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Can Water Dissolve Geo-political Boundaries? Part 1

Can Water Dissolve Geo-political Boundaries? Part 1

Water can dissolve material boundaries – well known

Water is known as universal ‘solvent’ as it can dissolve a lot of substances. This is a scientific fact but even if not very clearly realized, this scientific fact works subtly in our cultures and societies since prehistory. The whole idea of cleaning things by washing and letting the dirty water flow into streams or seas works on the idea that given sufficient ‘dissolution’ the ‘dirt’ will be rendered harmless. This is not untrue so to say, as it is easily understandable that when the concentration of a solute becomes negligibly low, the solution is considered effectively harmless and suitable for human use. For less scientifically oriented:

Solution = Solvent + Solute

When we consider Water as a solvent, the solute can be practically anything (depending on its natural occurrence or domestic/industrial use) right form sodium chloride (common salt) to surfactants, from trace metals to arsenic. In nature pure or so-called distilled water is rare, what we take as water is basically solution of various substances or a suspension of various substances.

Water can dissolve geo-political boundaries – a less known hypothesis

This universal nature of water is not limited in the physical realm. It extends beyond it. Water may, given changing paradigms of world have the potential to dissolve geo-political boundaries. Or, at the very least, present us with realities that require serious consideration of this apparently far-fetched idea.

I reflect with some degree of fondness the ‘out-of-the-box’ and somewhat not-so-seriously taken proposal of vanishing Geo-political boundaries as one of the radical changes of the next epoch ushered by Climate Change related paradigm shift foreseen by me in my post ‘ My Crazy Idea ’ . Water Crisis as emergent in the new millennium is deeply related to Climate Change through its social, economic and political attributes and therefore, I shall attempt to draw a correlation between the two challenging the common notion of Geo-political boundaries. Water has some trans-boundary future that cannot escape such possibility.

What is trans-boundary water?

To quote from the Summary Report ‘ ’ of World Water Council:

There are more than 276 trans-boundary river basins and hundreds of trans-boundary aquifers shared by over 3 billion people. The future development of many countries depends on successful management and allocation of these resources. Although many legal and institutional mechanisms have been developed to improve cooperation, very few have proven sustainable and replicable. Most of the world’s shared water resources remain outside trans-boundary agreements between all riparian countries some have no agreements in place at all.

This report is updated 2009.

It is very clear that we live in a planet where river basins (land drained by rivers and its tributaries, often vast tract of area) and aquifers (deep under-ground layers of water that extend over large areas) that cross over from one country to other and in some cases several countries. Such river basins and aquifers are known as transboundary waters. By 2000 the continent wise transboundary rivers stood at 261 (the number keeps on changing as new states come up with redefining of geo-political boundaries):

Africa: 60

Asia: 53

Europe: 71

North America: 39

South America: 38

To give a measure of the extensiveness of the geo-political coverage of transboundary rivers one may consider the fact that 45.3% (excluding Antarctica) of all the land surface of earth are transboundary river basins. By percentage transboundary river basins cover the continents in the following manner:

Africa: 62%

Asia: 39%

Europe: 54%

North America: 35%

South America: 60%

To give a measure of how many countries a trans-boundary river basin can involve the following tables mention just 1 each (biggest in size) from 5 continents.


Basin Name Total Area of Basin (sq. km) Country name Area of Country in Basin (sq.km) Percentage area of basin in country (%)
Congo/Zaire 3,691,000 Democratic Republic of (Kinshasa) 2,302,800 62.39
Central African Republic 400,800 10.86
Angola 290,600 7.87
Republic of the (Brazzaville) 248,100 6.72
Zambia 176,000 4.77
United Republic of Tanzania 166,300 4.51
Cameroon 85,200 2.31
Burundi 14,400 0.39
Rwanda 4,500 0.12
Sudan 1,400 0.04
Gabon 500 0.01
Malawi 100 0.00
Uganda 70 0.00


Basin Name Total Area of Basin (sq. km) Country name Area of Country in Basin (sq.km) Percentage area of basin in country (%)
Ob 2,950,800 Russia 2,192,700 74.31
Kazakhstan 743,800 25.21
China 13,900 0.47
Mongolia 200 0.01


Basin Name Total Area of Basin (sq. km) Country name Area of Country in Basin (sq.km) Percentage area of basin in country (%)
Danube 790,100 Romania 228,500 28.93
Central African Hungary 92,800 11.74
Austria 81,600 10.32
Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) 81,500 10.31
Germany 59,000 7.47
Slovakia 45,600 5.77
Bulgaria 40,900 5.17
Bosnia and Herzegovina 38,200 4.83
Croatia 35,900 4.54
Ukraine 29,600 3.75
Czech Republic 20,500 2.59
Slovenia 17,200 2.18
Moldova 13,900 1.76
Switzerland 2,500 0.32
Italy 1,200 0.15
Poland 700 0.09
Albania 200 0.03

North America

Basin Name Total Area of Basin (sq. km) Country name Area of Country in Basin (sq.km) Percentage area of basin in country (%)
Mississippi 3,226,300 USA 3,176,500 98.46
Canada 49,800 1.54

South America

Basin Name Total Area of Basin (sq. km) Country name Area of Country in Basin (sq.km) Percentage area of basin in country (%)
Amazon 5,883,400 Brazil 3,670,300 62.38
Peru 956,500 16.26
Bolivia 706,700 7.87
Colombia 367,800 6.25
Ecuador 123,800 2.10
Venezuela 40,300 0.68
Guyana 14,500 0.25
Suriname 1,400 0.02
French Guiana 30 0.00

For complete information (last updated August 2002) check International River Basin Register by Institute for Water and Watersheds of Oregon State University .

As far as aquifers are concerned, Guarani Aquifer system is possibly the largest transboundary ground water source, spanning over 1,200,000 km², with a volume of about 40,000 km³, a thickness of between 50 m and 800 m and a maximum depth of about 1,800 m. It is located beneath the surface of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

While the data precipitates into your mind, please remember that

i) the land surface area of trans-boundary waters do not necessarily mean that number of riparian nations will be proportionately higher; in fact the tables above demonstrate that.

ii) % sharing area of the riparian nations is no measure of the relative benefits or problems of them.

iii) Geography determines which of the riparian states are ‘downstream’ (possibly suffering most from pollution and floods).

I shall attempt to posit why transboundary waters or their emerging future, in my opinion, is going to make geo-political boundaries unworkable. Watch this space for Part 2.

[Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons]

Feature Image Credit: Amanda Fritz’s Blog

Post Written by
Pabitra is an Honors graduate in Civil Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He has specialized in the field of River Hydraulics working for more than two decades training rivers, protecting banks and beaches and fighting erosion of the river banks/beds. He has worked with Bio-Engineering models involving mangroves using them as tools for cost effective and natural means of anti-erosion technology.His work is mostly concerning the extremely morpho-dynamic Hugly estuary with Bay of Bengal In course of his work, he got exposed to indigenous people of the Sunderban wetlands, who are fighting a losing battle against aggressive Industrialization. Pabitra loves to read and write and he is full of crazy ideas. He is a Youth Leader and Adviser to Climate Himalaya. He is also a contributor member of THINK ABOUT IT platform of European Journalism Center and a winner of the recently concluded competitive blogging on Water. Pabitra believes that he has a tryst with the strange river-country south of Bengal.

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