International River Basin Organizations and Benefit-Sharing Arrangements in the Columbia and Senegal International River Basins: Past, Present, and Future

The international Columbia River Basin

The international Columbia River Basin is one of the international watercourses shared between Canada and the United States. In the Columbia Basin, Canada is generally the upstream watercourse state and the United States is generally the downstream watercourse state. The Columbia River is 1,952 km long and the basin covers 640,000 km2 in both Canada and the United States. Canada supplies approximately 35 percent of the water flowing out of the Columbia River at Portland in the United States, and as much as 50 percent at flood level, with the Canadian percentage likely to further increase due to climate change.3 The Columbia Basin has nearly 7.5 million people living within it.4

The road to an IRBO and benefit sharing in the Columbia River Basin

Prior to having a formal general agreement to govern shared international waters, Canada and the United States established various ad hoc commissions, which proved to be increasingly insufficient to handle the growing water-related disputes between the two countries. The International Waterways Commission, established in 1905, only dealt with issues on a case-by-case basis. As Canada and the United States entered into negotiations to establish a permanent body to replace the International Waterways Commission, the tone of the meeting was informed by the concerns of each state.

For the United States, the overriding issue was sovereignty—the US position was that absolute territorial sovereignty is retained over the waters within the territory of each nation-state. While the United States was interested in the practical necessity of an agreement to manage transboundary waters, it did not want to relinquish political independence in the process. The American view was also that tributaries should not be included in any commission’s authority. In comparison, Canada was very much interested in establishing a more egalitarian relationship with the United States. However, Canada was hampered, not only because of its relative size and level of development at the time but also because Canadian foreign policy was still the purview of the United Kingdom. As a result, negotiations had to be carried out between Ottawa, Washington, and London. Canada also wanted a comprehensive agreement, which would include tributaries, and a commission with greater authority than the bodies of the past.

The resulting Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT) in 1909 is thought to reflect, to some extent, the interest of each negotiating body.5 For the purposes of the BWT, “boundary waters” were defined as:

the waters from main shore to main shore of the lakes and rivers and connecting waterways, or the portions thereof, along which the international boundary between the [United States] and the Dominion of Canada passes, including all bays, arms, and inlets thereof, but not including tributary waters which in their natural channels would flow into such lakes, rivers, and waterways, or waters flowing from such lakes, rivers, and waterways, or the waters of rivers flowing across the boundary.6

Pursuant to the BWT each country also reserved the right to control the use of waters within its jurisdiction, while maintaining that boundary waters were subject to equal and similar rights. The BWT created the International Joint Commission (IJC), requiring future hydromodifications be approved by a majority of the Canadian and US commissioners of that entity.

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