Water Resources and Inter-state Conflict: Legal Principles and the Grand Ethiopian...

Access to freshwater is a potential source of tension and conflict between states. Anne Funnemark examines the longstanding transboundary watercourse dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia and offers key principles and approaches useful to supporting the resolution of the conflict, as outlined in a new PSRP report: Water Resources and Inter-state Conflict: Legal Principles and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Access to freshwater is a fundamental human right: it is essential for sustaining life with dignity and health, the running of households, the production of food and agriculture, and development of industry and energy. Simultaneously, freshwater is an increasingly scarce natural resource. The current climate emergency is reducing the world’s freshwater resources, at the same time as population growth and increasingly water-dependent agriculture is increasing the demand.

High in demand and increasingly low in availability, freshwater is a potential source of conflict. Whilst the bulk of evidence suggest that countries find ways to communicate and collaborate over transboundary water resources, transboundary watercourses and the management of these watercourses can be a source of tension and conflict between states. A current example of significant tension surrounding transboundary watercourses is the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the water resources of the River Nile. Here, the long-standing dispute between the countries have gained tension due to the construction of the GERD by Ethiopia.

A new PSRP report assesses the extent to which international human rights law and international environmental law may provide guidance in negotiating transboundary watercourse disputes over quantity of water. In particular, the report examines the on-going watercourse dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, which is characterised by high levels of tension, low levels of cooperation and the potential for larger regional conflict due to the ways in which the nature of the dispute opens up historic claims to the use of the Nile. In doing so, the report explores the extent to which principles of international law might be used to facilitate a turn away from securitisation of water resources towards water cooperation by Egypt and Ethiopia.

The report finds that, whilst principles of international law does not solve the dispute at hand, they suggest a number of key principles and approaches useful to supporting its resolution. First, the principle of equitable and reasonable use as found in international watercourse law provides a basis for negotiating. The principle of equitable and reasonable use recognises the shared nature of watercourses and provides a stepping stone for a human needs approach to water management.

A human needs approach is the second principle which the report argues may help guide watercourse dispute negotiations. A human needs approach – as underpinned by human rights law – makes evident the potential for mutual gains by highlighting the interdependence of human needs on both sides of the border. The River Nile is a watercourse on which the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people rely. Recognition of the potential for mutual gains is essential for the parties to the dispute to move beyond a zero-sum approach to the use of the watercourse.

The global nature of climate change further stresses the need for cooperation. Combined with the unitary and moving nature of transboundary watercourses, the effects of climate change means neither state is able to ensure the sustainability of the River Nile on their own, but both will draw benefits from successful management of the Nile.

A third principle of good practice identified in the report is the way in which introduction of a human needs approach is supported by engaging in a public and transparent, updated and cross border Environmental Impact Assessment, as required by environmental law. The dependency of local communities on the environmental wellbeing of transboundary watercourses means an Environmental Impact Assessment can address and consult on the ongoing uncertainty around the consequences of the construction of the dam as they relate to both human and environmental wellbeing. As such, it plays a key role in furthering an understanding of the mutual gains states can achieve through cooperation and implementation of a human needs approach.

Lastly, through examining how the principles of international law identified have been applied in other similar negotiations, the report shows that other disputes have often developed well-functioning frameworks by regionalising their approach water management, bringing in all countries connected to the watercourse. Whilst those framework agreements which have gone the furthest pools state sovereignty in a way that goes beyond what is called for by international law (for example Senegal River Charter), more limited cooperation focused on technical issues has also proved vital for the avoidance of (violent) conflict (as illustrated by the Indus Water Treaty).

Image: Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia by Giustino, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Anne Funnemark completed her postgraduate degree in International Human Rights Law (LLM) at the University of Edinburgh in 2020, and is a Research Assistant on the Political Settlements Research Programme. Anne works in the Scottish third sector advocating for sustainable environmental policies and action on climate change.

Further Reading

Water Resources and Inter-state Conflict: Legal Principles and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

This report by Anne Funnemark draws together the key principles of international law applicable to transboundary watercourse disputes regarding quantity of water, and assesses the extent to which these principles provide guidance in negotiating the Egypt-Ethiopia watercourse conflict.