Rivers pay no mind to political boundaries. If unimpeded by dams and diversions, they flow naturally from mountain headwaters to the sea, crossing borders both within and between countries as if political maps did not exist.
f the world is to meet growing food, energy, and consumer demands over the coming years while sustaining the ecosystems that support life on the planet, we will need to think more like watersheds and less like states or nations. Only in this way can we get more benefit out of every drop of Earth’s finite water.
As a river flows toward the sea, it can generate hydroelectric power in its upper reaches, irrigate crops in the valleys, supply drinking water to cities and towns, and sustain recreation and fisheries from headwaters to the coastal zones. But we can only optimize the benefits that rivers provide if we work together – and across borders – to secure and share them.
This is not easy to do. It requires both a new mindset about water and a quantum leap in cooperation, the theme of this year’s World Water Day.
Worldwide there are now 276 river basins encompassing two or more countries. Europe’s Danube is shared by eighteen nations, Africa’s Nile by eleven, Asia’s Indus by five, and North America’s Colorado by two.
Rarely are there treaties that set out how the flows of these international rivers should be shared by all the parties in the basin. A 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan, for example, divvies up the entire flow of the Nile, but doesn’t allot any water to the other basin countries – including Ethiopia, which contributes 84 percent of the Nile’s total flow. Far from solving water disputes, such a treaty can fuel them.