Finding the Challenges of Sharing a River
What is the fairest solution for sharing rivers? The human race has often been plagued by the problem. People have been ‘rivals’ in using rivers. Actually, the word ‘rival’ derives from rivers; “the sense evolution seems to be based on the competitiveness of neighbors: one who uses the same stream, or one on the opposite side of the stream” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Water is one of the most essential resources for people. They use it for drinking water, generating energy, fishing, and growing crops. There are many trans-boundary rivers all over the world passing through several countries, such as the Nile River and the Mekong River. People around these rivers need to share water resources, but there are many conflicts between them. In some regions, upstream countries use too much water, and downstream countries suffer from it. They have lost water security and have had unpredictable negative effects. Also, some situations make the issue more complex: the power relations between countries. Around the Mekong River, downstream countries struggle to save their water resources, but China has power so these countries can’t complain about it. If countries around international rivers such as the Nile River and the Mekong River can find a reasonable way to share water and address power differences with the help from international organizations and frameworks of agreement instead of pursuing only their own interests, they can enjoy a sustainable resource.
The Nile River is a rare case; although there are conflicts between upstream countries and downstream countries, they seem to be solved. The Nile River is the longest international river in the world; its length is almost 6670 km. Also, the Nile River passes through 10 countries in Africa, which are Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, before reaching the Mediterranean Sea (Swain and Ashok, 2011). Basically, the use of the Nile River is based on two agreements: they ensure that Egypt and Sudan have enough water supply from it. These arrangements have been implemented because of their power relations. Egypt is located downstream of the Nile River and it is the most powerful country of the ten countries. As an example, when Ethiopia built the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt made a strong protest against Ethiopia. Also, Egyptian President Adbel-Fattah el-Sissi stressed “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water” (Magdy, 2017).
In this context, nations around the Nile River have begun to find reasonable ways to share it. In February 1999, almost all countries, including Egypt, organized the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), and they started to discuss the use of water resources of the Nile River and cooperation for its development. Upstream countries can’t abuse the water resource and Egypt can demand their share with some consideration for the other countries. In May 2010, upstream counties challenged Egypt’s monopoly by adopting the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement. (Ibrahim, 2011). The construction of the dam in Ethiopia was because of this action. Those countries have great opportunities to discuss and find reasonable ways to share the Nile River. Therefore, there still might be many issues around the Nile River, but the countries around the river seem to be solving them thorough discussions.
On the other hand, the situation along the Mekong River is totally different from the one around the Nile River, and there is a huge conflict between countries. The Mekong River is a trans-boundary river in Southeast Asia; it passes through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. According to Russel Sticklor, who is a water specialist and journalist covering the intersection of environmental change, demographic change, and human security, the Mekong River is one of the most strategically important transboundary waterways in Asia, at nearly 5,000 kilometers long. Not only does the Mekong provide water for the populations in the highlands of southern China, but also, it helps support some 60 million people downstream in Southeast Asia. The Mekong River is a key component of agricultural production and economic development for all people around it (2010). The Mekong River is essential for not only China, but also for the other downstream countries. However, recently, there is a conflict over the use of it between them. In these countries, China is the most powerful nation. In addition to power relations, China is located in the headstream of the Mekong River. This situation makes the problem more difficult to solve.
Downstream countries suffer from the change of the Mekong River caused by China and they have lost their food and energy security. China’s dam construction on the Upper Mekong has already caused negative impacts downstream. Along the Thai-Lao border, they have suffered a decreasing volume of fish catches and reduced water levels that greatly affects their lives (International Rivers). Sticklor explained that “Those dams also provide China with enormous geopolitical leverage over downstream nations […] Chinese floodgates and spillways essentially give Beijing de facto control over Southeast Asia’s water security” (2010).
China is developing dramatically, and it needs more and more energy and water resources. Recently, China’s total energy demand surpassed the United States. The International Energy Agency (IEA), an organization that examines the full spectrum of energy problems, predicted that “Per-capita energy consumption also grows, by one-quarter through to 2040, overtaking that of the European Union by around 2035” (2017). As a result, since a long time ago, China has kept developing the Mekong River and they have built 15 large-scale dams on the Upper Mekong in Tibet and Yunnan by 2010 (Sticklor, 2010). Those dams generate large amounts of electricity and China relies on them as an energy resource.
Following the action of developing the Mekong River, in 1957, downstream countries established the Mekong Commission (MRC), an international organization to save and discuss issues related to the Mekong. According to an article written by Donald Weatherbee, “the hopeful philosophy underpinning the Commission’s work was that the harnessing of the river would be the key to solving major problems of the riparian nations stemming from poverty and political instability” (1997). The Mekong Commission might provide good opportunities to solve issues, but it does not have enough effect. This is because China didn’t join it. In the words of Weatherbee, “China’s longer-term development plans for the region have made it hesitant to participate in any internationalization of the Mekong Basin that might have oversight functions” (1997). As a result, downstream countries can’t complain about their situation effectively.
Downstream countries require help from other countries and International organizations. If all countries around the Mekong River have opportunities to discuss the uses of their collective water resource, the problems would be getting better, little by little, like the situation around the Nile River. For pursuing fair discussion, transparency of information is necessary. How can they achieve transparency? The answer is getting help from a third party including other countries or international organizations (Nakayama, 2002).
International cooperation would be the only way to get China to behave differently and come closer to resolving this issue. International cooperation can establish a sustainable and beneficial system for all countries involved. In the Nile case, international cooperation has started to work. Therefore, countries, such as those around the Mekong River, need to learn from the progress that others have made. Water is not only for specific people, and all countries around a river need to discuss and share this limited resource in order to establish a good relationship between them.
Abadir M. Ibrahim, The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement: The Beginning of the End of Egyptian Hydro-Political Hegemony, 18 Mo. Envtl. L. & Pol’y Rev. 282 (2011) Available at: http://scholarship.law.missouri.edu/jesl/vol18/iss2/4
Nakayama, M. (2002). International Collaboration on Water Systems in Asia and the Pacific: A Case of Transition. International Review for Environmental Strategies, 3(2), 274–282.
International Energy Agency (2017). World Energy Outlook 2017: China. Retrieved from https://www.iea.org/weo/china/
International Rivers. Mekong Mainstream Dams. Retrieved from https://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/mekong-mainstream-dams
Jica. Water resource problem between the Nile basin countries. Retrieved from https://www.jica.go.jp/project/egypt/0702252/news/column/20101221.html
Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/rival
Sticklor, R. (2010). Managing the Mekong: Conflict or Compromise? Retrieved from https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2010/12/managing-the-mekong-conflict-or-compromise/
Water, Land and Ecosystems. Retrieved from https://wle.cgiar.org/content/russell-sticklor
Weatherbee, D. E. (1997). Cooperation and Conflict in the Mekong River Basin. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 20(2), 167. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.skagit.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9706104658&site=ehost-live
Swain, A. (2011). Challenges for water sharing in the Nile basin: changing geo-politics and changing climate. Hydrological Sciences Journal/Journal Des Sciences Hydrologiques, 56(4), 687–702. https://doi.org/10.1080/02626667.2011.577037