Countries need to strengthen cross-border environmental diplomacy

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The global political system is based on sovereign states whose governments exert control over the territory within their borders. However, environmental concerns have long demonstrated the challenges behind that idea, as governments have limited ability to avoid the spillover of environmental problems from other countries into their own territory. Climate change is intensifying this old problem and countries need to strengthen mechanisms that facilitate the addressing of cross-border concerns.
Some of the toughest transboundary environmental challenges come from things that float: air, temperature and rain. Governments can regulate air pollution produced within their country but cannot stop pollution that floats across their border. Many Americans have experienced smoky skies this summer, as smoke from wildfires in Canada drifts into parts of the US. There are many examples of air pollution from manufacturing and other sources crossing borders, including the US-Mexico border. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster spread radioactivity around Russia and Europe.
Anthropogenic climate change affects the entire planet, regardless of which countries produce the most greenhouse gas emissions. This summer has brought record-breaking heat waves on several continents. Rain also floats over borders, outside of governments’ control. Contaminated rain can carry pollution across borders. Rain that falls quickly in large amounts can cause flooding that affects populations across borders; for example, monsoon floods can affect people in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and elsewhere.
Drought similarly has impacts that are not limited by borders. Dust storms cross political lines, such as the storms across the dried-out Aral Sea that affect Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, across the Syrian-Iraqi border and even Saharan dust storms that blow across the Atlantic to the Americas. Governments have somewhat more control over things that flow, but within narrow limits. “Transboundary waters account for 60 percent of the world’s freshwater flows,” according to the UN. Dams and other infrastructure can change the shape and flow of lakes and rivers, creating their own cross-border problems. Upstream countries often use water in ways that hurt downstream populations. There are multiple examples, including Turkiye’s use of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers at the expense of Syria and Iraq, Ethiopia’s management of the Blue Nile that raises Egyptian worries, and disputes between Afghanistan and Iran over the Helmand River. Countries also argue about water usage, pollution and fishing on transboundary lakes, including disputes over Africa’s Great Lakes. Also, pollution from one country can flow through borders into the water resources of another state.
Countries have almost no control over pollution or the changing temperatures, levels and acidity of oceans. Some of these problems are specific to a region. For example, pollution from northern Mexico affects beaches in southern California. Other problems are more global. Plastic pollution spreads throughout the oceans. Shipping disasters affect nearby coasts, regardless of where the ship is coming from. For example, the 2021 sinking of the X-Press Pearl created an environmental disaster for Sri Lanka. Climate change is changing ocean temperatures, levels and chemical composition, with impacts on countries that have significantly contributed to climate change and those that have played little role in changing the climate.
Disputes over transboundary water systems and pollution can increase hostility between countries. Disagreements about the use of the Blue Nile and its downstream impacts have heightened tensions among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in recent years. Israel’s disproportionate use of water from an aquifer is an important source of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Mekong basin is a growing area of concern, as China’s intensified use of the river raises problems for Southeast Asian countries. This year, tensions between India and Pakistan rose over the Indus Water Treaty. However, the reality that countries share the environment can contribute to diplomatic solutions. Many disputes over transboundary water resources – including most of those mentioned above – have treaties, agreements and diplomatic structures in place to help manage disagreements. Often, these are bilateral or regional arrangements. Examples include the International Boundary and Water Commission that manages US-Mexico transboundary water agreements, the Nile Basin Initiative, the Mekong River Commission and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air-Pollution. The Indus Water Treaty was widely seen as an example of successful transboundary diplomacy until new concerns emerged this year.
Some of the agreements use global institutions, such as the UN or the World Bank, to act as mediators. There are also multiple diplomatic vehicles for managing shared concerns about the ocean, air and freshwater resources through the UN and other international organizations. In an example of how mutual impacts can prompt hostile countries to cooperate, Israel lifted some restrictions that had undermined Gaza’s ability to treat sewage. The sewage had contaminated Gazan and Israeli beaches and temporarily closed Israel’s Ashkelon desalination plant. Eventually, Israel allowed efforts to proceed so that Gaza could treat sewage and clean up beaches, with significant aid from foreign countries and support from EcoPeace, an environmentalist organization.
Unfortunately, many of the diplomatic mechanisms designed to manage transboundary environmental concerns are weak. Some regional agreements do not include key countries or are vague and outdated. Some commissions have little influence or authority. Some are under-resourced and unable to take necessary actions. As climate change adds pressure, countries should recognize that they cannot fully control the actions of other states or build walls high enough to keep out air pollution or changing climate conditions. Cross-border environmental concerns will increasingly demand cooperative solutions. Multiple diplomatic tools already exist to facilitate effective responses, but they require strengthening and reinforcement now, as their importance will only grow.