Rhett B. Larson
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.
Increased water variability is one of the most pressing challenges presented by global climate change. A warmer atmosphere will hold more water and result in more frequent and more intense El Niño events. Domestic and international water rights regimes must adapt to the more extreme drought and flood cycles resulting from these phenomena.
Laws that allocate rights to water, both at the domestic level between water users and at the international level between nations sharing transboundary water sources, are frequently rigid governance systems ill-suited to adapt to a changing climate. Often, water laws allocate a fixed quantity of water for a certain type of use. At the domestic level, such rights may be considered legally protected private property rights or guaranteed human rights. At the international level, such water allocation regimes may also be dictated by human rights, as well as concerns for national sovereignty. These legal considerations may ossify water governance and inhibit water managers’ abilities to alter water allocations in response to changing water supplies. To respond to water variability arising from climate change, such laws must be reformed or reinterpreted to enhance their adaptive capacity. Such adaptation should consider both intra-generational equity and intergenerational equity.
One potential approach to reinterpreting such water rights regimes is a stronger emphasis on the public trust doctrine. In many nations, water is a public trust resource, owned by the state and held in trust for the benefit of all citizens. Rights to water under this doctrine are merely usufructuary—a right to make a limited use of a specified quantity of water subject to governmental approval. The recognition and enforcement of the fiduciary obligation of water governance institutions to equitably manage the resource, and characterization of water rights as usufructuary, could introduce needed adaptive capacity into domestic water allocation laws. The public trust doctrine has been influential even at the international level, and that influence could be enhanced by recognizing a comparable fiduciary obligation for inter-jurisdictional institutions governing international transboundary waters.
Legal reforms to facilitate water markets may also introduce greater adaptive capacity into otherwise rigid water allocation regimes. Water markets are frequently inefficient for several reasons, including lack of clarity in water rights, externalities inherent in a resource that ignores political boundaries, high transaction costs arising from differing economic and cultural valuations of water, and limited competition when water utilities are frequently natural monopolies. Legal reforms that clarify property rights in water; specify the minimum quantity, quality, and affordability of water to meet basic human needs and environmental flows; and mandate participatory and transparent water pricing and contracting could allow greater flexibility in water allocations through more efficient and equitable water markets.
Matti Nummelin and Niko Urho
Conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity have been in the center of policy creation for half a century. The main international biodiversity conventions and processes include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its protocols, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention), the World Heritage Convention (WHC), the Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), and the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW). The governance of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) is also discussed, as political focus has shifted to the protection of the oceans and is expected to culminate in the adoption of a new international convention under the United Nations Convention on Law of Seas (UNCLOS). Other conventions and processes with links to biodiversity include the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF).
Despite the multitude of instruments, governments are faced with the fact that biodiversity loss is spiraling and international targets are not being met. The Earth’s sixth mass extinction event has led to various initiatives to fortify the relevance of biodiversity in the UN system and beyond to accelerate action on the ground. In face of an ever more complex international policy landscape on biodiversity, country delegates are seeking to enhance efficiency and reduce fragmentation by enhancing synergies among multilateral environmental agreements and strengthening their science−policy interface. Furthermore, biodiversity has been reflected throughout the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and is gradually gaining more ground in the human rights context. The Global Pact for the Environment, a new international initiative that is aiming to reinforce soft law commitments and increase coherence among environmental treaties, holds the potential to influence and strengthen the way biodiversity conventions function, but extensive discussions are still needed before concrete action is agreed upon.
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.
James B. London
Coastal zone management (CZM) has evolved since the enactment of the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, which was the first comprehensive program of its type. The newer iteration of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), as applied to the European Union (2000, 2002), establishes priorities and a comprehensive strategy framework. While coastal management was established in large part to address issues of both development and resource protection in the coastal zone, conditions have changed. Accelerated rates of sea level rise (SLR) as well as continued rapid development along the coasts have increased vulnerability. The article examines changing conditions over time and the role of CZM and ICZM in addressing increased climate related vulnerabilities along the coast.
The article argues that effective adaptation strategies will require a sound information base and an institutional framework that appropriately addresses the risk of development in the coastal zone. The information base has improved through recent advances in technology and geospatial data quality. Critical for decision-makers will be sound information to identify vulnerabilities, formulate options, and assess the viability of a set of adaptation alternatives. The institutional framework must include the political will to act decisively and send the right signals to encourage responsible development patterns. At the same time, as communities are likely to bear higher costs for adaptation, it is important that they are given appropriate tools to effectively weigh alternatives, including the cost avoidance associated with corrective action. Adaptation strategies must be pro-active and anticipatory. Failure to act strategically will be fiscally irresponsible.