This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Developments in environmental science play a sentinel role in the continuing evolution of international water law (IWL) as a discrete field of normativity. IWL in this context refers to the rules and principles recognized by the international community as applying to shared transboundary freshwater resources, and the shared understandings upon which such rules and principles are based. For example, in the early days of IWL’s formation (e.g., during the two decades that the International Law Commission spent codifying the field), one of the key contentious issues involved the identification and definition of the appropriate unit of drainage to be subjected to international rules—the transboundary “river,” “watercourse,” or “drainage basin.” As the hydrological unity (not to mention ecological unity) of the entire drainage basin became scientifically apparent and more generally understood, it has become clear that international law should employ and focus upon the broader “drainage basin” concept.
The key substantive principles of IWL, notably the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization and the duty to prevent significant transboundary harm, though universally accepted by states, are generally understood to be somewhat vague and lacking in clear normative content. Therefore, the related procedural rules of IWL become of central significance. For example, if equitable and reasonable utilization generally requires a basin state to consider the interests of other co-basin states, the requirements to notify of planned projects, to address concerns raised and, if necessary, to enter into consultations and negotiations with potentially affected states assume great importance. Of course, in the context of projects the procedure of environmental impact assessment, based on the latest assessment techniques developed by environmental science, plays a vital role. More generally, both key rules of IWL rely upon the effective compilation and sharing of relevant hydrological and environmental / ecological information, which requires the technical means for hydrological and environmental monitoring, for the processing of large amounts of complex data, and for the communication of such data and findings.
In more recent times, the almost universal commitment of basin states to the protection of ecosystems of transboundary watercourses have been made more meaningful by means of the development by the scientific community of related scientific concepts and methodologies concerning, for example, ecosystem services (and payment for such services) and minimum environmental / ecological flows. Each of these methodological approaches can serve to facilitate effective ecological protection, but can also permit broader and more sophisticated benefit-sharing arrangements, which would allow the equitable allocation of costs and benefits, both water-related and non-water-related, and thus true implementation of the cardinal principle of IWL, the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization. Indeed, one can in some measure credit the recent ecological focus of many IWL regimes on the wealth of practice developed by scientific advisory bodies established under related multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), such as the Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP) established under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Scott M. Moore
It has long been accepted that non-renewable natural resources like oil and gas are often the subject of conflict between both nation-states and social groups. But since the end of the Cold War, the idea that renewable resources like water and timber might also be a cause of conflict has steadily gained credence. This is particularly true in the case of water: in the early 1990s, a senior World Bank official famously predicted that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water,” while two years ago Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney made a splash in North America by claiming that water would be “Asia’s New Battleground.” But it has not quite turned out that way. The world has, so far, avoided inter-state conflict over water in the 21st century, but it has witnessed many localized conflicts, some involving considerable violence. As population growth, economic development, and climate change place growing strains on the world’s fresh water supplies, the relationship between resource scarcity, institutions, and conflict has become a topic of vocal debate among social and environmental scientists.
The idea that water scarcity leads to conflict is rooted in three common assertions. The first of these arguments is that, around the world, once-plentiful renewable resources like fresh water, timber, and even soils are under increasing pressure, and are therefore likely to stoke conflict among increasing numbers of people who seek to utilize dwindling supplies. A second, and often corollary, argument holds that water’s unique value to human life and well-being—namely that there are no substitutes for water, as there are for most other critical natural resources—makes it uniquely conductive to conflict. Finally, a third presumption behind the water wars hypothesis stems from the fact that many water bodies, and nearly all large river basins, are shared between multiple countries. When an upstream country can harm its downstream neighbor by diverting or controlling flows of water, the argument goes, conflict is likely to ensue.
But each of these assertions depends on making assumptions about how people react to water scarcity, the means they have at their disposal to adapt to it, and the circumstances under which they are apt to cooperate rather than to engage in conflict. Untangling these complex relationships promises a more refined understanding of whether and how water scarcity might lead to conflict in the 21st century—and how cooperation can be encouraged instead.
Ortwin Renn and Andreas Klinke
Risk perception is an important component of risk governance, but it cannot and should not determine environmental policies. The reality is that people suffer and die as a result of false information or perception biases. It is particularly important to be aware of intuitive heuristics and common biases in making inferences from information in a situation where personal or institutional decisions have far-reaching consequences. The gap between risk assessment and risk perception is an important aspect of environmental policymaking. Communicators, risk managers, as well as representatives of the media, stakeholders, and the affected public should be well informed about the results of risk perception and risk response studies. They should be aware of typical patterns of information processing and reasoning when they engage in designing communication programs and risk management measures. At the same time, the potential recipients of information should be cognizant of the major psychological and social mechanisms of perception as a means to avoid painful errors.
To reach this goal of mutual enlightenment, it is crucial to understand the mechanisms and processes of how people perceive risks (with emphasis on environmental risks) and how they behave on the basis of their perceptions. Based on the insights from cognitive psychology, social psychology, micro-sociology, and behavioral studies, one can distill some basic lessons for risk governance that reflect universal characteristics of perception and that can be taken for granted in many different cultures and risk contexts.
This task of mutual enlightenment on the basis of evidence-based research and investigations is constrained by complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity in describing, assessing, and analyzing risks, in particular environmental risks. The idea that the “truth” needs to be framed in a way that the targeted audience understands the message is far too simple. In a stochastic and nonlinear understanding of (environmental) risk there are always several (scientifically) legitimate ways of representing scientific insights and causal inferences. Much knowledge in risk and disaster assessment is based on incomplete models, simplified simulations, and expert judgments with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. The juxtaposition of scientific truth, on one hand, and erroneous risk perception, on the other hand, does not reflect the real situation and lends itself to a vision of expertocracy that is neither functionally correct nor democratically justified. The main challenge is to initiate a dialogue that incorporates the limits and uncertainties of scientific knowledge and also starts a learning process by which obvious misperceptions are corrected and the legitimate corridor of interpretation is jointly defined.
In essence, expert opinion and lay perception need to be perceived as complementing, rather than competing with each other. The very essence of responsible action is to make viable and morally justified decisions in the face of uncertainty based on a range of scientifically legitimate expert assessments. These assessments have to be embedded into the context of criteria for acceptable risks, trade-offs between risks to humans and ecosystems, fair risk and benefit distribution, and precautionary measures. These criteria most precisely reflect the main points of lay perception. For a rational politics of risk, it is, therefore, imperative to collect both ethically justifiable evaluation criteria and standards and the best available systematic knowledge that inform us about the performance of each risk source or disaster-reduction option according to criteria that have been identified and approved in a legitimate due process. Ultimately, decisions on acceptable risks have to be based on a subjective mix of factual evidence, attitudes toward uncertainties, and moral standards.