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Bulk Water Transfers: Panacea Or Temporary Patch?

World Water Congress 2015 Edinburgh Scotland
15. Water law
Author(s): Gabriel Eckstein
Renee Martin-Nagle

Texas A&M University School of Law1, Environmental Law Institute2

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 15: Water law,



Few doubt that availability of fresh water will be the defining issue of the future, as homes, industry, agriculture and ecosystems compete for increasingly scarce resources. Indeed, currently 800 million people worldwide lack access to sufficient supplies of drinking water, and 2.5 billion people lack water for basic sanitation. One of the fundamental causes of water scarcity is the poor global distribution of the resource, especially in arid countries. Growing populations and expanding economies will further exacerbate demand and stress dwindling supplies.

As nations confront the reality of inadequate water supplies, one interesting response has been international bulk water transfer that is achieved through variety of mechanisms, including pipelines, oceanic tankers, giant water bags, iceberg towing, and others. This presentation will explore how some nations are responding to their water needs through international bulk water transfer, analyze the pros and cons of international bulk water transfer and consider some of the legal and policy implications associated with these efforts. While sales of bottled water could be characterized as water transfers, they will not be addressed here since such transfers may be characterized more as profit-driven individual sales of a luxury item rather than a response for meeting communities' growing subsistence and economic needs.


The presenters will conduct a desk-top research into applicable literature, including news articles reporting on such transfers, and will investigate existing, proposed, and abandoned bulk water transfers and their implications.

Results and Discussion

A surprising number of international bulk water transfers have occurred or been proposed in recent years. For example, in 2008, drought in Spain's Catalonia pushed the region to temporarily purchase water from southern France via oceanic tankers. More consistently, Singapore has been buying water from Malaysia for the past eighty years, while Lesotho has been supporting the water needs of South Africa since 1998. On a more localized scale, the U.S. has engaged in bulk water transfers on both its southern and northern borders. The water utility in Nogales, AZ has been delivering water across the border to businesses in Nogales, Sonora in Mexico since the 1950s. Similarly, there are a series of municipal sale/purchase contracts between sister-cities along Canada-US border, such as from Stanstead, Quebec to Derby Line, Vermont, which also includes an arrangement for managing wastewater.

Other international bulk water transfers are being planned. An underwater pipe is nearing completion from Alakopru Dam in Turkey to Panagra/Gecitkoy in north Cyprus through the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline is expected to transport as much as 2.6 million cubic feet of water annually for fifty years. Proposals have also been made to transport water from Russia's Lake Baikal to China, from Sudan's portion of the Nile River to the Arab Gulf states, from Ethiopia to Kuwait, and from Romania to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

A review of these and other active and proposed bulk water sales evidence a variety of interests, benefits, and consequences that complicate the analysis. Among other considerations, international water transfers can provide water to countries where it is plentiful to regions where it is needed, thereby providing relief to those suffering from water scarcity. Such transfers can also engender international cooperation and facilitate health and economic well-being, thereby raising regional and global standards of living. In contrast, these transfers raise a variety of concerns, including the dewatering of ecosystems and the energy needs and greenhouse gas impacts of transporting a substance that is both heavy and bulky. In addition, artificial relocation of water can breed unsustainable economic development and population growth and create politically challenging dependencies, and may reinforce the commodification of water, which some view as anathema to the human right to water.

Further, there are legal and policy implications associated with these efforts that have yet to be fully evaluated. For example, while there is a growing consensus on the existence of a human right to water, it is unclear whether such a right extends as between nations. Absent such an obligation, states and private companies may be free to impose export bans on their domestic supplies or, alternatively, treat water as a commodity and export it for profit. Whether hoarded, transferred for altruistic purposes, or sold to the highest bidder, there is a further question of whether international water transfers should be subject to global trade rules. If bulk water transfers are treated as the sale of a commodity, the rules of the World Trade Organization ("WTO") may govern. In its 2014 World Trade Report, the WTO found that resource rich nations lag behind in social development, and that a significant percentage of sovereign wealth funds ("SWF") are supported by sales of oil and gas reserves. In some cases, the assets in a SWF are equal to the nations GDP. If water were to be commoditized in a manner similar to oil and gas, can we then expect societies in water-rich nations to suffer? What would be the impact of increased SWFs on a nation's development? The life-giving quality of water suggest that this irreplaceable substance should be administered differently from oil, mobile phones, and other goods, but the temptation to build financial reserves by increasing exports of a vital resource could be strong. Should disputes arise, would the WTO rules apply, or would international tribunals look solely to treaties and customary laws?


Bulk water transfers provide one of a number of options for augmenting water supplies. They may be a good local transboundary solution where environmental, political and other concerns can be addressed. However, the environmental impacts and energy footprint likely make long-distance transfers either economically unfeasible or logistically impracticable. Finally, bulk water transfers should not be relied upon by water-scarce nations unless political relations with the selling nation are strong to ensure consistent deliveries at reasonable cost.

Academic Material

Larson, E.L. (2011) In Deep Water: A Common Law Solution to the Bulk Water Export Problem. Minnesota Law Review, 96, 739-767.

Maravilla, C.S. (2001) The Canadian Moratorium and its Implications for NAFTA. Currents: International Trade Law Journal, 10, 29-35.

Poh Onn, L. (2003) The Water Issue Between Singapore and Malaysia: No Solution in Sight? Economics and Finance No. 1. Available at http://www.iseas.edu.sg/documents/publication/ef12003.pdf

Reiblicha, J. & Klein, C. (2014) Climate Change and Water Transfers. Pepperdine Law Review, 41, 439-478

Shaw, D. (2008) The Specter of Water Piracy: The World Trade Organization Threatening Water Security in Developing Nations. Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy, 19, 129-153.

Sindico, F. (2007) Water Export Bans for Environmental Purposes before the WTO: A Reflection of the Difficult Relationship Between Trade and Environment. Revue Hellenique de Droit International, 60, 153-172.

Smith, B.W. (2009) Water as a Public Good: The Status of Water Under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law, 17, 291-314.

Weiss, E.B. (2005) Water Transfers and International trade Law, in Weiss, et.al., Eds. Fresh Water and International Economic Law (Oxford University Press)

News Sources

Arctic Blue Waters, World Water Crisis: Lack of Clean Drinking Water Reaching Crisis Level for a Billion People. Available at http://www.arcticbluewaters.com/water_crisis.

Bacha, A. (30 Apr 2014) Ethiopia Contemplating Water Export to Kuwait. 2Merkato. Available at http://www.2merkato.com/news/alerts/2914-ethiopia-contemplating-water-export-to-Kuwait.

Blagov, S. (2 Jun 2005) China, Russia Float Idea of Selling Baikal Water. The Jamestown Foundation. Available at http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=30480#.VFOG0O8tDIV.

Circle of Blue, Bulk Water Exports. Available at http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/featured-water-stories/bulk-water-exports/.

Fox News, Cyprus Water Project a Peace Pipeline to Some, a Turkish Trojan Horse to Others (28 Feb 2014). Available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/02/28/cyprus-water-project-peace-pipeline-to-some-turkish-trojan-horse-to-others/.

Getachew, Z. (2 JUNE 2014) Sudan Plans to Export Nile Water. allAfrica. Available at http://allafrica.com/stories/201406120441.html.

Middle East Monitor (29 April 2014) Kuwait to buy Nile water from Ethiopia. Available at https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/11168-kuwait-to-buy-nile-water-from-ethiopia.

OOSKAnews (30 Apr 2014) Romanian Water Company to Export Water to Qatar, Saudi Arabia.

OOSKAnews (5 Jun 2014) Russian Scientists Say Chinese Pumping Project Will Not Harm Lake Baikal.

SouthAfrica.info, SA, Lesotho start phase two of mega water project (28 Mar 2014). Available at http://www.southafrica.info/business/economy/infrastructure/lesotho-water-280314.htm#.VFOgujTF_h4.

Sudan Tribune, Sudan Plans to Export Nile Water to Arab Gulf States: Official (1 Jun 2014). Available at http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article51201.

Walton, B. (28 Feb 2013) Alaska Legislative Committee to Discuss Bulk Water Exports. Circle of Blue. Available at http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2013/world/alaska-legislative-committee-to-discuss-bulk-water-exports/.

Walton, B. (2 Feb 2011) Alaska Bulk Water Company Receives Export Contract Extension, Wants to Split with Partner. Circle of Blue. Available at http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2011/world/alaska-bulk-water-company-receives-export-contract-extension-wants-to-split-with-partner/.

Walton, B. (27 Aug 2010) Bulk Water Company Plans to Export to India, East Asia and the Caribbean. Circle of Blue. Available at http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2010/world/bulk-water-company-plans-to-export-to-india-east-asia-and-the-caribbean/.

Yeager-Kozacek, Codi. (28 Feb 2014) Turkey-Cyprus Water Pipeline Has Political Implications. Circle of Blue. Available at http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2014/the-stream/stream-february-28-turkey-cyprus-water-pipeline-political-implications/.

Miscellaneous Resources

Brooks, D. (8 Jan 2014) Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Water within Sight. International Water Law Project. Available at http://www.internationalwaterlaw.org/blog/category/middle-east/.

Brooks, D. and Trottier, J. (Mar 2012) An Agreement to Share Water Between Israelis and Palestinians: The FoEME Proposal. Eco Peace / Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Cuthbert, A. (30 Apr 2012) A review of the arguments relating to bulk water export. Centre of Expertise for Waters. Available at: http://www.crew.ac.uk/sites/www.crew.ac.uk/files/calldownservice/Water%20Export.pdf

Spouse, T. (Feb 2005). Water Issues on the Arizona-Mexico Border: The Santa Cruz, San Pedro and Colorado Rivers. The University of Arizona. Available at http://wrrc.arizona.edu/sites/wrrc.arizona.edu/files/Water%20Issues%20on%20the%20Arizona%20Mexico%20Border.pdf.

Suarez Barnett, A. Impact of Human Beings on the Environment. Municipio de Nogales. Available at http://www.municipiodenogales.org/English/nature/ecology.htm.

Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Available at http://www.tcta.co.za/Projects/Pages/LesothoHighlands.aspx.

Weiss, S. (23 July 2009) Water, Peace and the Middle East. International Water Law Project Blog. Available at http://www.internationalwaterlaw.org/blog/2009/07/23/water-peace-and-the-middle-east/.

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