Water, the depleting resource, has gained an important position in the geopolitics of the world. Life on earth depends heavily on this natural resource particularly in human life water has relevance in all spheres of life ranging from domestic use, agriculture to religious patterns.

History has many examples of the influence of water on the growth of civilisation. The Roman Empire, Egyptian Civilisation, the Umayyad Dynasty, etc. all flourished around rivers, and all developed because of easy access to water, which provided their population with the means to survive and expand.

With the passage of time, water in rivers has been reducing and alarming the world about a serious shortage of it. The water scarcity problem appears severe, with 97 per cent of the world’s water stored in oceans, making it useless for agricultural usage, industrial purposes and for human consumption, whilst only 3 per cent of the world’s water is fresh, with a further 2 per cent stored in ice caps, glaciers and inaccessible underground aquifers. Even the remaining one per cent of freshwater (lakes, rivers, swamps) has limited availability with 0.36 per cent considered inaccessible. Every individual needs a minimum of 50 litres of water a day for drinking, washing, cooking and sanitation according to UN estimates. The world is, therefore, mainly reliant on precipitation for its supply of fresh water, and the inconsistency in rainfall can make the situation critical in some areas.

Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource owing to the growing global population, changing water technologies and the impending impacts of climate change on it. Further, Professor Malgosia Fitzmaurice, in her Hague lectures on the ‘Protection of the Environment’, identifies four main problems concerning water supplies: (a) shortage of renewable supplies; (b) unequal distribution of supplies; (c) problems of water quality and health, and (d) disastrous effects of unrestricted construction of dams and reservoirs.

As forecasts for future life suggest that water would become even more essential for human survival and progress in the current century. The risk of rivers drying up can lead to serious conflicts based on water issues. Therefore, upper-riparian nations normally build their arguments on the bases of “absolute territorial sovereignty”, claiming the right to do whatever with the water regardless of its effect on other riparian nations. Lower-riparian nations generally begin with a claim to the “absolute integrity of the river,” claiming that upper-riparian nations can do nothing that affects the quantity or quality of the commonly shared watercourse. In fact, absolute sovereignty accords the riparian countries absolute freedom to use international water resources within their territories, stemming from their sovereignty over the territory. Absolute territorial integrity is the diametrical opposite of absolute sovereignty: it means that no single basin state may influence the quantity and quality of shared water resources.

No doubt, water law is an important international topic of legislation. The United Nations (UN) has held several important conventions on water law. They set many new standards in international water law, such as the “no-harm rule,” and “equitable utilization.” Conventional international law empowers international actors by legitimising their claims while also limiting the claims they are able to make.

The United Nations General Assembly codified the rule of ‘Equitable Utilization’ in Article 5 of its United Nations Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The Assembly approved the UN Convention on May 21, 1997. Article 5 demands from watercourse nations to utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization and benefits consistent with adequate protection in the watercourse. It also stresses that watercourse nations shall participate in the use, development, and protection of an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. The right to participate includes both the right to utilize the watercourse and the duty to cooperate in its protection and development.

The rule of ‘Equitable Utilization,’ based on the concept that an international drainage basin is a coherent legal and managerial unit, embodies a theory of restricted sovereignty under which each nation recognizes the right of all riparian nations to use water from a common source and the obligation to manage their uses so as not to interfere unreasonably with other riparian nations. Nations often allocate water under this International water law that enables the nations to peacefully share a river basin and the waters it contains.

The UN Convention also embraced a second principle, termed as ‘No-Harm Rule,’ in its Article 7, which call for watercourse nations, in utilizing an international watercourse, to take all “appropriate measures” to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse nations. If significant harm, nevertheless, is caused to another watercourse nation, the nation whose use causes such harm must, in the absence of an agreement for the use, take all appropriate measures, having due regard for the provisions of Articles 5 in consultation with the affected nation, to eliminate or mitigate the harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.

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Muhammad Nawaz Khan is Research Officer at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Islamabad. His areas of research include Russian foreign and defense policy with special focus on Pakistan, Counter-Radicalization, and Afghanistan.