Water disputes at the interstate level and settlement instruments

In the modern world the problem of international conflicts is central for the theory of international relations.

International (interstate) conflict (IC) is the direct or indirect clash of interests of two or more parties (states, group of states, political movements). Confrontations or following problems among states can be of territorial, national, religious, economic, military, scientific, technological, Е origin.

IC development phases are determined by historical and social reasons.

First phase Ц principle political attitude to such confrontations shaped in more or less acute conflict form.

Second phase Ч determination by the parties of their interests, goals, and forms of confrontation, based on their capacities.

Third phase Ч use by the parties of wide variety of economic, political, legal, diplomatic and other means, involvement in the battle of directly confronting parties of other states.

Fourth phase Ч development of battle to the most acute political degree Ц international political crisis that may affect direct parties, states in given region and other regions.

Fifth phase Ч international armed conflict.

The modern theory of international relations proceeds from the assumption that the conflict is not an anomaly but one of the forms of interaction of actors in the course of which political picture changes and is modernized.

Negotiations between states consist in establishing contacts and discussing disputable matters bilaterally. Sometimes, multilateral negotiations or international conference are organized to bring together concerned states and authoritative actors of international relations.

Consultations on disputable matters are often stipulated in treaties. Consultations like negotiations can involve states and international organizations, as well as international experts.

Fact-finding by a special commission is one of the ways for peaceful settlement of disputes. The main task is to contribute to settlement of disputes through fact-finding in unbiased manner and in good faith.

Good offices or mediation may be offered by outside parties not involved in given dispute. A state or international organization offering good offices do not take part in negotiations. In case of mediation, third party can participate in negotiation and put forward proposals on the merits of a dispute.

Conciliation as a method of dispute settlement is used rarely. Under such procedure, the parties establish a conciliation commission to make recommendations that are not legally binding for parties to the dispute.

If the above methods do not result in settlement of given dispute, the matter can be submitted to international institutions, e.g. arbitration tribunal or international court. Treaties may contain provisions on methods to be used by the parties for settlement of disputable matters.

For example, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea sets the following obligatory procedures for dispute settlement:

  • International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea,
  • International Court of Justice,
  • arbitration,
  • special arbitration.

Settlement of disputes in international arbitrations or courts is characterized by the following:

  • it is based on regulatory sources;
  • the decision made is binding.

Disputes are submitted to the International Court upon agreement of the parties. The International Court considers disputes between the states only.

There are regional international courts, e.g. European court of human rights, Economic Court of CIS, EU Court, etc. There are also specialized courts for special categories of international disputes, e.g. disputes related to pollution, etc.

International organizations are an important instrument for settlement of international disputes. Particular role is played by the main UN bodies Ц Security Council and General Assembly.

The Security Council is authorized to consider any dispute or situation that can lead to international tension so that to determine whether continuation of the dispute or situation threatens international peace and security.

According to the UN Charter, decisions of the Security Council are binging for parties to the dispute and other UN members.

The UN General Assembly can discuss any situation, which, in AssemblyТs opinion, may break commonweal or friendly relations between nations, and recommend measures for its peaceful settlement. Decisions of UN GA are nonbinding. UN GA can draw SCТs attention to any situation or international dispute.

Settlement of IC is:

  • oriented to wide circles (not only to political elite);
  • aimed to resolve contradictions rather than cover than up and reach a compromise;
  • based on a need to change deep, often psychological reasons of contradiction between parties to the conflict.

There is an expert opinion that most ICs occur because one party does not take into account basic needs of the other party. In fact, such needs are not conflicting. For instance, meeting the needs for security of one party does not imply that this should be done at the expense of security of the other party.

Therefore, for settlement of a conflict, first, one should correctly determine the basic needs underlying the conflict, and, second, find such a solution that fully meets all the parties.

Sources (in Russian) ћеждународные конфликты и международна€ безопасность
ћирное разрешение международных споров
Baranov N. Topic 3. Main conflict settlement mechanisms
—пособы урегулировани€ и разрешени€ международных политических конфликтов

Author: Rysbekov Yu. Kh., SIC ICWC

Selected bibliography

Monographs and brochures

Gehrig J., Rogers M.M. - Water and Conflict (2009) 

Gvirtzman H. - The Israeli-Palestinian Water Conflict: An Israeli Perspective (2012) 

Murzakulova A., Mestre I. - Natural Resource Management Dynamics in Boarder Communities of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (2016) 

Participatory Water Monitoring. A Guide for Preventing and Managing Conflict (2008) 

Tamas P. - Water Resource Scarcity and Conflict: Review of Applicable Indicators and Systems of Reference (2003) 

Water and Conflict. A Toolkit for Programming (2014) 


Abu JuТub G. - Water Conflicts in the Middle East Between the Present and the Future (2003) 

Brochmann M., Gleditsch N.P. - Conflict, Cooperation, and Good Governance in International River Basins (2006) 

Eidem N.T., Fesler K.J., Wolf A.T. - Intranational Cooperation and Conflict over Freshwater: Examples from the Western United States (2012) 

Houdret A. - Scarce Water, Plenty of Conflicts? Local Water Conflicts and the Role of Development Cooperation (2008) 

Haftendorn H. - Water and International Conflict (2008) 

Gleick P. - Water and Conflict (1993) 

Gleick P.H., Heberger M. - Water and Conflict Events, Trends, and Analysis (2011Ц2012) (2014) 

Mosello B. - Water in Central Asia: A Prospect of Conflict or Cooperation? (2008) 

Pak M., Wegerich Kai., Kazbekov J. - Re-examining conflict and cooperation in Central Asia: a case study from the Isfara River, Ferghana Valley (2013) 

Rahaman M.M. - The Ganges water conflict (2006) 

Salman S.M.A. - The Baglihar difference and its resolution process - a triumph for the Indus Waters Treaty? (2008) 

Sievers E.W. - Transboundary Jurisdiction and Watercourse Law: China, Kazakhstan, and the Irtysh (2002) 

The Issue of Water between Israel and the Palestinians (2009) 

Vukovich M. - The Identification of Water Conflict and its Resolution (2008) 

van der Molen I., Hildering A. - Water: cause for conflict or co-operation? (2005) 

Wolf A.T. - SharedWaters: Conflict and Cooperation (2007) 

Wolf A.T. - Water Resources Conflict Management and Transformation (2010) 

Wolf A.T., Stahl K., Macomber M.F. - Conflict and Cooperation Within International River Basins: the Importance of Institutional Capacity (2003) 

Water and Violent Conflict (2005) 

Yoffe S., Fiske G., Giordano Ma., Giordano Me., Larson K., Stahl K., Wolf A.T. - Geography of international water conflict and cooperation: Data sets and applications (2004) 

Zeitoun M., Warner J. - Hydro-hegemony Ц a framework for analysis of trans-boundary water conflicts (2006) 

Resolutions of the UN General Assembly

Resolution UN GA A/RES/65/283 Strengthening the role of mediation in the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution 


Katz D.L. - Water, Economic Growth, and Conflict: Three Studies (2008) 


Conflict over Access to Land and Water Resources within Sub-Saharan Dry Lands / Le Meur P.-Y., Hochet P., Shem M., Toure O. (2006) 

Ravnborg H.M. (Ed.) - Water and Conflict. Prevention and Mitigation in Water Resources Management (2004)