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The Overlooked Perspective of Midriver States in Transboundary Basins

IWRA World Water Congress 2017 - Cancun Mexico
A. Bridging science and policy
Author(s): Claire "Aletta" Brady
Claire "Aletta" Brady
U.S. National Commission for UNESCO Youth Working Group

Keyword(s): transboundary basins, Nile river basin


What is the unique perspective that midriver states bring to transboundary freshwater negotiation and allocation processes?

The majority of research on transboundary freshwater cooperation has failed to consider the distinct perspective of midriver states. Most academic literature on transboundary basins classifies states solely as upriver or downriver, even in instances where countries, geographically and behaviorally, are midriver—countries that have water from a discrete river flowing both into and out of their territory. Midriver states have a more complex perspective of their “rights” based on their combined upstream/downstream interests.

This study uses social science methods including in-depth personal interviews, reviewing relevant literature and process tracing—a scientific technique that breaks down a causal relationship into smaller links to identify a larger causal chain—to explore the unique perspective of midriver states on freshwater management and distribution. It utilizes the Nile River basin as a case study because of its long historical negotiation process and the presence of multiple midriver states (Sudan, Uganda, South Sudan). Academic literature has generally classified Sudan and Uganda as downriver states, but the countries’ actions and official statements over the course of the past century warrant a more complex analysis.

The initial phases of this research show that, in the Nile River basin, midriver states’ interests are equally inconsistent with upstream and downstream states. Rather, their actions are, quite literally, caught in the middle. Midriver states want both to preserve water flow into their territory from upstream neighbors, and to utilize the water within their boundaries before it flows downstream.

This paper addresses problems that occur where transnational basin agreements and negotiations are approached in a bilateral paradigm. In these parameters, negotiators will likely miss key interests and perspectives of intermediary stakeholders. A bilateral negotiation framework puts midriver states in the untenable position of choosing which neighbor to side with, even if their interests do not fully align with any. This can lead to midriver states reneging on agreements, or shifting allegiances, as seen in the Nile basin. This project has important implications for transnational freshwater negotiation and could lead to decreasing regional tensions.

As the effects of climate change, drought, and large-scale natural disasters continue to increase, water scarcity and shortages will become increasingly common, making successful transboundary freshwater management a global imperative. This analysis is necessary to inform scientists and policy makers about the unique hydrologic data needed to facilitate equitable and sustainable management of transboundary river basins. Midriver states, with distinct interests from their upriver and downriver neighbors, must have data collection tailored to their particular situation, and be able to communicate and act consistently with their unique interests.

Accordingly, a new trilateral framework encompassing the midriver classification should be utilized to better describe the relationships and interests of nations in the midriver position. There are 263 global transboundary rivers that are prone to resource depletion. Midriver states can provide insight into addressing disputes and conflicts concerning any number of transboundary environmental issues. 

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