Media in Cooperation and Transition
Brunnenstraße 9, 10119 Berlin, Germany

Our other projects

Q&A / Negotiations over rivers
Working with a friend rather than an adversary

Rehab A. Almohsen
The negotiations over the Nile in an attempt to agree on sharing the river equitably can seem like a ‘mission impossible’. Could lessons learned from the Colorado River Basin help overcome the impasse?
10.06.2022  |  Cairo, Egypt
Dr. Kevin Wheeler. (photo: Oxford Martin School)
Dr. Kevin Wheeler. (photo: Oxford Martin School)

Climate change, increased water demand due to population growth and ambitious plans to use more water as well as develop hydroelectricity projects along the Nile put increasing pressure on the water resource. The need for sustainable cooperative management of the basin’s transboundary water and related resources has never been more compelling.

Against this backdrop, The Niles’ Rehab A. Almohsen spoke with Dr. Kevin Wheeler, a Senior Research Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, Professional Engineer, and Principal of Water Balance Consulting, who worked extensively on multiple issues surrounding the Colorado River, including the facilitation of the successful negotiations between the USA and Mexico in 2012.

Since 2012, Dr. Wheeler has extended his experience to the Nile River Basin by exploring cooperative development pathways among the riparian countries of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

The Niles: Dr. Wheeler, you have attended many rounds of formal water-sharing negotiations. Isn’t it tedious?

Kevin Wheeler: During the negotiations on the Colorado River, we spent a lot of time in formal negotiations. But then we also spent a lot of time going to dinner together, travelling, staying in hotels together, going and seeing different dams in different parts of the river, and having a lot of informal conversations.

TN: Ok, that doesn’t sound so monotonous then. Could you explain the historical background that led to the signing of the Colorado River agreement between the United States and Mexico?

KW: The vast majority of Colorado River water goes through the United States, while Mexico has a small portion of the river at the very end before it goes to the ocean. So the US diverts most of the water, and Mexico has a mouth of about 1.5 million acre-feet (an acre-foot is an acre of land covered with one foot of water) out of the roughly 16 million acre-feet that exist. But they’re also very dependent on that.

There had been a long history of cooperation.

In 1944, during World War II, there was a strong need for good relationships with neighbours, so the US and Mexico signed their first treaty, which allocated an annual quantity of 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to Mexico.

Before the 1944 treaty, there wasn’t any conflict. There had been a long history of cooperation. But there was a clear need to reduce use and an understanding that everybody needed to reduce the usage of the river during drought times. So it wasn’t a conflict as much as an awareness that there were problems coming up in the near future.

TN: So the United States consumes much more water than Mexico?

KW: Yes, because most of the river basin is in the United States. So, they use the vast majority of the water. The treaty allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year for the US states in the river’s upper basin, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, and another 7.5 million acre-feet annually for the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California.

TN: You published several pieces of research on the Nile River and the negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. What are the differences between the Nile River and Colorado River cases?

KW: The similar things: They are both multi-objective rivers; both use large amounts of water for irrigation in both rivers; they have extensive hydropower infrastructure; both have major cities and larger municipal users that depend on the river.

They’re both essentially fully consumed rivers.

Another interesting similarity is even though Mexico is down at the bottom of the river, so is California, and areas downstream developed very early, much earlier than the areas up in the mountains in Colorado.

So similar to the Nile, where downstream areas also developed much earlier than the upstream areas. For instance, in some ways, the state of California is more equivalent to Egypt and the state of Colorado – where I’m from – is more equivalent to Ethiopia.

Also, as part of the common elements, both are very small rivers, with minimal water for the number of people. They’re both essentially fully consumed rivers. And in comparison to the Amazon or the Mississippi River, the Colorado and Nile are pretty small in terms of annual volume. You can compare Arizona with the deserts in Egypt and Sudan and the arid areas it passes through.

Coming to key differences, they are apparent. In the case of the Colorado River, there have been growing continuous institutional arrangements since 1922. So about 100 years of institutional development. That was the first compact between the states that existed, setting out some basic rules.

The compact has been evolving in what we call the law of the river over the past 100 years, and that includes Mexico and a whole compilation of different rules and regulations, laws, treaties, compacts and court rulings. Whereas on the Nile, and while there has been a lot of development, there still haven’t been any – or very little – cooperative agreements so far.

TN: You mentioned the history of Colorado River agreements and treaties, and you were a negotiation team member. What are the key differences in the negotiation processes?  

KW: Well, one of the Colorado River’s key aspects was a strong commitment to sharing data and information from the beginning. Even though the United States had the vast majority of data and got all the gauges and dams on its land, the country recognised that to negotiate fairly and justly, it needed to provide Mexico access to all information that the United States had.

For example, we would take the Mexican negotiation team on tours of the river in the United States so that they could understand how the dams operate and see everything while it was still a very difficult negotiation. So transparency between the countries was a key aspect, laid out as a principle at the very beginning.

Transparency between the countries was a key aspect.

While clearly, in the case of the Nile, data sharing is still something countries cannot agree entirely on yet, even though there are ideas on how they would do it, they are not there yet.

Also, the negotiation between the US and Mexico was built on the shoulders of many other agreements. For example, in 2012, there was an agreement known as Minute 319, which means there were 319 adjustments to the treaty before that date.

The 1944 treaty was set up so that it could continuously be adapted and managed on a day-to-day basis. Every time there was a need to modify something small, another minute would be added to the treaty.

So it was not a one-time agreement. It was a perpetually evolving agreement and relationship between the two countries. In contrast, the Nile countries that have interacted for so long have not yet developed any first-level treaty or agreement other than the general principles.

TN: And what are the common elements in both negotiations?

KW: The commonality is the negotiations are both very difficult. In both cases, the parties are afraid of giving up too much. Both take a lot of technical, legal and policy participation on all sides. And in both negotiations, parties met regularly.

Regarding Colorado, we met basically monthly on one side of the border and then on the other side of the border. We would always meet very close to the border. So it wasn’t meetings back in Washington DC or Mexico City, but it was meetings in the small towns near the river and near the border. People really felt like they were kind of close to the interface of the countries.

TN: Could you describe how the negations are carried out?

KW: In the case of the Colorado River, the negotiators broke into many sub-teams. One group would work on the hydrology issues, one on the legal issues, one on the salinity issues, and one on the environmental issues. There were subcommittees that were charged with coming up with a particular task. And then, all the teams would report back to the main negotiations.

It is very difficult to progress when you have a giant room full of formal people.

You’d have sub-teams that had members from Mexico and members from the US who were specialists in that area. They would help develop ideas and solutions and then come back to the main body of negotiators to deliver their reports and the ideas that the subgroup came up with.

That would allow some separation and progress to be made without having everybody in the room simultaneously. It is very difficult to progress negotiations when you have a giant room full of formal people.

TN: And how would you as an engineer negotiate with someone with a political science or law background? Was it difficult to talk to experts with different backgrounds and different perspectives?

KW: It is necessary to have all different perspectives. So, we would have meetings with just the US team a few days in advance to try to make a cohesive plan. And then we’d all get together with the Mexican team, and the committees would break off into different groups. We would share the data and look at different ideas and the implications. The lawyers did a lot of creative thinking for different potential solutions.

What I learned and what was important to developing a strong process is that objectives are met along the negotiations, where we can come to this aspect and work on the other one. So we sort of assembled all the different pieces. You often see politics paralyse the technical, and they really have to happen aggressively hand in hand.

TN: You mentioned transparency and data sharing. Is it the responsibility of all parties, or is this burden on the shoulder of one of the riparian countries more than the other?

KW: For a sense of goodwill, I think there is a significant advantage for all countries to participate equally in sharing their information, whether they are downstream or upstream.

Obviously, the upstream data certainly affects the downstream. The downstream data might not directly affect upstream parties. Still, it’s a goodwill measure to demonstrate that the downstream parties are willing to do this and that everybody has to have the same level of transparency.

So there may be some asymmetries from the sort of technical utility of the data sharing. Still, from a willingness perspective, it’s very important to have all useful information on the table so people can understand that nobody’s hiding the information and building trust. There was a big US desire to be as transparent as possible with Mexico so that we could be working with a friend rather than an adversary.

TN: Are there takeaways from the Colorado River case applicable to the trilateral case of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan?

KW: One of the big lessons we learned on the Colorado River is that we couldn’t solve everything at once. There is incremental cooperation based on something that can be repeated in the future. The fundamental level is agreeing on one agreement and a commitment to share data and to dam safety. And then a commitment to manage dams during flood times, and then during drought times.

We couldn’t solve everything at once.

So, all of these pieces don’t have to be done all at the same time. They can be done at different times, as we kind of build trust and get used to working together over time.

I understand, it’s certainly a desire of the participant to have one comprehensive agreement, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. But there has to be a desire to keep building that over time.

TN: Thanks for sharing all your negotiating experiences. Very insightful. As you are also a senior researcher, maybe a little stinging question at the end: Could it be that researchers create a lot of confusion because of the many different scenarios they are suggesting in their studies? Isn’t this a barrier during negotiations, and how can this be addressed?

KW: That can indeed be a huge challenge and a big problem. A lot of that comes from having different inputs, and we are using different models and tools. So if you have different inputs, you will have different outputs. This is why one of the major efforts in the US and Mexico negotiations was to ensure everybody was using the same inputs. This is why data sharing is so important.

We started with a common understanding of how much water is available and how much is currently in the river. All those numbers have to be commonly understood. It’s very critical to start out with the same initial information.

TN: Any last thoughts you would like to share?

KW: We learned how difficult it is to solve large problems. There are so many ways that we can choose to solve an issue. I think that finding one big comprehensive solution is very rare. But at least, we can lay the first brick to build upon over time and develop the processes which determine how the building continues.

All articles are available for republishing. Please notify us via email when you syndicate our content. Thank you!