In the past few years, transboundary issues have attracted increasing attention from politicians, public service officials, academics, interest groups and increasingly the public. Recent controversial headlines such as “Global Water Crisis Looms”1 “America is Thirsty”2 and reports such as “Water in the West Under Pressure”3 are bringing the governance challenges of transboundary water issues to the attention of policy makers. Although transboundary water issues have faced policy makers in Canada and the United States for decades and have ebbed and flowed from the agendas of federal and subnational governments, there is a pressing sense that emerging challenges will require new approaches in the North American and global context.
The United Nations General Assembly, in December 2003, proclaimed the years 2005 to 2015 as 'Water for Life', the International Decade for Action. Transboundary issues were identified as 1 of 11 key water issues. In that same year, UNESCO published The World Water Development Report which outlined the international context and mega trends which affect water internationally – geopolitical changes, population growth, agriculture, energy, economic growth, urbanization, climate change and technological change. These pressures are being felt in unique ways in transboundary water basins. Despite the profileration of international agencies with water related mandates (UNEP, UNDP, UNESCO, WHO, World Bank, Global Water Partnership, the World Water Council, Global Alliance for Water Security), the complexities of transboundary water issues strain the capabilities of global institutions, domestic governments and non-governmental organizations.
In addition to a profileration of organizations with mandates related to transboundary water governance, there is a growing literature outlining the scale of these challenges. The UN Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements contains a historical overview and listing of more than 300 international freshwater agreements. The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database project at Oregon State University defines transboundary waters as watersheds which cross the political boundaries of two or more countries.4 Using this definition, there are 263 transboundary basins globally. Some like the Danube are shared by 17 countries, others like the Congo, Niger, Nile and Rhine are shared by 9 or more countries.5 These basins face similar governance challenges related to scale, multiple jurisdiction, multiple uses, scientific complexity and uncertainty. Despite these challenges, the historical evidence indicates the governance story has been one of cooperation rather than conflict and that there is much to learn from these transboundary governance experiments.
There is a growing interdisciplinary community of interest related to transboundary water governance in Canada. A small subset of this larger community co-sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada and McMaster University gathered on November 4, 2005 to discuss transboundary water governance. This brief report is an attempt to synthesize a wide-ranging discussion of transboundary water governance issues by this interdisciplinary group of academics from several different Canadian and American universities involved in various aspects of research related to water governance and transboundary governance more broadly. It focuses primarily on the Canadian-American context and more specifically the Great Lakes context although several participants made contributions and drew on references from beyond this context and all agreed that transboundary issues are emerging beyond the Great Lakes context.
1 “Global Water Crisis Looms”, Edmonton Journal, November 17, 2005
2 “America is Thirsty”, MacLeans, December 5, 2005: 26-30.
3 “Water in the West Under Pressure”, Fourth Interim Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, November 2005.
4 Aaron T. Wolf “Transboundary Waters: Sharing Benefits, Lessons Learned” paper presented at the International Conference on Freshwater, Bonn 2001. See also Aaron T. Wolf “The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database Project”, Water International, 24(2), 1999: 160-163; http://www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu/