Ambiguity in Transboundary Environmental Dispute Resolution: The Israeli—Jordanian Water Agreement*

Published date01 January 2008
AuthorItay Fischhendler
Date01 January 2008
Subject MatterArticles
The neo-Malthusian premise, that conflicts
over increasingly scarce natural resources can
be expected as a result of population growth,
has given rise to the notion of water conflicts
(e.g. Homer-Dixon, 1991; Gleick, 1993) and
even water wars (Starr, 1991). Indeed, the dif-
ficulty in regulating water-sharing in river
basins (Meijerink, 1999) has led many nations
to develop water projects unilaterally (World
Water Assessment Programme, 2003). Ha-
ving said that, some of the same properties
that make water a potential flashpoint for
international conflict also allow for the possi-
bility of regional cooperation (UNEP, 2006).
A long-term broad perspective shows that
water conflicts have, to date, been successfully
addressed in general. Historically, over 3,600
treaties pertaining to different aspects of in-
ternational water exist, some 295 of them
penned since 1948 (UNEP, 2002: 3). In addi-
tion, cooperation over water in areas ridden
with conflict is often sustained; examples in-
clude the Danube and Rhine Rivers, which
survived two world wars (Brochmann &
Gleditsch, 2006).
The seemingly unlikely success of establish-
ing cooperative regimes has triggered numer-
ous extensive studies that explore what might
lead states to engage in conflict and what might
facilitate cooperation over shared freshwater
© 2008 Journal of Peace Research,
vol. 45, no. 1, 2008, pp. 91–110
Sage Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi
and Singapore)
DOI 10.1177/0022343307084925
Ambiguity in Transboundary Environmental
Dispute Resolution: The Israeli–Jordanian
Water Agreement*
Department of Geography, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Cooperation over transboundary environmental resources, water in particular, has been analyzed from
various perspectives. Each study identifies the problems of cooperation differently and suggests different
mechanisms to enhance it. Yet, the role of ambiguity, particularly significant in treaty design to resolve
environmental disputes, has thus far been overlooked. Such a focus is warranted, since many interna-
tional agreements regulating the use of natural resources are ambiguous in their schedule of resource deliv-
ery during crisis events or in their cost-sharing arrangements and may even include contradictory
resource-allocation principles while remaining vague on how to settle the contradictions. This study aims
to examine why, when, and how ambiguity is applied in agreements pertaining to natural resources, and
water in particular. The Israeli–Jordanian peace agreement, which includes an annex on water-use regu-
lation, is used as a case study. It was found that, under asymmetric power relations, when both sover-
eignty costs and uncertainty are high, several types of deliberate ambiguity were intentionally
incorporated into the treaty. Some ambiguities allowed each side to present the treaty differently at home,
thereby defusing domestic opposition, while others provided leeway to adjust the resource allocation
during a future crisis without the need to renegotiate the treaty.
* I acknowledge the Eskol Institute for partial funding of
this work. I also wish to thank David Brooks, Mark
Giordano, and Moshe Izraeli for their advice. For corre-
84925_JPR_91-110.qxd 12/14/2007 2:43 PM Page 91
resources. These studies seek to identify the
physical, economic, and political conditions
for collective action in the management of
transboundary water resources. Some of the
conditions identified are based upon the qual-
itative detailed analysis of a single case study
(e.g. Meijerink, 1999), while other studies,
though few in number, are based upon the iso-
lation of a few explanatory variables and
examine their effect through a quantitative
comparative analysis (e.g. Gleditsch et al.,
2006). As the Middle East is fertile ground for
water conflicts (Gleick, 1993), it is not sur-
prising that these studies have often focused on
the Nile, Jordan, Tigris, and Euphrates basins
and the Mountain Aquifer.
The causes of water conflicts and the
mechanisms for cooperation can be clustered
according to how the problem of reaching
cooperation is defined. For example, under-
standing this problem as a result of water
scarcity has often resulted in technological
and market solutions being suggested to
increase availability of the resource. Among
them are water and virtual water imports
(Allan, 2002) and the adoption of an inte-
grated system of management (Feitelson,
2003). In contrast to economists and engi-
neers, who often stress the physical aspects of
the system, international relations (IR) experts
argue that water conflicts are a function of
institutional and political variables, and, thus,
the solution should also address issues of pol-
itics and governance. Among the causes IR
specialists stress are the degree to which coop-
eration infringes on the state’s sovereignty over
its water sources (LeMarquand, 1977), the
effect of the scale of negotiations on the polit-
ical cost of negotiations (Fischhendler &
Feitelson, 2003), and the power structure
(Frey, 1993). While some argue that power
asymmetry is required for reaching an agree-
ment, since the more powerful parties can
forge a compromise (Spector, 2000), others
counter that a regional power that also holds
the position of an upstream riparian is better
placed to implement unilateral projects that
may become flashpoints for regional conf lict
(Wolf, 1998).
Although the means to achieve coopera-
tion over transboundary natural resources,
water in particular, have been analyzed from
many perspectives, the role of ambiguity in
resolving disputes has thus far been over-
looked. This is surprising, since many of the
agreements and conventions pertaining to the
regulation of water use are ambiguous in their
schedule of water delivery during crisis events,
in their cost-sharing arrangements, and may
even include lists of contradictory resource-
allocation principles (Giordano, 2002) while
being vague as to how to settle the contradic-
tions. The 1995 Mekong River Basin Treaty
(Sneddon & Fox, 2006), the Indo-Bangladesh
Ganges Treaty, and the Indo-Nepal 1996
Mahakli Treaty (Tiwary, 2006) are just a few
examples of the commonality of ambiguities
in water agreements. Another is the 1997 UN
Convention on Non-Navigational Use of
International Water Courses. This convention
also adopted ambiguity of a ‘basket of Hallo-
ween candy’ nature, meaning that it provides
something for everyone, enabling all sides to
claim partial victory (McCaffrey, 1998) while
not providing any tools for resolving compet-
ing claims (UNEP, 2006). Likewise, the
current implementation process of the EU
Water Framework Directive, which aims to
reconcile the different interests of member-
states and lobby groups that took part in its
creation, clearly reveals its inherent ambiguities
(Kaika & Page, 2003).
The aim of the present study is to examine
why and how ambiguity is so commonly in-
corporated in agreements pertaining to natural
resources, and water in particular. Drawing
on the Israeli–Jordanian case, an annex of
which regulates shared water, it is argued here
that several types of deliberate ambiguity may
be incorporated in treaties. One aim is to allow
each side to present the treaty differently at
home, thereby defusing domestic opposition
journal of PEACE RESEARCH volume 45 / number 1 / january 2008
84925_JPR_91-110.qxd 12/14/2007 2:43 PM Page 92

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