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International Cooperation

International Cooperation

Water, unlike most other natural resources, does not respect political boundaries. The natural flow of water, both on the Earth's surface and underground, routinely crosses these boundaries. When two or more sovereign countries share a watercourse, which could be a river basin , lake, or aquifer , it is considered to be an international watercourse. Most discussion about international watercourses, however, refers to river basins.

Although water is essential for all life and economic development, it is rarely distributed and shared equally by countries with international water-courses. As is demonstrated by the periodic occurrence of floods and droughts, a great annual and seasonal variation also can exist from basin to basin, and even within one basin.

More than 260 river basins in the world are international in scope.* They represent nearly half the world's total land surface and a significant share of the world's available supply of fresh water. They include many of world's largest and most important rivers, such as the Amazon, Congo, Danube, Ganges, Mekong, Nile, Rhine, and TigrisEuphrates.

With growing populations, increasing pollution , and declining groundwater availability, many countries are becoming more dependent on international watercourses. In addition, they are particularly important in arid and semiarid regions, where they may be nearly the sole source of water.

Shared Watercourses

Managing water resources is a complicated process. Watercourses typically meet a variety of economic as well as ecosystem needs, although in many cases, not enough water is available to meet all of the identified needs. International cooperation is required to ensure that the mutual benefits of a shared watercourse are maximized.

When a country's water needs are not being met in an international watercourse, the absence of cooperation is likely to result in tension. Some experts have predicted that conflicts over water might be inevitable as water scarcity increases. The potential for conflict appears to be highest in the developing world, where much of the land is either semiarid or arid, and most of the unexploited water resources are in international watercourses.


The term "hydropolitics" refers to the relationship between countries or states with regard to shared water resources, ranging from cooperation to conflict, as well as their potential. Hydropolitics reflects the mingling of hydrologic and political processes, and in some international watercourses, it is a topic of great interest and concern.

For example, in the Jordan, Nile, and TigrisEuphrates river basins, hydropolitical issues are troublesome and play a high-profile role in the inter-country relationships.* The construction of a dam in an upstream country is especially contentious. In the absence of cooperation, downstream countries typically are concerned about the impact of a dam on both the quantity and quality of the water they receive. Droughts and floods also can routinely create additional tension when countries do not have agreed-on procedures for equitably addressing them in the context of shared watercourses.

Although it has become widely accepted that cooperation among countries sharing a watercourse should lead to greater equity and more regional stability, effective international cooperation has been extremely difficult to achieve and maintain. Some countries have used their relative advantage to obtain a greater share of the water from an international watercourse. This advantage could be linked to one country having a preferred upstream position, superior military strength, or greater economic strength that has permitted it to develop the physical infrastructure, such as dams and canals, to divert and more effectively utilize shared waters.


Usually, a transboundary water treaty is at the heart of effective long-term cooperation in an international watercourse. A treaty or similar legal document, signed by all countries, should establish clear guidelines for cooperation and sharing the water as well as measures to deal with conflict.

Many transboundary water treaties have been implemented, but most are related to the navigational use of shared rivers. Yet navigation is rarely a source of tension because it is a nonconsumptive use of water and does not change the quantity and quality of water (except for possible pollution) available to other users. Regardless, few international transboundary water treaties provide the means to address fully the quantity and quality issues of shared waters as well as mechanisms to address conflict.

The United States possesses effective transboundary water treaties with both Canada and Mexico. These treaties address both water quantity and water quality issues and have led to the establishment of binational commissions to oversee the management of shared waters. Despite the friendly relations that exist between the United States and its neighbors, tensions related to shared watercourses periodically surface. Agreed-on means exist to address conflict when it arises.

International Agreements

In addition to the general absence of effective transboundary water treaties, the development of comprehensive and well-accepted international water laws, broadly covering international watercourses, has also proven to be elusive. The recent implementation of a number of treaties, protocols, and conventions on international watercourses indicates that the international community strongly supports arrangements to enhance cooperation. Some of these recent agreements call for cooperation on specific river basins, whereas others address broader regions involving multiple river basins.

1997 UN Convention.

The most notable development was the adoption in May 1997 of a United Nations (UN) Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. This Convention, which involved nearly 30 years of work by the UN International Law Commission, is important because it attempts to establish a broad, reasonable framework to address the shared use of international watercourses.

The Convention:

  • Calls for reasonable and equitable use of shared watercourses;
  • Requires countries not to do appreciable harm to others;
  • Establishes environmental protection standards;
  • Calls for the sharing of water-related information; and
  • Establishes that the linkages between surface water and groundwater need to be considered.

Yet concerns exist about the effectiveness of the Convention, because many of its requirements are vague and possibly in conflict with one another. In addition, the absence of a strong international authority with regard to international water law makes dubious the enforceability of the Convention.

UN and World Bank.

The United Nations and the World Bank have emerged in recent years as the principal proponents of international cooperation with regard to shared watercourses. The World Bank has actively brokered water-related cooperation in a number of countries. Cooperation has been a requirement of the World Bank for assisting countries in the management of international watercourses by providing them with needed technical and financial support. Other organizations that promote international cooperation include the World Water Council, the Global Water Partnership, and numerous water-related professional associations.

The Challenge to Cooperate.

A great need exists for countries to cooperate in international watercourses, many of which are experiencing ever-increasing water stress. The 1997 UN Convention clearly demonstrates that most countries agree that international cooperation is needed, although the actual levels of cooperation have fallen well short of expectations. If effective cooperation does not materialize, little doubt exists that tensions over water in many international watercourses may increase, resulting in uncertain outcomes.

see also Conflict and Water; Hydropolitics; Hydrosolidarity; Law, International Water; Rivers, Major World; Transboundary Water Treaties.

Richard H. Ives


Elhance, Arun P. Hydropolitics in the Third World: Conflict and Cooperation in International River Basins. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute for Peace, 1999.

Gleick, Peter H. The World's Water: 20002001. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000.

Salman, Salman M. A., and Laurence Boisson de Charzoures, eds. International Watercourses: Enhancing Cooperation and Managing Conflict. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1998.

Wolf, Aaron T. "Conflict and Cooperation Along Criteria International Waterways." Water Policy 1 (1998):251265.

. "Criteria for Equitable Allocations: The Heart of International Water Conflict." Natural Resources Forum 23 (1999):330.

World Bank. Water Resources Management: A World Bank Policy Paper. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1993.

Internet Resources

Wolf, Aaron T. et al. International River Basins of the World. Oregon State University. <>.


The conference report from the January 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment, held in Dublin, Ireland, recommended the adoption of four guiding principles in the assessment, development, and management of fresh-water resources. The four principles are:

  1. The effective management of water resources demands a holistic approach linking social and economic development with protection of natural ecosystems.
  2. Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach at all levels.
  3. Women play a central role in managing and protecting water.
  4. Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.

The Dublin Statement, as it has become commonly known, has gained wide acceptance within the international water community.

* See "Hydropolitics" for a map showing the world's international river basins.

* See "Law, International Water" for a case study (sidebar) on the Nile River.

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International Cooperation

International Cooperation

Cooperation between nations in carrying out space missions has been a central feature of space activities since the launch of the first satellites. In fact, the launch of the first satellite by the Soviet Union, Sputnik 1, in October 1957 and of the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, in January 1958 were carried out as part of a sixty-nation international program of scientific cooperation called the International Geophysical Year. In the years since, most robotic space missions carried out by any one country have included some form of cooperative participation by other countries. In particular, scientists are comfortable working on an international basis, and most space science missions involve international cooperation of some sort.

Cold War Era Competition and Cooperation

The early years of human spaceflight activities were marked by Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even though U.S. President John F. Kennedy suggested several times that the two countries should cooperate in sending men to the Moon, the Soviet Union never accepted his suggestion. It was only after the United States won the race to the Moon in 1969 that cooperation in human spaceflight between the two space superpowers, and between each of them and their allies, became possible.

Since then, there has been substantial cooperation in human spaceflight, with the focus being the activities in Earth orbit carried out by the United States and the Soviet Union. There is general agreement that when human exploration beyond Earth orbit resumes with trips back to the Moon, to Mars, or to some other destination, international cooperation will be essential for success. The experience of cooperation to date will provide the foundation for future journeys beyond Earth orbit.

As it planned its space activities to follow the Apollo program, the United States decided to invite other countries to participate in its human spaceflight efforts. In response, several countries in Europe, working through a newly-formed European Space Agency in 1973, agreed to develop and provide to the United States a laboratory called Spacelab to be carried in the payload bay of the new space shuttle, and Canada the same year agreed to provide a robotic arm for use with the shuttle. In return, the United States agreed to assist these countries in developing technologies associated with human spaceflight and, perhaps more important, to fly astronauts from cooperating countries on the space shuttle once it became operational in the 1980s.

The Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s concentrated on developing a series of Salyut orbiting space stations and, after 1986, the Mir station. It did not invite its allies to cooperate in developing these orbital outposts, but it did offer to fly guest cosmonauts for short stays on them. Also, the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972 agreed to a cooperative mission in which the U.S. Apollo spacecraft and the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft would rendezvous in orbit, dock to each other, and carry out joint experiments. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project took place in July 1975.* The project was intended to lead to increased U.S.-Soviet cooperation in human spaceflight, but political difficulties between the two countries blocked subsequent cooperation for almost twenty years.

The International Space Station

In 1984 U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced that he had approved development of a space station, and he invited U.S. allies to participate in that development. This time, both the European Space Agency and Japan agreed to contribute fully equipped laboratories to the station, and Canada agreed to provide an advanced robotic arm. Because the planned cooperation would extend over more than a decade, including the development, operation, and utilization of the space station, the cooperating governments negotiated a complex agreement that spelled out their rights and responsibilities with respect to the station and set up the legal and management framework for it. The United States was the major contributor to, and managing partner of, the space station, and its partners were often frustrated by U.S. redesigns and schedule delays over which they had little control.

Then in 1993, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States decided, for a mixture of political and technical reasons, to invite Russia to join a redesigned space station program. The station, which had been christened "Freedom" during the 1980s, was renamed the International Space Station. It was necessary to renegotiate the existing intergovernmental agreement to bring Russia into the partnership, and the station design was adjusted once again, making Russian contributions essential to its operation. This decision added more delays and costs to the program, as economic problems in Russia made it difficult for that nation to meet its commitments. In 2001, the United States deferred completion of the agreed-upon space station capable of hosting a seven-person crew because of budget and management problems, creating stresses between it and its international partners.

Achieving Goals through Cooperation

Governments choose to cooperate in human spaceflight when they believe that such cooperation is the best, and sometimes the only, way to achieve their space goals. Since different countries have differing goals in space, an agreement to cooperate in a particular space mission, or in a long-term program such as the International Space Station, is best understood as a "deal" or a "bargain" between partner countries. Each country tries to achieve as many of its objectives as possible, while recognizing that it must compromise with its partners on some issues important to them. Success in cooperation comes from providing enough benefits to each participating country so that each is satisfied with its involvement.

The Benefits and Risks of Cooperation

The benefits of cooperation include spreading the costs of space missions among several participants, bringing the technical capabilities of various partners together to achieve a common objective, and strengthening broader technical and political relations among cooperating nations. For leading space countries, cooperation is a way of demonstrating leadership and increasing prestige. For other countries, cooperation may be the only way to become involved in ambitious missions that they could not afford on their own, and it provides a way to gain experience in the organization and conduct of complex space activities. Since only the United States and Russia currently have the capability to send humans into space, cooperating with them is essential for any other country desiring to have astronauts of its own. (China has announced plans to develop a human spaceflight capability.)

There are also risks associated with international space cooperation. Cooperation means that each partner loses some freedom of action and becomes to some degree dependent on others. Cooperation increases the overall costs of a project, because it increases managerial complexity. Technical and political problems can appear if one partner does not honor its commitments. There is a possibility of unwanted technology transfer and a leading country can create future competitors by involving them in cooperative projects.

All of these benefits and risks have appeared in the International Space Station program. It is the largest and most complex peacetime example of international technological cooperation in history. It may well be a precedent for international cooperation in future large-scale human activities in space, but its lessons underline the obstacles to, as well as the promise of, such cooperation.

see also International Space Station (volumes 1 and 3).

John M. Logsdon


Burrough, Bryan. Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.

Johnson-Freese, Joan. Changing Patterns of International Cooperation in Space. Malabar, FL: Orbit Book Company, 1990.

Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, Volume II: External Relationships, eds. John M. Logsdon, Dwayne A. Day, and Roger Launius. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.

Internet Resources

NASA Office of External Relations. <>.

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. <>.

*Apollo-Soyuz featured the first international "handshake in space."

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