Politics and Control of Flow Across Borders
Rivers are not restricted by state and national borders, whereas dams are rarely constructed or managed by collaboration between governments. As a result, alteration, interruption, and control of river discharge by dams naturally leads to political and legal conflict. In the case of the Colorado River, which we will cover in more detail in Module 8 (Cities in Peril), the allocation of water between states within the drainage basin is governed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Allocation of water between the U.S. and Mexico is governed by an international treaty established in 1944 and recently revised in 2012. Even though well established, the water allocation of the Colorado, and its fairness are widely debated. The compact is also the focus of lawsuits over water rights for Native American reservations, which were not explicitly included in the original agreement. Court battles have also arisen over other river flows in recent years (for example in Florida and Georgia, and along the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers) pitting access for communities or farmers against minimum limits on flow required to support endangered species.
Globally, other rivers and dams are the source of equal – or more – controversy. As one example, at the 1992 opening ceremonies for the Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates River in Turkey, the president of Turkey is reported to have said, "Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey’s rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey’s, the oil resources are theirs. We don’t say we share their oil resources, and they can’t say they share our water resources." The conflict over waters of the Tigris-Euphrates continues (you can listen to a story about this dispute here). Dams and control of river flows in the headwaters of the river system, and subsequent impacts on water access to supply populations with drinking water, to grow food, and support industry in the downstream nations of Iraq and Syria, are at the heart of the dispute. Similar tensions are now arising along the Mekong River between China (upstream) and downstream neighboring countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that rely on the river.