Design and change in transboundary freshwater agreements


This paper presents a systematic assessment of transboundary water treaties and their institutional evolution over time. While the majority of treaties tend to remain unchanged, others are renegotiated over time, either gradually by treaty amendment or abruptly by treaty replacement. This study examines the sources of treaty amendment, treaty replacement, and renegotiation. Treaty design features, such as conflict resolution mechanisms and duration mechanisms, make up the set of independent variables. Effects are also measured for a set of control variables including the geographical configuration of a basin, the number of signatories, a history of interstate militarized disputes, water variability, the basin’s climate zone, and past renegotiations. Conflict resolution appears as a significant design feature for determining treaty stability, aided by asymmetrical basin configurations and bilateralism. The absence of conflict resolution is the main trigger for gradual change. The presence of a duration clause and a history of interstate militarized disputes are found to trigger abrupt change. Renegotiations become more likely after the first round of renegotiation, suggesting a temporal effect of path dependence on treaty evolution. This study adds to the work of scholars mapping transboundary basins at risk and provides further arguments to negotiate better and more specific treaties from the start, which include conflict resolution features that enable dialogue and rule modification while avoiding the need for formal treaty renegotiation.

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  1. 1.

    The non-navigational uses of water applies to uses of international watercourses and of their waters for purposes other than navigation and to measures of protection, preservation, and management related to the uses of those watercourses and their waters (Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, 1997).

  2. 2.

    An overview of this research is presented in Konca Ken and Dabelko D. Geoffrey, 2002, Environmental Peacemaking.

  3. 3.

    For recent exceptions, see Haftel and Thompson (2018) and Thompson et al. (2019) with respect to international investment treaties and Eilstrup-Sangiovani (forthcoming) and Jupille et al. (2013) with respect to international organizations.

  4. 4.

    Conflict resolution, dispute resolution, and dispute settlement are used interchangeably throughout the text. The corresponding variable is labeled DSM for the statistical analysis.

  5. 5.

    In this case, the absence of formal amendments does not capture all changes that took place since the signature of the treaty: the bilateral treaty between Germany and Austria on the Danube converged with the 1994 basin-wide Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River. Also, in the particular case of river basins in the European Union, since the year 2000, the EU Water Framework Directive has been declared highest priority in all European basins, affecting policy changes in water governance that not resulted in the revision of the existing treaties on the continent.

  6. 6.

    Withdrawal and unilateral denunciation refer to a unilateral act by which a state that is currently a party to a treaty ends its membership in it. In the case of multilateral agreements, this generally does not affect the treaty’s continuation in force for the remaining parties. For bilateral agreements, in contrast, denunciation or withdrawal by either party results in the termination of the treaty.

  7. 7.

    We were not able to code a handful of treaties in Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Russian.

  8. 8.

    These are temperate, continental, tropical, dry, and semi-dry climate zones as well as mixed for basins that transcend climate zones. The polar zone is excluded from the analysis, as it covers no transboundary waters.

  9. 9.

    In addition to variables mentioned herein, we controlled for two additional variables. First, the 1966 Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers were found to heavily influence state practice and preferences in the field of transboundary water management (Bourne 1996). We therefore added a dummy variable that scores one for all years after 1965. Second, water variability may cause riparian states to deviate from the treaty (Bhaduri 2006) or adjust it according to new levels of water availability. One might therefore expect to greater change in basins where resource variability is high. We included a variable that scores one if water variability is above 0.50 and zero otherwise. Both variables were statistically insignificant and did not change the results. They are on file with the authors.

  10. 10.

    Militarized interstate dispute (MID) are “cases of conflict in which the threat, display or use of military force short of war by one member-state is explicitly directed towards the government, official representatives, official forces, property, or territory of another state. Disputes are composed of incidents that range in intensity from threats to use force to actual combat short of war” (Jones et al., 1996: 163).

  11. 11.

    To further probe the implications of this variation, we ran the analysis for bilateral and multilateral treaties separately (excluding Bilateral Agreement). The small number of agreements that score one on Replace (9 for bilateral and 4 for multilateral treaties) did not permit a meaningful statistical analysis. We therefore report results only for Amend and Renegotiate. The results reported in the Appendix (Table 4) remain intact.

  12. 12.

    Due to the number of climate zones (4), there was insufficient data (treaties) per category, while data regarding floods was available only for treaties signed after 1980.

  13. 13.

    Precipitation data is used instead of run-off data because it is available over a much longer time frame (World Bank 2009).

  14. 14.

    Another minor exception is the strong positive effect of fixed duration on treaty replacement. This is not surprising, as agreements that are in force for a limited number of years require renewal or are otherwise automatically lapsed.

  15. 15.

    Both curves start at one in time zero, reflecting the fact that no treaty is expected to be amended when it is first signed. As time passes, more and more treaties are expected to be amended, but the number of amended treaties is higher for treaties that do not include a DSM. As one can see in Fig. 3, the curve for such treaties reaches 0.6 after 20 years, which means that 60% of the treaties are expected to remain intact, and by implication 40% are expected to be amended.

  16. 16.

    For example, the 1954 treaty on the Drava, signed between Yugoslavia and Austria, was never amended.

  17. 17.

    For example, the multilateral 1977 Organization for the Management and Development of the Kagera River Basin, was amended as little as a year later, in 1978.

  18. 18.

    See also reference note 6.

  19. 19.

    We note that the sample of agreements on which our statistical analysis is based ranges from 1950 to 2004, which could further explain the limited impact of climate change.


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Table 3 Additional design variables
Table 4 The sources of water treaty change by number of parties, 1950–2004
Table 5 List of treaties that changed by amendment or replacement

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De Bruyne, C., Fischhendler, I. & Haftel, Y.Z. Design and change in transboundary freshwater agreements. Climatic Change (2020).

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  • International agreements
  • Transboundary water treaties
  • Institutional evolution
  • Gradualism
  • Flexibility mechanisms
  • Conflict resolution
  • Institutional resilience