal has made the river more navigable but the MRC states insist that it has also speeded up the flow of water.

Many observers fear that Chinese dams are exacerbating the problem, although there is no doubt that rainfall patterns have become more irregular over the past few years. In addition, as with the Nile and many other dammed rivers, the number of dams seems to be preventing the flow of silt that feeds soil in the lower Mekong basin. The impact of China’s failure to join the MRC was demonstrated in 1997 when the regional superpower halted the river’s flow entirely for around four days during the construction of a dam.

The situation could deteriorate further still over the years to come as a result of China’s plans to build up to 37 new dams on the river. As always in such disputes, it is difficult to determine how much the lower basin states are opposing Chinese development because of the impact upon their farmers plus flora and fauna in the river, and to what extent their objection is because they too have plans for new dams. Laos in particular has released details of additional hydroelectric projects on the Mekong that it would like to pursue. Nevertheless, the lack of negotiation between China and the MRC states and the privilege of controlling the upstream section of the river places the onus on China to improve the situation.

Even within states, different regions can dispute the allocation of water resources. In Pakistan, for example, Sindh province has come to resent the Punjab’s upstream position that has allowed it to dominate dam construction within the Indus watershed. The development of the Kalabagh 3600MW hydro scheme in the Punjab could merely exacerbate internal political disputes within the country. It has been claimed that the volume of silt delivered by the Indus has fallen to 36M tonnes a year, down from 600M tonnes before the river was dammed.

Accepting the benefits that dam projects can produce in terms of flood control, irrigation and power production, there is no doubt that most schemes have some negative side effects. Professor Arun Elhance is a US academic who has carried out a great deal of research into the effects of hydro schemes on regional politics. He argues: ‘The building of a dam always produces some sort of environmental crisis. A river does not like to be dammed, preferring to find its own natural course down a slope. The most common occurrence is that the silt that any river carries down stream – and silt is the best agricultural soil – becomes backed up and is deposited at the back of the dam. This deprives many of the communities downriver from accessing renewed planting soil.’

He adds: ‘Any dam has a limited time horizon before the silt back up rises to the level of the dam itself and causes the river to overflow the dam. Asia, for instance, has 26,000 dams built within the last three decades. In thirty years time, or so, Asia will have 26,000 waterfalls.’ Such a prediction may be overly gloomy but there is certainly some truth in his views. Ethiopia is one of the most water rich countries in Africa, yet years of underinvestment in maintenance has led to the silting up of many reservoirs, reducing their capacity and slashing hydroelectric production.

Nile Valley cooperation

The wider Nile river basin, which is largely fed by Ethiopian rivers, is also a prime example of Elhance’s fears over the lack of silt washed down. Egypt is perhaps the best example of a hydrological culture – a society that has been built on the water and silt provided by the Nile for thousands of years. As a result of a series of colonial era agreements that were drawn up when the UK’s primary aim in eastern Africa was to protect Egypt, Cairo has a legal right to 55.5Bm3 of water per year from the Nile, while Sudan is entitled to the remaining 18.5Bm3.

However, the other eight countries of the Nile Basin – namely, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo – all lie upstream from Egypt. Most have become increasingly vocal about the unfairness of the current legal framework that prevents them from tampering with the Nile’s flow, at least in theory. In practice, however, Uganda and Ethiopia in particular are keen to develop a series of new hydroelectric schemes.

Egypt originally responded aggressively to such plans but has now embarked upon a process of promoting cooperation between the ten states of the Nile basin. It seems likely that Cairo realised that it would find it difficult to oppose upstream developments without resorting to war and that the international treaties upon which the current arrangements are based would be unlikely to stand up in any international law court, given their inherent unfairness. The region’s rapid population growth and the scarcity of water have long been mooted as a possible trigger for conflict in the region and yet it appears that the vulnerability of all countries in the basin has persuaded them that cooperation rather than conflict is the best policy.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) has been formed as an umbrella organisation through which to channel all other initiatives to 0promote water resource cooperation in the valley. One of the NBI’s key roles over the coming years will be to ensure that as many countries as possible benefit from dam projects in any particular country. For example, it is committed to improving transmission links between the member states, so that electricity produced in, for example Ethiopia, can be distributed across the region.

Elsewhere in the world, a number of joint hydro schemes are already encouraging international cooperation and integration. For example, Argentina operates the 3200MW Yacyreta project with Paraguay and the 1890MW Salto Grande scheme with Uruguay, although most of the electricity produced from both ventures is sold within Argentina. Such schemes have encouraged cross-border power trading and the current process of power sector integration in South America that could eventually open up opportunities for new hydro projects through the creation of larger power pools and increased power sector investment.

Such resolutions would be far more common if an internationally accepted framework for river development could be agreed. Such a system could encompass both environmental, political and resource management issues, as well as measures that could tackle the various downsides of dam construction that have been expressed increasingly vocally in recent years and which came to a head in the World Commission for Dams (WCD) report.

As yet, there is no specific body of international law regarding river development comparable with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which legislates for maritime disputes and economic development. There is also no international body with the responsibility to act as an arbitrator when disputes do break out, although territorial and resource disputes can be referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if both sides agree to do so. In practice, however, the countries within any particular watershed normally seek to resolve their differences without external support.

An estimated 214 major rivers around the world cross an international boundary so the problems and opportunities posed by dam construction and water projects are likely to feature in the international headlines for a long time to come. While the pros and cons of any particular hydro scheme for a single nation must be carefully weighed before development can proceed, the repercussions for projects on international rivers are even more widespread. Water resource conflict has long been talked up as one of the greatest threats to peace during the 21st century but early dialogue and an earnest attempt to promote cooperation could just as easily turn such difficulties into a source of harmony rather than dispute.