International rivers and river basins

International rivers and river basins are subjects of international Law which regulates the status of those rivers and basins and is the reference in case disputes are sparked off. The main reason behind the classification of certain rivers as international is to open them for navigation and transportation as well as preventing any country from taking control over the whole river and hurting neighboring riparian states that are using the river. While the navigation rights through international rivers have been institutionalized in the international law, the other rights that have to do with the resources of the river such as water for irrigation and Hydropower are still being discussed to the extent that the latest convention of water sources, the UN convention, is not ratified by the majority of countries. My paper is divided into two parts. The first part is devoted to the definition of the key concepts of international law. The second part is devoted to two case studies of International Rivers which are: the Euphrates and the Nile. Both of the rivers are international, the former is used intensively by the upstream country, Turkey, leaving the downstream countries at its mercy, while the latter is used mostly by the downstream country, Egypt, leaving the upstream countries keen on changing the status quo.

Definitions of Key Concepts

According to Martin Glassner and Chuck Fahrer “international rivers are rivers shared by two or more countries"(318), while the “internationalized rivers are those that, by treaty or other formal arrangement, have been opened to navigation by vessels of states in addition to those of the riparians, even if they lie entirely within the territory of a single country" (Martin Glassner , 318). The International Rivers are chiefly used for navigational purposes such as transportation of goods and people in addition to exploiting the resources of the river mainly water for irrigation as well as generating electricity. The only barrier set up in rivers navigation is against stateless people who do not hold any passport (318) or a vessel that is not innocent. Beside Rivers, there are also basins which can be defined as an important geographical area that is also subject to international law so as to prevent such conflicts over “competing uses, waste of water, soil erosion, water and soil pollution, salinization and waterlogging of over irrigated-land, destruction of wildlife habitats, overfishing, unnecessarily destructive floods…" (Martin Glassner, 322).

The internationalization of rivers was an early process that started in Europe, particularly in Italy, during the eleventh and twelfth century (Martin Glassner, 319), and the issue of navigation and opening rivers for transportation dates back to the treaty of 1816. (Urs Weber, 9). But the concept did not materialize until the 19 century, when such rivers as the Rhine, the Scheldt and the Meuse were internationalized for freedom of navigation (Martin Glassner, 319). Unlike the issue of navigation, the process of opening international rivers for non-navigation purposes did not occur until 1999, and even at that time there is no consensus over the law in terms of its points. For instance, since 2006, only 14 out of 35 signatory countries ratified the UN convention (Shlomi Dinar, 40).

The most significant convention that addresses the use of watercourses is the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International watercourses (UNCIW) signed in 1997. The convention has 35 articles that deal with the use of International Rivers, but the two most important articles are Article 5 and Article 7. Article 5 stipulates the rights of riparian states not to be harmed by any country from its use of the river while Article 7 describes the rights of riparian countries to use the river under the principle of sovereignty. The two articles deal with the concepts of absolute territorial integrity and absolute territorial sovereignty (Shlomi Dinar, 39). For instance, Article 5 “Equitable and reasonable utilization and participation " (UNCIW) is an alternative to both the Harmon Doctrine that gives privileges to the state, particularly the upstream, to use its water without considering whether the other riparian states will be damaged by the policy or not. The second doctrine is the Natural Flow Doctrine which affirms the right of the downstream riparian states to have “the water undiminished in quantity and unmodi"ed in quality" (Murat Metin Hakki, 455).

The international law did not succeed in resolving conflicts emerging from International Rivers due to its ambiguous wordings and broad definitions (Aaron T. Wolf, 348). According to Article 7, the law does no point to any obligation upon the belligerent country for compensations but rather points to discussing the issue with the concerned riparian state. While Article 27 acknowledges only the obligation of the state to prevent any harm or damage to the riparian state (Victor Prescott and Gillian D. Triggs, 223). Another problem, besides the vagueness and ambiguity of the articles, is due to the fact that some articles are in conflict with each other (Shlomi Dinar, 8). For instance, Article 5 “Equitable and reasonable utilization and participation" (UNCIW) is in direct contrast with article 7 “Obligation not to cause significant harm" (UNCIW).

in addition to the navigation rights of innocent vessel to use international rivers, the International Law bought to the fore other rights such as “equitable and reasonable use, optimal and sustainable use, equitable participation and affirmative cooperation, obligation not to cause signi"cant harm, elimination or mitigation of harm, prior noti"cation and protection of the ecosystem" (Victor Prescott and Gillian D. Triggs, 222). The basic aim of those rights is to allow the use of the river by any country for navigational purposes as well as the tapping of the river resources by the riparian states. Although the international law is broad and vague in its tackling of the issues over international rivers, it does provide "broad guidelines and recognized principles" (Shlomi Dinar, 6) regarding the use of watercourses. Moreover, the regional treaties and agreements between riparian states provide "the specific actions to be taken by the states" (Shlomi Dinar, 6).

The Euphrates River

Figure 1 (

Euphrates along with Tigris constitutes the region of Mesopotamia, the river springs from Turkey flowing through Syria, Iraq and eventually emptying into the Shatt of al Arab in the Persian Gulf. 20% of the Euphrates basin belongs to Turkey while Syria receives 17% and Iraq 40% (Miriam R. Lowi, 136). Although Turkey receives a lot of rain, it managed to build many dams on the Euphrates under the project of the Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP project) which would provide 19 hydropower plants and 21 dams along both the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (Murat Metin Hakki, 442). The aim of the GAP is to use more water for irrigation, hydropower and above all to economically develop the regions of Eastern Turkey where the majority of Kurds live, (Murat Metin Hakki, 443).

Unlike Turkey, Syria does not get as much rain as it only receives less than 250 millimeters rainfall annually which is “the minimum amount needed for rain-fed agriculture" (Miriam R. Lowi, 136). Moreover, what makes the river vital to Syria is due to the fact that 86 % of its water sources comes from Euphrates, the dependence on the river is even greater for Iraq, a desert country (Miriam R. Lowi, 136). Both Syria and Iraq are affected by any project built on the river by the upstream country, Turkey, as it will curtail the quantity of water that both countries receive as well as polluting the water with pesticides and other chemicals (Murat Metin Hakki, 444). Consequently, an agreement is crucial to managing the river fairly by the three riparian countries. Nevertheless, the three riparian countries do not have good relations especially with turkey and Syria and also with Syria and Iraq, therefore an agreement that would resolve the problems over the river was not signed. For instance, Turkey and Syria have a history of strained relations as Syria still deems the province of Hatay as part of Syria in its official maps as well as supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and giving refuge to Ahmed Ojalan at a certain time (Shlomi Dinar, 24). While Syria and Iraq are not at ease with each other due to Baath party competition between the two countries culminating in Syria supporting Iran in the Iran-Iraq war (BBC). While the relation between Iraq and Turkey are not that strained during the Saddam era, the new Iraq whereby the Kurds are autonomous may change the political atmosphere in the region regarding the use not only of Euphrates but also of Tigris.

From the map in figure 1, it is apparent that the green areas are widespread in Eastern Turkey in contrast with the desert landscape in both Syria and Iraq. In spite of the common fate of both countries, the inability of Syria and Iraq to ally as downstream riparian states against the upstream riparian country gives Turkey a space to use the river to build projects without consulting its riparian states. Beside, Turkey states that the problem behind the protest of both Syria and Iraq from the reduction of water is not emerging from its projects on the river but rather from the inefficiency of both Syria and Iraq in terms of using the water of Euphrates to the extent of wasting it through their irrigation systems. For instance, the Syrian dam of Tabqa is not efficient in terms of storing water to generate electricity as it is not wide enough to the extent that “power shortages in major Syrian cities have become a regular occurrence." (Murat Metin Hakki, 454). All things considered, the international law is clear about the rights of the riparian states to the fair use of the Euphrates River however a lack of a regional agreement between the three countries hinders cooperation, as the international law provides only broad guidelines while treaties tend to accentuate the details over the issue.

The Nile River

Figure 2 Nile Basin Initiative, World Bank ( /AFRICAEXT/EXTREGINI/EXTAFRNILEBASINI/0,,contentMDK: 21076155~menuPK:2960065~pagePK:64168445~piPK:64168309~ theSitePK:2959951,00.html)

The Nile River is an important river which is deemed to be the longest river in the world with 6 671 km long while the basin is measured to be 2 850 000 Km. the river has three important tributaries, the White Nile, the Blue Nile and Atabra. The source of White Nile is in Burundi while the Blue Nile is in the highlands of Ethiopia, they both meet in Khartoum and converge with Atabra which starts from the Ethiopians highlands too, in the north of Sudan. (Michele Ameri)

The river basin is shared by ten countries: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Even though the river is shared by this number of countries, the allocation of the water is not proportional with Egypt receiving the most from the river while such countries as Ethiopia and those on the upper stream of the river wants to change the status quo which goes back to the British rule of Egypt.

Fugure 3

The treaties that govern the use of the Nile water goes back to 1820 when Britain made Egypt the main recipient of the Nile and reaffirmed it in 1929 when British represented the interest countries of Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) and Uganda in the river, it made Egypt favorable deals at the price of east African riparian countries (Helga Haftendorn). In 1959, when the Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters was concluded, The Permanent Joint Technical Commission was established as a supranational power that would manage the river among the riparian states. However, the body represented only Egypt and Sudan, the only countries that signed the agreement, while the other riparian states opposed to the agreement as it is on the side of Egypt (Miriam R. Lowi, 126 ). The agreement did not include the other riparian countries especially Ethiopia which is the source of 80% of the Nile water (Michele Ameri) this can be seen from figure 3 whereby the courses of the Blue Nile and Atbara are the largest in terms of quantity, both of them originated in the Ethiopian highlands, particularly in Lake Tana.

The river is vital to Egypt which can be seen from the concentration of big cities in the river such as Cairo and Aswan as evidenced in Figure 2. Egypt is home to around 80 000 population (Thanassis Cambanis) the second highest density after Nigeria in Africa, more than 62 million Egyptians live on 4% of the country`s land which is mostly around the Nile banks. (Michele Ameri). Egypt relies on the river for irrigation and even though Egypt receives 95% of the river, its irrigational and agricultural demands outweigh the Nile River supply. (Samuel Luzi, 247)

Ethiopia, being the largest damaged by the 1959 Nile agreement and being landlocked, protests the unfair distribution of the water of the Nile. While Egypt objects to any change of the status quo under the agreement that Egypt relies only on one water source the Nile while such countries as Ethiopia has diverse water sources (Thanassis Cambanis). The issue gets tense as Egypt regards any building of projects on the river or diverting its course as a matter of national security and Cassis belli.

The latest initiative made to regulate the situation of the river between the ten riparian states dates back to 1999 under the name of Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) with its headquarters in Entebbe, Uganda (Samuel Luzi, 239). The basic aim of the initiative is to allow the upper stream riparian states is to benefit from the non-navigational rights towards the basin. The change brought by the treaty is the requirement of a simple majority to build projects on the Nile. To this day Only Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda are the countries that signed the agreement whereas Egypt and Sudan are not.


International law regarding rivers although it identifies the rights of navigation and the riparian states rights to the river it is still inadequate in terms of addressing precise issues due to the vagueness and confusion articles of the UN convention. In addition to that, unlike the Rhine or the Danube River which allowed for cooperation between European states such river as the Nile and Euphrates lack cooperation between the riparian states, making reaching agreement on the use of the river difficult to reach. The international law provides basic guidelines on the use of such rivers as the Euphrates and the Nile but the lack of an agreement or treaty allowed Turkey to take full use of the Euphrates while the presence of a colonial treaty allowed the downstream country of Egypt to take the full use of the river.