Countries that selfishly use shared rivers threaten political stability at a time when water is scarce and demand is growing, a conservation group has warned.
Disputes over shared rivers such as the Tigris and the Euphrates could be resolved if nations put borders aside and viewed the entire river basin as a unit instead, they added.
In the past, some states have built dams or siphoned water from rivers for irrigation without consulting neighbours downstream – stirring political tension.
“The question countries must face is are they interested only in holding all the water themselves and living in a destabilized region, or do they wish to share the water and co-operate?” said Mark Smith, head of the water program of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a body funded by states, and NGOs.
Rivers shared by more than one country provide about 60 per cent of the world’s fresh water. There are 260 international river basins in the world, covering half of the Earth’s surface and home to 40 per cent of the world’s population.
Traditionally the focus in negotiations over shared rivers has been how to apportion water. Once the water is divided each country tries to optimize water use within its borders, rather than across the shared basin, the IUCN said.
By working jointly, countries could reap better economic benefits from rivers and ease political tensions.
Turkey, hosting the triennial World Water Forum in Istanbul, is home to the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris, which form a river basin flowing through Syria and Iraq before draining into the Gulf from Iraq. Wrangling over the rivers is long standing.
Smith said some countries co-operate well, such as Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal which share the Senegal River, while the Volta River is shared by six West African states.
“The Rhine for example used to be a huge source of dispute between France, Germany and the Netherlands, particularly over pollution… institutions were set up and now the river is co-ordinated and is a clean river again.”
In states where huge dams have been built to the detriment of other nations downstream, the flows of the dams could be altered to allow rivers to replicate their previous natural patterns, Smith said, which would help restore ecosystems.