Adaptability: the role of uncertainty in the design of international water treaties

International water treaties are one way in which countries can manage uncertainty about their water future. But treaties usually only pertain to the behavior of other treaty parties, and tend to be based on the assumption that the future unfolds in a relatively static way. But what if unexpected natural developments such as those related to climate change imply a radically different future? Treaties must then be adjusted to reflect the new realities. In an upcoming article in ‘Climatic Change’, Drieschova, Fischhendler and Giordano discuss how uncertainty is treated in international water treaties.

Interestingly, they conclude that parties to international water treaties tend to address previously unexpected impacts- such as lower available water quantities- not by changing treaties but by linking different agreements. Through bargaining and exchange – one party gets more in one place, the second party in another, the parties try to adjust to new realities. This might sound like a very good idea, but adaptation through linking does complicate the adjustment of water management regimes and is not always an available option. That is perhaps why we can be happy to see the emergence of more ‘open ended’  agreements that allow for adjustment should the necessity arise.

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