Those who forecast the planet’s future under accelerated climate change often point to declining water resources as one of their worst fears. 

Particularly worrisome is the possibility that disputes over shared water resources (a river that flows through a few different countries, for example) may breed conflict. President Obama mentioned this possibility specifically in his recent national security speech at West Point.

One of the best methods for reducing the chances of such conflict is to fashion treaties among countries that share water resources. To date, hundreds of such treaties have been signed.

But, as new research from the World Bank demonstrates, not all of these treaties are created equal. The robustly titled report, “Climate Change, Conflict, and Cooperation: Global Analysis of the Resilience of International River Treaties to Increased Water Variability” by Shlomi Dinar, David Katz, Lucia De Stefano, and Brian Blankespoor, studies the factors that have governed successful water-sharing treaties and the countries which have entered into them.

Studying existing treaties

To do this, the World Bank team looked at all water-sharing treaties ratified between 1948 and 2001 and isolated the pairs of countries that were party to those treaties.

The report looked at the University of Oregon’s International Water Events Database and coded related events along a spectrum of conflict and cooperation. It then compared those events to the specifics of the treaties agreed upon between the nations in questions. From that dataset,  it tried to isolate the specifics on what most encouraged cooperation between nations.

The report’s conclusion fit into the larger debate over whether resource scarcity (when the expected access to resources skews far away from historical experience) encourages cooperation or conflict. While some observers have spoken rhetorically of water wars, others have pointed to a fairly sturdy history of cooperation on water resources between such historical rivals as India and Pakistan.

What this World Bank research shows is that the historical reality is not quite as binary as that debate suggests. Rather, scarcity at an initial stage will encourage cooperation as rational nations (including democracies as well as authoritarian governments) attempt to husband resources.

Over time, however, the scarcity may reach such a critical level that it erodes the basis for cooperation, sending relations from amiable to adverse quite quickly.

Finding common ground

Of the treaties that are successful in encouraging cooperation, what are their common characteristics? The World Bank research suggests particular sharing and institutional mechanisms built into treaties lay the ground for effective dispute management and resolution. The two watchwords the Bank offers are specificity and flexibility in terms of how much water is being shared. 

In other words, if a joint resource is to be divided between two nations, there should be a specific allotment given to each laid out in the black and white of the treaty text (such as “Country A and Country B are both entitled to water from River X in perpetuity”). 

Yet, when discussing a resource like water, the amount of which is often seasonally dependent on rainfall feed-in (and may become more erratic as climate change advances), it makes most sense for that allocation mechanism not to be in fixed amounts (“thousands of gallons to Country A and B per year”) but, for example, as a percentage of total volume of a river (“a 50-50 split of what is available”).

As for institutional mechanisms, the more a treaty removes any water decisionmaking from the day-to-day process of participating governments, the likelier it is that disagreements will be settled through pre-approved diplomatic channels. 

To take one example, the Indus Water Treaty, governing the allocation of vital resources that flow through India and Pakistan, has held up remarkably well despite the historical enmity between the two parties involved. A great deal of the credit goes to the Permanent Indus Commission, which effectively de-politicizes the process of managing any issues that arise.

While the World Bank has laid out an impressive dataset to argue for what makes a resilient treaty, the implications of these conclusions for anticipating climate disruptions is sobering.  It suggests that even the most stable of bilateral resource management relations may be susceptible to tensions arising from historic disjunctures between actual availability of water and what was agreed to in prior treaties.  It also means that diplomacy must be more tightly focused on the quality of agreements, both those already in force and those that might be adopted in the future.