Science - October 6, 2009

Mediation often pointless in water conflicts

Two countries with a water conflict may be better off without a mediator. The dispute drags on even longer if the mediator does not have a clear allocation formula.

The Ganges River
This conclusion comes from Erik Ansink who graduated last week from the Environmental Economics group. He had applied the game theory to water conflicts. An example of a counter-productive mediation was the first American intervention in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours concerning the waters in the Jordan River. The US had failed to define the water rights properly. This had resulted in different expectations about sharing, Ansink says. The conflict only watered down when a plan was devised to share the water based on the amount of irrigated land in the surrounding countries. That one clear measurable criterion led to a sustainable treaty.
Those disputing over water would do good to realize that the quantity of water varies from year to year. 'This sounds logical', says Ansink, 'but the variability does not play a role in many water treaties.' Countries agree on an allocation formula for the average quantity of water. But when the quantity decreases, this formula does not seem to benefit any one or both of the parties.
You could question this aspect. Take the example of the sharing of the Ganges waters between India and Bangladesh. The many treaties signed by both countries since 1972 were broken again and again. Interventions from the United Nations were of no avail. Since 1996, the countries go by a treaty in which the quantity of water in the river is measured. In dry periods, a division percentage is used which is different from that used in wet periods. That treaty has since been honoured 'with varying degrees of success', says Ansink.
Water conflicts are complex. Ansink simplifies the conflicts by using the game theory. 'You reduce the water conflicts to a game in which both players play to win by getting as much out of the water as possible.'
As far as he is aware, no wars had been fought concerning water - 'except one, four thousand years ago' - but water scarcity is often the reason for conflicts among countries.
Erik Ansink graduated on 29 September from Prof. Ecco van Ierland's Environmental Economics and Natural Resources group.