Late last year, by Lake Victoria’s north shore in Kampala, Uganda, the 53 member states of the Commonwealth of Nations signed an agreement that lays out a shared understanding of climate change and the policies needed to address it. While the plan is a critical step forward for sustainability, Victoria is more than a backdrop: it is the world’s second-largest freshwater lake and an important ecosystem that has supported considerable biodiversity ; still serves as a crucial resource for the region in terms of food, water, and livelihoods; and forms a boundary between Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. And, as with most other lacustrine ecosystems with international borders, it is bedeviled by a long list of environmental problems, including climate change. Successful ecosystem management of such water bodies hinges on the ability of neighboring countries to work together, adapting to environmental impacts through multilateral institutions or regimes.
While the international community has been developing regimes to address various global environmental problems for decades, the hard work of fixing ecosystems will depend greatly on regional efforts. Large lakes often serve as borders between countries and experience a myriad of economic and environmental problems that can only be solved cooperatively. In addition to Lake Victoria, transboundary lakes include Lake Titicaca (between Peru and Bolivia), the Caspian Sea (between Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan), the Aral Sea (bordering Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan), and the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes (for a comprehensive database, click here. They face not only resource competition over fisheries, potable water, navigation, and irrigation but also environmental challenges such as low or high water levels, excess nutrients, industrial discharges, sedimentation, invasive species, loss of native biodiversity, and salinization. Such stressors, however, do not make conflict a foregone conclusion: joint management of resources by antagonistic states has in some cases led to a decrease in hostility (see here and here).
Issues specific to a region require regional responses. The environmental problems Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya wrestle with in Lake Victoria include exotic species, overfishing, detrimental land use practices, and eutrophication , as well as declining lake levels . Several organizations exist to address these problems, including the Lake Victoria Basin Commission and the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization. The introduction in the 1950s of the exotic Nile perch (Lates niloticus) gave rise to booming export fisheries but also had adverse effects on biodiversity in the lake; it is now an infamous example of introduced species gone awry. But the negative attention given to it hides a good deal of regime building and capacity that is now in place in the region (see, for example, the Lake Victoria Research Initiative). The International Lake Management Committee describes progress and mid-term status of several cooperative efforts between the governments that share the resource, and local authorities across borders are now building complementary efforts. The Lake Victoria Basin Commission and Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization are also investigating a possible “twinning” project with the International Joint Commission and the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission in North America.
On the other side of the globe, North America’s Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world, with 18 percent of Earth’s freshwater. These lakes also face a host of environmental problems, including invasive species, eutrophication, decreasing water levels, shoreline development, loss of habitat, and pollution. The United States and Canada have developed a series of interrelated bilateral regimes to address these problems, including the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Binational Toxics Strategy, Lakewide Management Plans, and various commissions (including the International Joint Commission, and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission). These have been seen as models of cooperative resource management around the world, and analogous regimes have been created for other multilateral lakes (such as the International Commission for the Protection of Lake Geneva, formed by the Swiss and French governments, and the Estonian-Russian Transboundary Water Commission, which negotiates the management of Lake Peipus. Although the evidence points to a strong cooperative spirit among these programs (click here for a look at the status of joint U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes programs), some issues, such as aquatic invasive species, shoreline development, and climate change, either are not being covered adequately or have no bilateral regimes established to address them specifically. Yet the two governments anticipated such emerging issues in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, mandating periodic performance reviews and allowing revisions. Past successes and challenges can be gleaned from the 2007 review of this agreement.
In contrast, central Asia’s Aral Sea has lost more than 50 percent of its size since 1950, resulting in decimated fisheries, increased salinity, microclimate changes, and dust storms (which arevisible from space). The uneven progress of restoration may be a partial result of the absence of a strong bilateral regime. In spite of numerous treaties, declarations, and institutions formed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, improvement is largely unilateral and restricted to the sea’s northern end, where the government of Kazakhstan has changed irrigation practices and canal maintenance and has dammed links to the south. As a result, water levels are rising there, salinity is decreasing, and fisheries are rebounding. But management of the larger southern segment has been effectively abandoned: the water supply is too closely wedded to the Uzbek cotton export industry, and the oil industry is exploring the former lakebed’s southern reaches.
Several resources serve as tools for consistent analysis and comparison of transboundary lake management. Oregon State University’s Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database provides spatial and tabular data, including international freshwater treaties, case studies of conflict resolution, maps, events, and bibliographic information. Regions can seek international support to address conflicts over transboundary water issues from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “From Potential Conflict to Co-operation Potential” program and the Global Environment Facility, a multilateral organization that assists developing countries in creating or meeting the objectives of conventions, treaties, and agreements (see its “International Waters” focal area). UNESCO also provides freshwater resources at its water portal.
As water scarcity and climate effects begin to dominate policy debates, the lessons of existing regional regimes will only prove more valuable. Such projects hold the potential to recognize the successes and failures of others, as well as the institutional structures that can give each region valuable lessons in what works and where to seek help.
JOHN HAUGLAND is an environmental protection specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office. The views expressed here do not represent those of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.